This is the third in a series of pieces to be published in the coming weeks exploring infrastructure priorities in Wales, guest edited by Ed Evans.
‘Digital’ is currently an overused and often misunderstood word. However, in a world where the pace and scale of technological change is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, it has been accepted that ‘digital’ is a term that needs to be fully engaged with.
The National Infrastructure Commission for Wales has a great opportunity to use digital to encourage greater economic participation, improve public services, make governance fairer and enhance social connectivity. To be successful, it needs to define what ‘digital’ means when applied to the challenge and context of Wales. I believe that a framework is useful when developing the interpretation of what digital infrastructure should mean. This framework needs to be holistic in nature, and should consider the human infrastructure of skills and enablement alongside the physical network infrastructure. I believe there to be five essentials to create a digital infrastructure where people and communities matter:
1. Connectivity: The basic availability of fixed and mobile connectivity, for people, services and devices to communicate, is central to a thriving digital world. Fixed connectivity will also be an enabler for the forthcoming 5G mobile networks. Public sector funding alone will not be enough to meet the full aspirations and investment in connectivity. It is vital to consider how funding could be targeted to leverage maximum additional resources from the private sector, and partners. The West Midlands Combined Authority’s recent successful bid to become the UK’s first multi-city test bed gave a clear message that the total investment made from public funding for the project will be matched by commercial funding. There is significant interest from investors that traditionally invest in physical infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, diversifying and examining the affordability and investment models for digital connectivity.
2. Intelligent Assets and Infrastructure: Intelligent infrastructure services have been shown to reduce costs, generate revenues, improve asset condition, improve engagement and productivity, and reduce economic, traffic, environmental and social impacts. Significant opportunity presents itself when considering the applicability of services such as:
- Intelligent mobility (e.g. shared ownership of electric vehicles)
- Community services (e.g. adaptive wayfinding for residents and visitors)
- Efficient waste collection (e.g. collecting on demand)
- Energy generation and use (e.g. smart grids)
- Smart buildings (e.g. active monitoring of utilisation and energy)
The installation of sensors for air quality, noise, lighting and other environmental factors can then be an incremental, affordable investment in the public realm, enabling measurement and improvement of environmental quality, wellbeing and social outcomes.
3. Data and Insight: Terabytes of data are already available to inform our thinking about places – real time transport data; environmental quality; social, economic and demographic indicators; social media sentiment; geographic and geological data; the structures of buildings and infrastructure and so on. This data can give insight into the demand for buildings and services; the suitability of locations for different purposes; and the movement of people between existing areas and new developments. The provision wherever possible, with applicable security measures and access protocols, of open data and application programming interfaces (APIs) from assets, services, buildings, infrastructure and sensors, would make the behaviour of the physical environment transparent and adaptable for new uses. If specified in advance, the cost impact of doing so should be modest. In a digital age, it is necessary for Wales to be an open and adaptable environment to drive innovation in existing companies and attract new businesses and service providers.
4. End-User Services: Whilst some High Streets and the communities that they serve are struggling as digital technologies impact traditional retail businesses, elsewhere entrepreneurial businesses and community initiatives fuse an evolving mix of retail, food, entertainment and leisure that combines physical and digital products and experiences. For example, Food Assemblies across Wales use online tools to curate interactions in communities providing access to local farm produce. They create social value through interactions; promote transactions that retain economic value locally; and contribute to reducing the number of vehicular journeys made to outside retail environments. Attracting this type of service to operate in communities in Wales through the provision of appropriate business support and incubation services could be a vital tool in stimulating the business economy and communities.
5. Skills and Enablement: Skills in digital technologies will be crucial to the success of residents and businesses in Wales. To provide communities in Wales with the best opportunity to benefit from the digital economy, digital skills development will need to take place to break-down the barrier of digital exclusion. For example, Digital Communities Wales helps organisations that are working with people who could benefit from having basic digital skills. Communities with social challenges associated with poverty, low skills and unemployment will need to be considered in order to prevent a further widening in the digital divide.
Digital infrastructure has long been considered an engine for economic growth and a beacon for private sector investment. New, unfamiliar levels of collaboration at scale, between public and private bodies and underpinned by shared values will be required. I believe that a dialogue of human, physical and technological elements needs to be had to unlock the promise of digital infrastructure for Wales.
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