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Liverpool City Region (LCR) Digital Strategy, 2021-2023 (Draft)

The following report is broken down into the following sections for quick viewing:


Even before the onset of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, “digital” was a key focus for the Liverpool City Region (LCR) and Combined Authority (CA), however the criticality of digital proficiency, access, and solutions for all aspects of modern life have all been brought into even sharper relief since. Put simply, the digital connectivity, skills, activities, and services that were already a priority are now an everyday necessity…

We will only achieve our ambition by taking collective action, and this first ever LCR Digital Strategy and Action Plan set out six key themes through which we will jointly deliver change.


This is not the start of our journey, however it does for the first time bring together the many workstreams already underway, directly linked to a series of key priorities and actions for the next three years. This integrated approach to digital themes and activities will in turn help us realise the vision set out in the draft Local Industrial Strategy (LIS), to deliver a competitive, clean and inclusive City Region, plus ensure alignment with the forthcoming UK Digital Strategy produced by DCMS.

The Strategy and Action Plan also highlight the scale of our ambition, showcase our distinctive assets and capabilities, and identify where we need to do more to maximise our opportunities.  They are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather act as a framework to inform all aspects of “digital” activity across the LCR, not least the Combined Authority’s own Strategic Investment Fund (SIF) and the work of our constituent Local Authorities. We are hoping however that they will similarly influence the digital and other strategies and activities of other LCR anchor institutions and stakeholders across all sectors, public, private, and voluntary. Equally they are intended to help shape discussions, facilitate advocacy and partnership development with government, industry and other bodies, and help secure public funding and private investment to deliver current and future initiatives.

The Strategy and Action Plan have been produced on behalf of the City Region by the CA, working with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and following significant input from the six Local Authorities. The CA has also actively engaged industry-led Sector Boards, academic and research institutions, plus other stakeholders and partners, including voluntary and community organisations. This reflects our aim to develop a Liverpool City Region wide approach to digital activity, as opposed to being simply a Combined Authority Strategy. We all have a critical role to play in moving the digital agenda forward, and we envisage that the development and delivery of different strands and activities will be led accordingly by differentorganisations and sectors as required.

We recognise how fast-paced the digital landscape is, and we will review our actions and approach regularly to ensure that we remain at the forefront of digital. Our vision is for this to be a living, breathing document that acts as a catalyst for action and evolves in line with technology.

Digital Infrastructure & Connectivity

Why is this Important?

Access to fast, reliable and affordable internet connectivity has never been so essential. Just as the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that digital skills are a form of basic literacy, it has equally highlighted that digital connectivity is a form of critical infrastructure and a fourth core utility, facilitating the ability to learn, work, shop and socialise, as well as providing access to vital public information and services.

Modern, future-proofed digital infrastructure, both fixed and wireless, is a key enabler of every strand of this Digital Strategy and is a signature priority for the Metro Mayor.  More broadly, it is an important part of the UK’s National Infrastructure Strategy, which has set out Government’s target that 85% of premises should benefit from ““gigabit-capable broadband” by 2025.

Digitalisation is a core focus within the draft LCR LIS, which recognises the direct correlation between connectivity investment and economic performance, as have numerous other studies[1] [2].  Whilst quantifying the economic impacts of connectivity is challenging, not least because commercial operators are incentivised to promote the benefits, one estimate indicates that the impact of a UK-wide Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) broadband ISP network by 2025 is a Gross Value Added (GVA) uplift of £59billion[3].

The Liverpool City Region requires fast, universal and resilient digital infrastructure in order to both support post Covid-19 recovery as well as underpin our transformational innovation-led growth, linked to our ambitious target of 5% of LCR GVA R&D investment set out within our Economic Recovery Plan, which is almost double the UK target of 2.4% GDP.  This reflects the fact that ultrafast fibre and 5G delivery will improve business productivity, with firms able to exploit new business processes associated with enhanced connectivity, perform routine tasks more quickly, develop a wider range of products and services, and access new and /or larger markets.

Where are we Now?

Liverpool City Region is one of the most connected places in the UK in terms of superfast[4] broadband coverage.  However, broadband access is unevenly distributed, often due to affordability, and take-up of ultrafast[5] services across LCR is below 3%[6]. The UK is at the bottom end of the European league table of full fibre roll-out, and like many other parts of the country, gigabit-capable connectivity is low in the Liverpool City Region, albeit appreciably higher than the UK average.  There is less than 21% coverage of full fibre broadband to premises, the market is complex and fragmented, and, by definition, operators will tend to go where profit can be made rather than based on social need.

