Digital strategy that should flow into economic rejuvenation

Tay CitiesCasting a glance towards the striking new V&A building on Dundee’s waterfront, Tom Flanagan drew a parallel between its leading-edge design and the Tay cities ambition to create a world-class digital infrastructure for the region.

“We believe a smart city approach should become mainstream in terms of how public agencies engage with communities,” said Flanagan, interim head of economic development at Perth and Kinross Council. It encompasses smart energy, smart mobility and smart health, among others. “Most of all, it’s about smart people; making sure that people across the Tay cities are digitally skilled and can participate,” he said.

Flanagan was speaking at the Dundee and Perth event in the FutureScot and The Sunday Times Scotland’s Digital Cities series. He was joined by Steven Kyle, Dundee City Council’s transformation manager leading its ‘Change for the Future’ programme. Kyle emphasised the collaborative nature of the region’s strategy, with each of their councils, along with Angus, working to develop a single digital platform for citizens.

“It’s been a fantastic opportunity to learn from each other, to become digital councils and provide better solutions for people across the region,” he said.

A technology forum provides a medium for specialists to discuss challenges, and ways round, while an improvement forum supports the redesign of council services. Kyle pointed out that the public now have a way to report issues online, across a variety of services such as community safety, the environment, housing and potential fraud. They can also check how the council is performing, based on a series of indicators.

Flanagan said that there is an emphasis on making council data available to small and medium sized enterprises, to encourage the creation of innovative applications and so that more informed decisions can be made about the region’s future. It is opening innovation labs to support digital businesses.

Dundee and Perth following Glasgow’s lead in opening a 24/7 city operations centre to improve safety and incident response times. Intelligent street lighting and city-wide WiFi are being rolled out, and involvement in the ‘playable city’ initiative will make visits an experience as well as just being functional.

The move to become digital cities is supported by the Tay Cities Deal bid which, if successful, would see more than £1.8bn of investment and the creation of up to 15,000 jobs for the region. Digital plays a significant part in the bid, which also encompasses the area’s potential in tourism, food and drink, creative industries, eco innovation, oil and gas decommissioning, engineering, biomedical and healthcare.

The 2017 Tech Nation Report identified Dundee as a hub of digital excellence, particularly in terms of games and software development, technology services and mobile app development. At 129%, it had the third highest growth in turnover in the UK, while its GVA grew by 42%. Backers of the bid – including media organisation DC Thompson – believe this expertise can play a crucial role in the wider economic rejuvenation across the Tay Cities area.

Dundee now has the third fastest growing digital turnover in the UK and many companies, particularly software firms, are operating on a global scale. Between 2011 and 2015, the city’s turnover growth was 171%, the highest in the UK, followed by London’s at 106%.

The presence of Abertay, Dundee and St Andrews Universities, Perth College UHI, and Dundee & Angus College helps with supplying the skills, in terms of software and hardware engineers, that local companies – such as cloud host Brightsolid and app developer Waracle – need.

In addition to developing some of the world’s biggest selling games it has significant digital capabilities in other fields, including augmented reality, mobile phone app development, data centres and cloud storage, computer hardware for customer transactions, digital media and entertainment.

The region also has an internationally recognised strength in cyber-security which it is believed has the potential to create a significant number of jobs over time. The digital innovation element of the Tay Cities Deal proposal focuses on investment in cyber-security, digital forensic science and digital health.

Combined with the development of world class digital connectivity across both urban and rural areas and the involvement of Perth and Dundee in the Smart Cities Scotland initiative, which is developing the range of city projects from smart waste to intelligent street lighting, outlined by Flanagan and Kyle, “the strengths of the region in digital innovation are bright,” says the City Deal bid document.