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Why tech is at the heart of levelling-up ambitions

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Digital transformation and data-driven decision making are key to the UK’s efforts to reduce social and economic inequalities.

Back in 2019, the UK government laid out its ambitious plan to ‘level up’ the country, tackling regional inequalities and encouraging private sector investment outside London and the South East. A lot has happened since then to hamper progress, but fast-forward to today and levelling up is firmly back on the national agenda.

One way the government intends to boost productivity, jobs and living standards is by ramping up domestic public investment in R&D beyond the Greater South East of England by at least 40 per cent, as revealed in its Levelling Up White Paper. But this injection of funding comes alongside a hike in private industry investment, with a 17.5 per cent increase in R&D spending from big industrials in Q3 2021.

On the one hand, this signals the next stage in the UK’s recovery from Covid-19. On the other – without diving too deep into the politics – there’s no denying it comes at a time when the Conservative Party needs public support. It remains to be seen whether levelling up will become just a slogan, or the driving force behind economic dynamism, innovation and ultimately growth across the UK.

Regardless of whether you consider it to be platitude or talismanic policy, if levelling up is to be a success there are a few elements that must be baked-in to every mission outlined in the plan. The project needs to be led by the need for digital transformation, data-driven decision making, and skills that will enable employees and citizens alike to thrive in a digital-first world.

From the Industrial Revolution to its role in vaccine development, the UK can look back on a proud history of innovation. But it can’t rest on its laurels. Getting ahead in the next decade (and beyond) means reversing the UK’s steady industrial decline, by mirroring the innovation that characterises economies such as South Korea and Israel.

R&D investment outside the South East is part and parcel of this. However, on its own it isn’t enough. Keeping pace with the skyrocketing rate of global innovation requires a digital-first mindset, to embrace the transformational technologies – from artificial intelligence to the Internet of Things – that will increase productivity and prosperity in vertical sectors such as software engineering, manufacturing and the automotive industry.

Investment in digital connectivity is a core component of this. Just as cities and communities must be physically and digitally connected if they are to thrive, industry must also be equipped with next-generation innovations such as 5G and gigabit-capable broadband that can support millions of interconnected devices at ultrafast speeds.

If digital transformation and technological innovation is the backbone of levelling up, then data is the lifeblood that must flow throughout industry and society to drive and guide decisions. It’s no longer enough to rely on guesswork. Optimising processes and reducing waste – of both resources and time – is the key to working smarter, elevating citizen and employee experiences, and improving bottom lines.

Progressive organisations know what it means to be data-driven, and the government too is transforming its approach to data and decision making to gain a better understanding of what, where and how resources are being spent. However, the onus must now be on democratising and decentralising data, to equip local leaders with the information they need to deliver, experiment and evaluate, swiftly and effectively.

Of course, this digital and data transformation counts for nothing if employees don’t have the necessary skills to wield new technologies and make sense of all this information. Upskilling is integral to improving data literacy and closing the widening digital skills gap – people too must level up.

Education and empowerment will be integral to equipping employees with the know-how to analyse and draw conclusions from data. But equally as vital is elevating their understanding of tools like artificial intelligence that will lower barriers to entry and deliver meaningful insights which simply can’t be processed by the human brain.

Box-ticking must also be avoided at all costs. Becoming data-driven through upskilling is as much a cultural exercise as it is an educational one. Data literacy needs to start from the top, with leaders first understanding the state of data in their organisations and how it can influence the lives of employees. Only then can businesses identify where best to invest their resources and efforts.

Levelling up is a long-term endeavour, requiring a fundamental shift in how central and local government, the private sector and civil society operate. In the short term, however, it presents a golden opportunity for organisations to refocus their investments on enabling technologies like the Cloud, Kubernetes, low code, no code and AI – and the glue that holds it all together: data.

Like our world, business never stands still. Now is the time to invest in your data and digital infrastructure, to help the UK achieve its broader ambitions and continue its recovery, while also driving meaningful growth for your business – and your people.

Chris Roberts is UKI director of solution engineering at NetApp.

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