Central government has announced £5billion of funding for the DCMS “Outside In” programme that aims to help those in the hardest to reach, final 20%, of UK premises (“F20”) gain access to “gigabit-capable”[7]services. However, the F20 comprises predominantly rural premises that are geographically hard-to-reach, rather than those that are commercially unattractive.

The good news is that LCRCA’s work on the accelerated provision of digital infrastructure is already firmly underway.  We have approved investment for the creation of a fibre backhaul[8] network that will link all six Local Authority areas, as well as inter-connect key sites and assets across the region.   Our “Dig Once” project is already enabling the installation of ducting during other Highways maintenance or infrastructure investment schemes.  Digital connectivity considerations are similarly being mainstreamed into new LCR policies on housing, skills and energy.  Meanwhile, the recent digitisation of the full 160km Merseyrail network as part of the £0.5billion comprehensive rolling stock replacement programme provides an additional fibre network that offers fixed and wireless connectivity opportunities along the route.

What are our Strengths?

As evidenced in the LIS, the Liverpool City Region has demonstrable, distinctive competitive strengths in what are also “data hungry” sectors. These include AI/high-performance computing (HPC), digital materials chemistry/advanced manufacturing, and infection control/health innovation.  Indeed, STFC Hartree Centre at Daresbury at the south east tip of the City Region is a world leader in the application of HPC and big data analytics to solving real world industrial challenges.

In the opposite, north west, corner of the City Region, two of the UK’s main transatlantic fibre optic cables land at Southport. This provides an internet superhighway carrying data between the UK, North America and the rest of the world, which could assume even greater significance following post-Brexit shifts in the pattern of the UK’s global trade and offers low latency advantages to facilities located near the landing point.

The CA is in the process of developing a singular joint venture commercial model to build and operate the core fibre backhaul network, which will become a key strength and asset in its own right. Meanwhilethe Liverpool 5G Health and Social Care Testbed, part of the DCMS 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, created the largest 5G mmWave network in Europe, and in June 2020 secured an extra £4.3m from the “5G Create” competition run by DCMS to scale out the network, trial additional telecoms and education usages, plus create a new transferable commercial model, in the process helping to reduce digital poverty and exclusion.

Case study: to follow

Case study: to follow

What are our main Challenges & Opportunities?

Integrated digital connectivity and the availability of full fibre will benefit the City Region by powering innovation, supporting business start-ups, growth and productivity gains, developing new high-tech business clusters, and attracting inward investors.  The creation and maintenance of LCR-wide digital infrastructure will also open up additional skills and job opportunities at all levels. It can enable effective and efficient citizen engagement and public service delivery and has already impelled us to adopt a quasi-commercial model, find new ways of working, and with new partners. Overall, CA analysis indicates the potential benefit to the LCR would be circa £1billion over a 15-year period for both businesses and households.

It is therefore imperative that we seize the opportunities afforded by the new backhaul network across the region, the expansion and wider scale out of the 5G testbed, the synergies between fixed and wireless infrastructure, and the development of alternative business models for infrastructure investment. In tandem, we recognise that a proliferation of digital infrastructure does not automatically close the “digital divide” for those who cannot afford and/or do not know how to use digital services.  Ensuring that digital connectivity is delivered in a fair and inclusive way across our whole region, and that residents have suitable skills and means, are therefore major challenges that require dedicated solutions, as highlighted later in this Strategy.

Other key areas of consideration and focus include:

  • The different opportunities that the core network will create in different parts of the LCR, e.g. potential new global data interchanges near Southport and the intended National AI Solutions Centre at Daresbury
  • Opportunities to exploit the low latency advantages of where the transatlantic internet cables land to create an international data exchange near Southport:
  • Synergy with the LCR’s net zero carbon clean growth ambitions – notably the Mersey Tidal mega-project, large scale hydrogen-related opportunities, expansion of existing offshore wind deployment, plus carbon capture and storage – given the important energy and heat dissipation requirements of “digital”.
  • Contribution to the UK’s national digital resilience by providing new routes and interconnections (including to the national network link between Wirral and Runcorn).
  • Associated national cybersecurity and terrorism threats, in terms of data theft, intellectual property espionage, and internet/network vulnerabilities.

What are our Priorities for Action?

