The issue: How can we harness digital connectivity to create competitive advantage, and what do we need to do to enable it in business?
The evening revealed wide understandings and diverse interests in digital connectivity, from health to gaming, and from education to business. Guests discussed everything from how texting was ‘invented’, to creating digital ‘avatars’ for future generations.
The various challenges of geographical digital connectivity were also addressed – from weak signals in rural areas to blind spots on major roads. But two key issues that came out of the debate were:
Alan Cockburn, a farmer as well as a councillor, said he had been at the forefront of helping BT roll out broadband in Warwickshire. He said digital connectivity for him was “having businesses being able to access sufficient speeds of internet to be able to do business anywhere”.
BT’s regional director Mike Cook said: “Connectivity for me is any medium, any means and anybody… I’ve just vacated a property that was very well-equipped and I’ve ended up in a rental property with very little. It’s gone from accepting the norm to actually feeling something, and my feeling is immense frustration.”
Warwickshire County Council’s ICT chief Tonino Ciuffini said: “For me, connectivity goes beyond physical connectivity, and is also people being able to use it, being able to afford to use it, being able to start to use it, so that they’re engaged in the digital society to take advantages of the benefits it can offer.”
Ken Meeson, leader of Solihull Council, said: “With regard to connectivity, if I was feeling brave, I’d say HS2! [Much laughter] But in the context of what we’re talking about tonight, there are two aspects: one is about business connections across the world, enabling a multi-national company based in the West Midlands, on a day-to-day basis, to be able to connect with all its customers across the world and its other operations in other countries. The other end of the scale is enabling people who at the moment find it difficult to communicate, to get them just connected through IT connections. We’ve done quite a lot of work, for example, in north Solihull, an area of deprivation, by providing computers, by teaching people how to use them, which provides job opportunities for them and enables them to make social contact as well.”
BT’s Andy Johnson said: “The benefits that connectivity in many forms can bring is around access to education, access to information, dealing with both social and rural isolation, enhancing what you can achieve within a community, in particular health and well-being and independent living… improving access and the responsiveness of services…
“You’re looking at how people connect to people, people can connect to machines, and machines can connect to machines, over a range of channels, whether they be video, sharing of screens, co-browsing, chatting. There’s a whole richness that’s now coming through on the back of increased capacity of both wired and wireless connectivity in the digital world that changes the opportunity. It’s the sum of the parts of that that delivers not just a good economy but also a good social infrastructure.”
Solihull Council’s Steve Halliday said digital connectivity was interesting when it created networks between people, as this helped innovation: “There’s a great power in networking and there’s a network power that comes out of digital. On the brink of the knowledge economy as we are, there’s a huge amount of interesting stuff that, with a little push in the right direction, could happen.”
Amrik Bhabra, of IT support company Adecs, said: “Connectivity for me is seamless access to everything digital from any device, seamless being the important word.”
Coventry University’s Jacqueline Cawston said: “It’s all about connecting people, but for me it’s the ‘so what?’ Then what do you do with it? How do you take it that bit further? How do you improve people’s lives and make it interesting for them?”
She gave an example of a digital project where disabled students were helped to improve their access to education. She added that at a recent games conference in Amsterdam, she watched a surgeon who was wearing digitally connected glasses perform an operation, where everyone in the audience could see exactly what he was doing. This prompted her to ask: “How is wearable smart technology going to affect your businesses in the region?”
Brendan Connor said the organisations he worked with were “highly dependent on their digital infrastructure”. He gave an example: “We do real-time analysis of fleets of vehicles, proving the value of the technology, and we’re highly dependent on the links between the vehicles and our servers and the analytical tools around that.” The part of digital connectivity that concerned him, he said, particularly with the wider emergency services, was the “vulnerability to cyber attack”. He added that he was interested in the business opportunity of tackling such threats, using the IT and university expertise in the area, providing a safer digital environment, and perhaps creating some jobs at the same time.
