South East Midlands Digital capabilities

As set out in the South East Midlands Local Industrial Strategy and the Economic Recovery Strategy for the South East Midlands, digital skills and infrastructure are crucial to the future prosperity of the area. They underpin productivity improvements across the business population as a whole – with one in five job postings in the area now explicitly requiring digital skills – and are also key to transformational growth opportunities in the South East Midlands and wider Oxford-Cambridge Arc. These include opportunities that build upon the area’s strengths and specialisation in the Future of Mobility and Clean Growth fields, incorporating the development of connected and autonomous vehicles, demand-responsive transport, electric aviation, hydrogen generation and testing, and use of hydrogen in HGVs.

Linked to the above, digital infrastructure and skills have an important role to play in overcoming infrastructure constraints and supporting the transition to zero carbon. As highlighted in the South East Midlands Energy Strategy, smart energy systems and flexible systems that allow for energy sharing can reduce overall energy consumption and optimise energy use where there are grid constraints. Digital capabilities can also mean fewer and more efficient road journeys, as well as allowing for integrated multi-modal transport, which can enhance journeys by public transport. In addition, they can increase access to opportunity for those in rural areas, both in terms of enabling home working, and also facilitating new models of transportation that are more economically viable and better for the environment than wholesale car ownership. Similarly, they offer opportunities to enhance the quality of life more broadly, through new ways of working and access to health care and other services.

Yet, even as digital opportunities expand, their benefits are not always felt evenly. As set out in the Social Mobility Commission’s annual report for 2020, a lack of access to digital services was highlighted as a key social mobility challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital access is key both to education, and for awareness of – and applications to – job opportunities, and disparities in this regard have the potential to widen and further entrench existing inequalities.

As such, SEMLEP is taking a multi-faceted approach to strengthen digital capabilities in the South East Midlands, with five main strands of work, as follows

In consultation with South East Midlands businesses, the SEMLEP Skills Advisory Panel informs stakeholders about local employer needs to help shape provision in local further education colleges, universities and training providers. This has included the production of a Digital Skills Report, which sets out digital skills requirements for the area both in the shorter term – including the sectors and occupations where these skills are currently most highly sought – and in the longer term, given the increasing use of Artificial Intelligence, big data, machine learning, mechatronics and automation, along with the introduction of 5G and the Internet of Things. In addition, SEMLEP’s Skills Strategy includes an action plan, to facilitate the development of basic digital skills, digital literacy and specialist digital skills through employer engagement in education, life-long skills development, inclusivity and diversity and addressing digital poverty.

Poor access to digital services can significantly impact individuals’ access to opportunities, such as searching for jobs, producing a CV, managing finances, accessing various support services and more. SEMLEP’s Community Grants programme (which is funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Education Skills Funding Agency (ESFA)) offers Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) organisations grant funding from £10,000 to £20,000 to deliver local projects that make a difference within local communities in the South East Midlands. This includes projects which build digital literacy skills and which provide training, advice or counselling to support with a job search.

Through the Local Growth Fund and Getting Building Fund, SEMLEP is supporting specific projects to grow digital strengths and innovation in the South East Midlands. These include:

  • MK:U - Educational Acceleration in Digital Skills, which is enabling the proposed new STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes to pilot four courses to 500 students, three years ahead of the opening of its permanent site in central Milton Keynes
  • KW Special Projects Digital Manufacturing Centre, led by high-performance engineering consultancy KW Special Projects, which will create a new 1,657 sqm Digital Manufacturing Centre at Silverstone Park. This centre is expected to help develop new and high-value engineering opportunities and assist over 100 SMEs, while also forecast to contribute some £9 million gross value added to the region.
  • MK:5G, which is the UK’s first full 5G testbed focused on trialling applications across Mobility, Health & Wellbeing, and Energy, opening up new opportunities for technological advancements covering Stadium MK, Bletchley and CMK rail stations, and MK Hospital.
  • Cranfield Forensic Institute, which will provide 27 new pioneering short courses to 170 students including subjects such as Data Science and Cyber Security among many others.
  • Northampton College Digital Skills Academy, which will provide a ‘digital academy’ at Northampton College’s Booth Lane campus, housed in a purpose-built 1,300 sqm new block. The new facility will focus on developing and delivering key digital skill programmes (levels 1-3 and T-Levels) to provide a strong pipeline of digitally skilled students able to progress onto HE, Apprenticeships and into work.
  • MK:U Start Up to Scale Up Programme, which will provide an Innovation Hub in Milton Keynes, known as the Smart City Living Lab. The hub will provide education and support to scale start-up businesses, with a specialist focus in smart city technologies focus including robotics, virtual reality, digital twinning, sensor technology, intelligent infrastructure, autonomous vehicles; drones; advanced communications.

SEMLEP works closely with partner LEPs and other organisations across the Arc to promote the current strengths of the area and to think about how best to build upon these for the future. As set out in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Economic Prospectus, innovation and clean growth are absolutely at the forefront of Arc ambitions, and digital infrastructure and skills are clearly a key component of this. Improvements in future large-scale digital infrastructure for the area are currently being considered through two linked pieces of work which SEMLEP is involved in: the drawing up by government of a Spatial Framework for the Arc, and the undertaking of Arc connectivity studies by England’s Economic Heartland.