Our digital infrastructure vision for the Liverpool City Region is one of world-class gigabit-capable connectivity to unlock growth and opportunity and make the LCR the most digitally connected City Region in the UK.  Our wider priorities are to:

  • Build, operate and maintain a backhaul network across the by 2023
  • Stimulate local loop development and facilitate affordable connectivity
  • Maximise 5G connectivity (building on the Liverpool 5G mesh network) and 5G-fibre backhaul integration
  • Develop and deliver projects to exploit wider opportunities and benefits offered by enhanced digital infrastructure provision
  • Embed digital infrastructure as the fourth utility via integration with other major LCR strategies.

[1] e.g. Ericsson 2011 study: doubling speed adds 0.3% to GDP; 2018 Ofcom analysis of 35 OECD countries over a 15 year period found average UK GDP annual growth of 0.47% 2002-2016 resulting from digital infrastructure investment; SQW DCMS 2013 UK Broadband Impact Study found 20x net economic impact per £1 of public investment; Stockholm’s 3-fold €1.8Bn ROI from digital infrastructure investment over 20 years

[2] Moore’s Law: computer power doubles/price halves every 18 months; Nielsen’s Law = 50% speed/bandwidth increase every year; Metcalfe’s Law:  as a network grows, the value of being connected to it grows exponentially, while the cost per user is the same or less.

[3] “Full fibre broadband: A platform for growth.  A Cebr report for Openreach”. October 2019.

[4] Ofcom defines superfast broadband as a service which delivers download speeds of greater than / equal to 30 Mbit/s

[5] Ultrafast services are defined as being able to deliver broadband speeds that are greater than / equal to 300 Mbit/s

[6] Take-up of ultrafast connections at premises with an ultrafast-capable connection.  Source: Ofcom Connected Nations 2019

[7] “Gigabit-capable” is defined as being able to deliver download speeds of greater than / equal to 1Gbps

[8] A “backhaul” network is the high-capacity spine supports the provision of local access connections, the delivery of improved speeds to homes and businesses, and the rollout of mobile services.

Tech for Good & a Smart City Region

Why is this Important?

Digital technologies and data analysis continue to transform our society at an exponential rate. In less than two decades, our now “mobile-first” society has seen the rise and increasing dominance of disruptive digital platforms such as Amazon, AirBnb, Instagram, and Uber, that largely transcend language, culture, geography, politics and religion to revolutionise not only the way that we share information and communicate, but also how we conduct almost every aspect of our daily lives.

This rapid and radical technological change is bringing ever wider new opportunities and possibilities for people across the planet. However, these self-same changes, combined with near-universal 24-hour access to real time information, have also had negative ramifications, including new forms of addiction, mental health pressures, “fake news”, privacy violations, fraud, insecure employment within the growing “gig economy”, and widening inequalities.  Taking proactive steps to ensure that digital technologies are used for positive ends and delivering social value is therefore vital to the ongoing development of fair, vibrant and inclusive places. That is what we mean by “tech for good”, and why it is a key theme both here and within our draft Local Industrial Strategy, alongside open health innovation. It also underpins all four Grand Challenges set out in the UK Industrial Strategy – Ageing Society, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Clean Growth, Future of Mobility – and associated funding streams.

This notion of tech for good is closely allied to the concept of “Smart Cities”; and whilst there are numerous associated models and definitions, in essence the term refers to the integrated and systematic application of data, analytics and technology to sustainably improve quality of life, health, environment, public services and the economy in the face of society’s greatest needs and challenges, of which Covid-19 is but one. This has taken different forms in different places – with Singapore cited by Juniper in 2018 as the smartest city on the planet, followed by London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seoul, Berlin, Tokyo, Barcelona and Melbourne. In all cities the guiding principle has been to build on to distinctive local strengths and capabilities in order to address critical local priorities and needs. This theme therefore also cuts across all the others set out in this strategy, and if digital infrastructure is how we improve connectivity, this begins to answer the question regarding what we should be using it for.

In the most extreme form of a smart cities approach, Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs came close to assuming the powers and authority associated with local government through the intended construction of a new waterfront sub-city in Toronto designed “from the internet up”, before abandoning its plans in early 2020. It is certainly headline news when things go wrong, as with the UK’s 2020 GCSE and A-Levels grading algorithms issues, or the controversy whereby Deepmind access to NHS patient records was deemed illegal. Hence the fact that stringent data ethics, stewardship, regulation, and respect for individual privacy are all critical considerations in developing and applying smart city solutions.

Where are we Now?

The following table provides an overview of the critical elements of planning and delivering a major Smart City Region programme.

