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How should Government ensure success for Next Generation Digital Economy Centres?

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While most of us were listening out for changes to income tax rates and the new cost of a beer during the July budget, the chancellor also announced plans to support innovation through the development of six Next Generation Digital Economy Centres. These centres, located across England and Wales, will host digital hubs that the Government is backing through a £23 million fund. Each centre will focus on a different digital area and aim to lead innovation for the UK in that specific field.

Here’s where they’ll be located:

- Bath: The centre here will focus on motion capture technologies for the entertainment industry. This technology will also be applied to the analysis of body movement to improve human performance in sport and develop prosthetics for amputees. It’s hoped that this will enable savings for the NHS and MoD.

- Nottingham: Here, specialists will seek to refine the ethical use of personal data to create and deliver personalised products and experiences.

- York: Digital creativity will be the focus here and aim to provide new technologies for digital games and interactive media.

- Newcastle: It will see the design of media and open source digital technologies that aid the transformational models of local government authorities. This is in response to the reduced budgets that the public sector is currently facing and delivers on the Government’s digital agenda in a cost effective way.

- Swansea: The hub at this city will explore how to deliver digital innovations that help people relate and respond to our rapidly expanding technological world. The focus of this will be health and social care, resource-constrained communities, heritage, and cybersecurity and cyberterrorism. - London: Our capital’s hub will use data and advances in modelling to inform evidence-based policy. This will address how regions can use assets to cooperate economically and help rebalance the digital economy.

During the budget the chancellor also announced an additional £22 million will be spent on partnering with Local Enterprise Partnerships, councils and local SMEs to ensure that a range of sectors and businesses can exploit the digital opportunities created by the centres. Does a need for digital innovation, however, justify spending £45 million?

It’s undoubtedly a big figure, but when you consider the capital requirements for tech start-ups for example it doesn’t seem so high. The resources needed to establish a tech company are too high for it to be a feasible prospect for many, and so an investment in digital hubs should make it more achievable provided that it creates the economic conditions for tech entrepreneurs to succeed. We should however, encourage those with a vision to succeed in the digital market to ‘think global’ right from the start. If our hubs can match the success of those of other countries’ tech entrepreneurs we’re better positioned to compete on a global scale.

While it is a large amount, it’s important to ensure that the money is well spent and that the investment is being used as a seed to leverage the benefits that industry partnerships can bring. One of the key focuses for the centres must be to develop and innovate in a measured and manageable way that facilitates a commercial output. Let’s take Graphene as an example. Researchers at The University of Manchester have spent years developing the revolutionary new material, yet its commercial prospects are being more thoroughly exploited in Asia than they are here.

I do believe that initiative has a good chance of success. The Government is committed to the centres as demonstrated by the goals it’s set for the hubs to frame their research and direct investment. However, lessons must be learnt from previous digital initiatives such as London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and Cambridge’s ‘Silicon Fen’. It’s vital that academia and commercial organisations work collaboratively from the outset. We shouldn’t lose sight of the initiative’s purpose to foster digital opportunities and create product ideas that the commercial world can exploit and put us in good stead digitally compared to other countries.

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