BT’s Bal Claire said one of the projects he was working on was how to improve the integrity of BT’s data, which he also saw as a big positive factor. “We’ve got risks around cyber attacks, and there’s European legislation changes coming about data privacy. But also, if you can get your data correct, there’s massive opportunity in terms of leveraging sales and marketing, getting the right information to the right customers at the right time.”
Warwick University’s Theodoros Arvanitis said his institute had been tasked to find out “how digital technologies can improve well-being and healthcare”. Funded by the NHS, Warwick Manufacturing Group and Warwick Medical School, his studies involve how “digital technologies can affect the way healthcare system works”, and how it can “empower the individual”, such as patients and services, to help wider society.
He said: “I see connectivity as the power of information. In medicine, we connect a lot of data routinely… How can we harness this information to support individuals, support their well-being, support healthcare, but also to create wealth in the region – either through traditional healthcare services or through industry?”
Coventry University’s Tom Hamilton said it was time to “move on” from the availability of the latest digital connectivity: “Adequate, fast broadband is available to more people in this country than can read and write. The big challenge today – both in consumers and businesses – is to enable people to access the opportunity… For the country to really move forward, both for economic and social regeneration, we’ve got to provide people with the access to the applications and developments that are already there. The key thing is yes, let’s get the connectivity out there, but the awareness element is going to make the difference. The vast majority of people are aware they can get connectivity, what they need is help to know what to do with it next.”
Warwickshire County Council’s Leigh Hunt, who has a particular interest in what happens with digital connectivity in rural areas, said: “I take issue with Tom because you don’t [have good connectivity in rural areas]… Everybody knows what they can do with it, it’s just that for a large proportion of people they simply cannot access it. That is creating a bigger digital divide than before all this started, because when the cities are going up to 100meg [megabytes] you’ve got people in rural areas who can’t get half a meg, and that’s a big, big problem for them.”
In her other role as a borough councillor, Hunt added: “We’re trying to get people to stay in their own homes for longer, to improve the rural economy and people’s life chances, and the only way you’re going to do that is by getting broadband into rural areas and by letting them know what they can do with it. Connectivity means being able to transmit or receive information when you want to, where you want to, and in a format that suits you at that time. Sometimes we want to sit at a desk, sometimes we want to do it sat in a car park.”
Cllr Lynette Kelly, of Coventry City Council, had a lot of sympathy with Hunt’s connectivity issues. She said: “Coventry’s got 4G, [telecommunications coverage], Leamington’s got 3G, there’s bits of Warwick where you can’t get 3G, and there’s a dead spot by the Chesford Grange Hotel [near Warwick Castle] where you can’t even get a mobile phone signal… We need to do something about that.”
On digital connectivity, she said: “What do you do with it when you’ve got it? Firms need to understand the benefits of having fast connections, and when they’ve got the fast connection they need to use it. And if they use it in the right way they can grow their business, they can spread the message about what they do.”
Cllr Kelly added that a missing link was that many small businesses don’t have the resource to update their digital information – whether it be websites or Twitter – often enough, which in a modern world is a competitive disadvantage.
BT’s Ian Binks said the company was investing “some £2.5bn” to get “next generation access broadband” – usually delivered over a fibre network – to two-thirds of the UK’s population to help commercial enterprises. He said the Government had made extra funds available to spread this to rural areas, hopefully closing the ‘digital gap’ to a final 5%.
Binks said: “What does it all mean? If we look at our Cornish project, which is fairly mature from the point of view of fibre broadband into rural areas, we’ve done research with Plymouth University which looks at how SMEs are starting to benefit. For example, some headline figures: six out of ten are growing, and they put that growth down to having a better broadband connection; 83% are becoming more efficient, saving time and money; and up to 25% can see safeguarding jobs and also creating jobs. There’s a popular myth out there that the internet destroys jobs – yes, it does, but for every job it destroys it creates another two, two-and-a-half jobs.”
Binks gave various examples of how businesses had benefited commercially from faster digital connectivity, and then added: “How does the wider society benefit? And how can we ensure public, private and voluntary sectors all get something of benefit from this activity?”
