Why digital is first and foremost about people - Kersten England

Kersten England is Chief Executive of Bradford Council and the lead chief executive for Leeds City Region on digital. She is one of the leading architects of the emerging digital strategy for the City Region, and a passionate advocate for the power of digital technologies to transform lives and revolutionise public services.

In this blog, Kersten sets out why it's essential that our region has a clear strategy to embrace the massive growth of digital technologies here and around the world, and why a developing a truly digital tech region starts with people.

Why we're developing this digital framework

There is little doubt now that the world is going through a technological revolution every bit as significant as the Industrial Revolution that laid the foundations for our region's modern economy.

Just like the Industrial Revolution, this seismic shift has profound consequences for the way our businesses and workplaces operate; the way that people, information, goods and services flow through our towns and cities; and the way we all live our lives.

I recently had the enormous pleasure of meeting Yonatan Adiri, who was the first Chief Technology Officer to former Israeli President Shimon Peres and founder of a healthy.io - a revolutionary product that uses artificial intelligence to transform smartphone cameras into clinical grade scanners. According to Adiri a "tech tsunami" is coming our way. We can either surf the wave, or risk being swept away by the tide.

Although unnerving, the tsunami metaphor underlines just how vital it is that businesses, policymakers and people in the region take digital tech seriously. And that is exactly what we as a City Region partnership are doing through the development of this digital framework. We're determined to surf the wave, and to equip the people and businesses of the region to surf it too.

Why it's especially relevant to our region

It's only right that we in Leeds City Region take a lead on this agenda – after all, we're a place of pioneers and early adopters of technology. Innovation is in our DNA: if we didn't inventit here, we were probably among the first to adopt it.

This is as true today of digital technologies as it was of our manufacturing sector in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the fast-growing fields of data storage, data analytics and cyber security in particular, our region is world-leading.

We're starting from a good place, however we can do more to maximize the impact ofour strengths to truly benefit the people and businesses of the region.

For example, as the youngest city region in the country, we have an immense talent pool of digital natives who have grown up in a world where digital is the norm. Businesses across all industries, not just digital or technology businesses, need their skills if they are to remain resilient in a digital economy. Connecting these individuals with those businesses is a key part of the solution to closing our region's productivity gap, adding £10 billion to our economy and creating thousands of skilled jobs.

The role of public bodies in creating our digital tech future

This is why it's important we have a clear, focused digital strategy for our region. But what's the role of the public sector in helping deliver this strategy?

Fundamentally it's about empowering people to use digital technologies to take control of their own lives – whether by putting in place a reliable, quick and secure digital infrastructure that everyone can access; supporting businesses to adopt digital technologies that will help drive their business forward; or ensuring our education system helps people develop the basic digital skills they need to participate fully in a digital economy.

At a time of shrinking public sector resources, digital technologies have a major role to play in enabling people to continue accessing the services they need. They are also revolutionising the way those services are provided.

This digital approach to service delivery is transforming the relationship between citizens and public bodies, putting the power over services back in people's hands. It is allowing people to design for themselves the services they need. What could be more democratic than that?

Tech for good

The aforementioned healthy.io is a great example of this technology in practice – rather than people having to go to their GP for a urine test and wait a week or more for the results to come back, they can get an analysis within minutes, in the privacy of their own home, using their smartphone.

Such technology isn't just the preserve of international tech entrepreneurs however – it's being introduced right here, right now, by councils across Leeds City Region. In my district of Bradford, the Konnektis platform is putting the individual very much at the centre of their own care by providing a communications hub to connect older people or those in social care with everyone involved in their care network.

Meanwhile the Lorawan internet of things (IoT) network is helping communities minimise the consequences of flooding by providing a low power, wide area network of sensors that monitors and collates information on water levels, which can then be used in prevention or as an early warning system of potential floods. And finally, citizen platforms such as People Can are creating more opportunities for people to get involved in their local communities as volunteers, activists and fundraisers, rebuilding trust and engagement within local areas.

All of these are examples of what we as a City Region are calling "tech for good" - one of the five key outcomes we want to see as a result of our digital strategy, and for me the most important one.

Because this is where our vision for the digital Leeds City Region of the future begins: with our people and businesses. We will know we have been successful in achieving this vision if, in 20 years' time, people have the right digital tools, skills and confidence to take charge of their own destiny, adapt to the inevitable turbulence the world will continue to throw our way, and ride the wave.

What do you think? Do you agree that building a digital tech region for the future begins today with our people and businesses? What digital technologies would help you take more control over your life?

Comment with your thoughts below or join in our "digi-talk" discussion forums.

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