Hunt said: “The more that people see that broadband is rolling out, the more they say: ‘Why haven’t we got it?’ … It’s about things like health, it’s about fundamentals like nowadays we all expect to be able to work from home. I’ve just recently had to be in Guernsey and was able to work exactly the same way as if I was sat at my desk in my office because they’ve got decent broadband. That’s a tiny five-mile by 13 island in the middle of the English Channel – why the hell can’t you get it just outside of Stratford?”
Hunt gave an example of someone who lived up a mile-long, rural drive, without mains gas or sewage, as someone who should not expect 100% connectivity. But she added “Notwithstanding that, it is a massive issue for people in rural areas.”
Ciuffini agreed: “Our project working with BT is going to be bringing super-fast broadband to 46,000 homes in Warwickshire and there’ll be 16,000 left out – in a county of half a million people, that’s a lot of people. The one thing I would say is that we’re the people in this room who are moving that forward. We’re the best hope for those people… You’ve got to find a way of dealing with those still left at the end.”
Bhabra said a different problem was “the next step up”: a lot of his customers have basic broadband costing £45 to £50 a month, but then want to use the latest ‘Cloud’ services via fast broadband, and are faced with costs of up to £6k a year. “For SMEs, maybe there needs to be provisions in the middle, something a lot more available.”
Binks said there were schemes available for companies to apply to, depending on their size and classification, where they could offset some of these costs, if they could demonstrate that there would be a step-change in the way their businesses were run as a result. “They would simply go through the website, apply for the voucher, get a couple of quotes – it’s quite simple, really. There’s a good pot of money available in Coventry and I’d urge everybody to apply… The funding that has supported the connection voucher scheme was originally called the urban broadband fund, which the Government targeted at 22 particular cities.”
Hamilton said: “We all need to be more aware of what’s available, where it’s available and help them.”
Looking at digital opportunities, Connor described the Midland Air Ambulance criteria in purchasing a new helicopter. He said: “The doctors and paramedics are taking the view that this helicopter’s role as a transport device becomes secondary to its role as a digital operating theatre, because if you looked at what’s been done on the roadside now 15 years ago, you would not have believed it. With some of the digital technology and some of the devices and training you can now do all that on the roadside, having a dramatic impact on people’s survivability and the quality of that survivability. We’ve equipped it [the new helicopter] with significantly greater ability in carrying equipment because we will be doing dramatically more complex lifesaving on the roadside compared to what we’re doing today.”
Cawston said there were also a lot of other applications of “wearable technology” which can be used in manufacturing, where “someone over in China can see what you’re seeing”. She added: “3D printers have got massive opportunities for businesses. You can make a small component and you can have it on a 3D printer over in China in a very small amount of time. They’re so sophisticated now that you can do fabrics, you can do shoes, you can do amazing textures and you can get them across the world in a matter of minutes, and that’s changing the whole of manufacturing.
“One of the other areas we’re working in is in simulation. People are realising that simulation is the thing, and people actually behave in simulation the way they do in real life. For example, in emergencies, in medical situations, it’s better to make mistakes in a simulator than it is on people. There’s lots of ways of using the technology to increase business. In tourism, there’s massive opportunities, because you can see so many things as you’re walking around. You can use so many applications.”
Arvanitis agreed, and said: “The important thing to remember is to see technology in a revolutionary way, not the way you might have thought about using it. For example, when we built mobile networks, the SMS was a carrier channel for the operator to send engineering messages. What it has done to the world is to revolutionise social interactions. So text messaging has changed our way of living. In healthcare, connectivity can change behaviour, the way you live your life, the way you might work and deal with chronic diseases… [For example] Can we use it to change the behaviour or people on issues of obesity or other social problems?”
Bhabra mentioned a 3D computer game that helped children suffering from Leukaemia to understand how chemotherapy works, adding fun to what is a very difficult time. Another example he gave was a 3D avatar being built for a retiring British Aerospace engineer with 40 years of expertise, leaving a digital legacy of his knowledge for future generations.
Bhabra then talked about the barriers of digital innovation, and said from his experience within healthcare the biggest problem was NHS IT departments, quoting data protection. Halliday said it was the same in social care, and that the “joined up-ness” of information between agencies provided big challenges, citing the Baby P controversy. But he said he was “optimistic” that those challenges weren’t insurmountable, such as when health and social care workers needed to see each others’ data, and that creating networks between them was crucial. “Think of the power of Twitter and Facebook. If we’re able to do that in a secure way between care professionals there are some fantastic opportunities.”
Ciuffini agreed and said: “Councils do get pulled up for not looking after the data… when does someone get pulled up for not sharing the data in the way that they should?”
Arvanitis warned: “There is a paradox in the digital world, in particular healthcare. The healthcare industry is the slowest in adopting digital. We adopt high technology, we use information, but when it’s about sharing it in everyday society we’re slower than the shipping industry… He added: “It’s interesting, we’re ready and happy to share our personal pictures on
Facebook, we’re happy for websites to take our personal preferences about the way we shop, but when it’s about our healthcare we’re very scared. Think how the data used to be stored – on paper, sometimes loose paper, sometimes it was lost, it was burnt, destroyed. Why is that more secure than the digital world? It’s not technology that’s the barrier,
it’s the governance, where the data belongs, who is the owner.”
Halliday agreed: “The debate needs to be elevated… it is about the crime of not sharing data, as opposed to losing data.” Hamilton added: “It’s not that long ago they [medical professionals] were extremely reluctant to let you see your data – you as the person the data referred to… they’ve got a huge distance to travel. Maybe it’s this generation coming up who are happy to share everything with everybody – too much sometimes – that will create the transformational culture.”
Arvanitis agreed: “Empower the individual.”
Meeson said: “Protocols are notoriously difficult, partly because of confidentiality… we’re working on it, and because we’re doing much more partnership work, trust is being built and barriers are being broken down. We’re much more aware of it now.”
Connor talked about how it had taken 18 months to agree information sharing between the police and social services. He said: “Getting those systems to knit together and just allowing people to see into each others’ side, across the fence, has been remarkably difficult, and the police were as unhelpful as they can be.”
Cockburn agreed: “The most depressing thing about it, if we look at Baby P or Victoria Climbie, and all those cases, time and time again they say the reason is because agencies aren’t sharing data, and it keeps happening again.”
Kelly said: “We need to start breaking down the professional boundaries. Teachers think their role is to teach and they see that in a very narrow way. They see their role with the child in their classroom, and as soon as the child’s outside of their classroom they have no responsibility for them. Social workers see their role outside of the school and have no relationship with the teachers. And it’s only when you start having professionals working alongside each other on a regular basis, sharing information on a day-to-day basis, being in the same office for a few hours a day, [it] helps you see what the other person does. Those casual conversations are often much more effective at breaking down barriers than an instruction to work cooperatively.”
Turning back to companies accessing broadband, Hamilton said: “There’s too much emphasis on trying to find people who need help and telling them they need help. What we need is them to know they need help and come and ask for help.”
Arvanitis said: “At all levels of education we have to involve technology training and understanding… Even engineering ethics is not covered in the way our future engineers understand it. Education is a big issue in every sector.”
Hunt said there was often a lack of IT competencies in smaller companies, and that basic training in understanding how to run and manage IT was needed. But Hamilton said it was often difficult to get hard-pressed SMEs to invest their time to understand new technology. Referring to a discussion where he and Hunt had agreed, he said: “[perhaps] people should be paying something for that kind of help and advice and then they value it more? If you offer it free, they’re looking for the catch. If you charge too much, [they say] I can’t afford it. There are just so many challenges.”
Ciuffini talked about how many people have access to their own personal devices – such as iPhones and iPads – and were often walking into his office asking if they could use them for work. He said: “We’ve got a real opportunity. People are using these devices in their everyday life, we’ve got to help them see how to take advantage of that for business. There’s a step change in the last few years and we are in the position to take advantage.”
Meeson referred to a charity he’s a trustee of, where “we’re moving into the 21st century” and have “begun to crack IT” by taking on a young apprentice. He said: “She’s got the knowledge, we’ve just given it to her and it’s flown. For a lot of SMEs there’s an opportunity there – take on a young apprentice.”
Cawston agreed: “That’s where the pressures are coming from. Babies are using iPads, kids in schools know more than teachers – they’re actually the experts in schools, not the teachers.”
Cook concluded the evening by recalling how 20 years ago someone had predicted how broadband would become the “fourth utility”, as important as gas, electricity and water. He said that this came even more to mind with his own recent connection problems after moving, and said that BT would continue to look into how it could push digital connectivity further into rural areas.
Cook also praised the comments that had come from guests during the evening, and said: “We’ve got a very, very advanced research and development centre in our labs at Ipswich, really rich in technology and application, but listening to what I’ve heard around the table there is as much here in terms of ideas as there is there.
“The key thing that came out is that this is forcing us to work together, but the word ‘help’ came out more than any other word tonight. For me, summing up, and on the point about the SMEs and bridging the gap between the £50 and the £6k connection, that’s where we as a business need to go away and help a lot more. Because the enablement of the connectivity and the applications is going to be absolutely key, and to work with some of the technology we’re talking about rather than moving on and working on the next thing, when we haven’t even touched what we’ve developed today.
“From an SME perspective, the whole aggregation and helping yourself, and looking at those innovative ways of taking advantage is really important. And one key to my business, which goes along with the avatar theme, is I’ve got a very aged population in my workforce, that’s the demographic of BT. How do we keep hold of those skills and capabilities and answer the questions for the future, because as much as we turn new technology on we don’t seem to switching anything off. So we’ve still got a huge platform that’s grown bigger and bigger, and the people with the skills are leaving the business. So I’ve taken something away today [avatars] and that’s a fantastic idea that can help my business.
“I want to thank everyone for their time, I think it’s been a really good debate, and at the next one we can be looking at the help needed in a bit more depth. That’s the next key agenda topic for me.”
The debate was held in a private dining room at The Arden Hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon, with the support of BT. It was chaired by Caroline Theobald, managing director, Bridge Club Ltd.
BT Investing in the West Midlands
BT is a key player in the West Midlands and has generated a massive £1.2 billion for the region’s economy in the past year. A report, by Regeneris Consulting, also shows that the communications company supports nearly 16,000 jobs in the West Midlands through direct employment, its spending with contractors and suppliers and the spending of employees.
Around £488 million was spent with regional suppliers. The overall beneficial financial impact of BT activities is expressed as a “Gross Value Added” (GVA) contribution. For the West Midlands the BT GVA totalled £1.2 billion – equivalent to £1 in every £80 of the region’s total GVA. But BT’s role in the region is more significant than even these massive figures suggest. In addition we are creating a high-speed fibre broadband network which will be essential to the future success of local businesses and households. The potential benefits to the region offered by that network are huge by any standards, changing the way people live, work and play.
BT is investing £2.5 billion in its commercial fibre broadband roll-out in the UK, and in the West Midlands BT has already made fibre broadband available to more than 1.4 million homes and businesses. Alongside the commercial rollout we are also working with regional and local authorities to extend next generation broadband even more widely – especially to more rural and remote communities. In the West Midlands we are working with five high-speed broadband partnerships in Coventry, Solihull & Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. BT continues discussions across the West Midlands with prospective public and private sector partners about further government initiatives and local projects such as Enterprise Zones and Connected Cities.
BT is also contributing to the local economy and society in a number of other ways through its community and sustainability activities, of which volunteering is a core element. In the West Midlands, employees contributed more than 3,400 days, over 25,000 hours during the year.
The full report is available at www.btplc.com/Thegroup/BTUKandWorldwide/BTRegions/England/Factsandfigures/Factsandfigures.htm