The LCR already has most of these elements, albeit they are not integrated or applied in a systematic manner. In tandem, the Metro Mayor is an ardent advocate of digital solutions as well as social value, while the CA, constituent Local Authorities, and Merseytravel transport body have the processes, democratic legitimacy, infrastructure, scale and reach across a population of 1.5million to make things happen in this sphere. This is exemplified by the ambitious digital infrastructure and connectivity programme outlined in the previous section.

Smart cities related issues were considered at a dedicated international symposium hosted by the University of Liverpool’s Heseltine Institute and LCR Combined Authority in early 2020. In addition to launching a good practices reference guide produced by international consultancy BABLE, the event also saw the publication of a Position Statement on “Building a Data Ecosystem in Liverpool City Region to Unlock the Value of Big (Local) Data”, which provides a significant frame of reference for ongoing debate in this sphere.

What are our Strengths?

The LCR is home to a fast-growing cluster of distinctive tech for good businesses, projects, solutions, and assets. These include Sensor City – a dedicated Internet of Things (IoT) incubator, the world-leading collaboration between the STFC Hartree Centre and IBM Research, and the tech capabilities of other major companies based here, notably Atos, CGI, EPAM, O2, Very Group, and Unilever’s global data centres and cyber-security hub. This is complemented by academic expertise – with the University of Liverpool having the top-rated Computer Science Department in the country (REF, 2014) and internationally significant AI and data science capability – while Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) has relevant specialisms in applied mathematics (Guardian Top 5, 2019) and IoT, plus immersive and drone technologies. Indeed, the two universities are currently collaborating with Aardman Animations to create a £1million immersive Shaun the Sheep experience in China.

Moreover, there is a wealth of activity in and around our distinctive health assets and specialisms – from Liverpool’s ground-breaking 5G health and care testbed, mesh network, and additional DCMS funding to scale activities up and out, to the UK’s largest SME-led e-health cluster, the SPARK (Single Point of Access to Research & Knowledge) joint data and intelligence initiative applied by Liverpool Health Partners (LHP)across constituent universities and trusts, and the LCR’s Global Digital Exemplar[9] hospitals, exemplified by Alder Hey with is dedicated 1000square metre innovation “batcave”, rapid prototyping centre, dedicated AI team, and which with IBM created the world’s first healthcare chatbot and the UK’s first NHS open innovation portal.

Case Study: to follow

Case Study: to follow

What are our main Challenges & Opportunities?

While the LCR has most of the building blocks to become a Smart City Region that delivers large scale tech for good programmes, one critical gap is the lack of dedicated capacity, investment, or regime to deliver on this promise and integrate the various disparate infrastructure and initiatives into a coherent whole. Moreover, beyond the health sphere, use cases have tended to either be loosely defined and/or standalone, and not sustained or scaled up as a result. Digital Infrastructure and assets have been, and largely remain, in different ownership across Local Authorities and other public bodies, compounded by different contractual arrangements and monitoring regimes. There is also the major challenge of both attracting and retaining the best and brightest STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, & Maths) talent, and redressing endemic LCR-wide basic digital skills deficits.

If we fail to directly address these inherently complex issues and collaborate much more effectively in this area, then the LCR will lose out to other UK and global cities in terms of competitiveness and productivity, and our most marginalised communities will fall even further behind. Covid-19 has only heightened this threat, while any adverse economic impacts from Brexit could further exacerbate it.

The good news is that significant progress is being made. The city region-wide scale of the digital infrastructure programme is already unlocking unprecedented degrees of cooperation, as well as new commercial and governance models which could be further enhanced to deliver smart City Region solutions via a new public-private compact. Similarly, joined-up policy approaches to infrastructure planning and delivery, potentially using “dig once” to install sensors/IoT devices as well as fibre, and designing “digital” into the £2+billion investment pipeline in Knowledge Quarter Liverpool, plus Merseytravel’s proposed smart ticketing rollout, all present significant opportunities, while a “smart cities” apprenticeship and joint Universities Chair have already been proposed.

The prospective National Centre for AI Solutions at SciTech Daresbury will be an internationally significant development, while two other initiatives are of particular significance building on the health innovation assets outlined earlier. Firstly, the ground-breaking Civic Data Cooperative being developed by LHP following the £5.3M award of CA Strategic Investment Funding in early 2020, which, if successful, has the potential to be scaled out to other use cases and sectors, and form a broader platform for realising wider Smart City Region activities. Secondly, the ambition of the award-winning Alder Hey Children’s Hospital to become the world’s first “living hospital”, applying sensors, IoT, and AI technologies to pre-cognate patient needs, revolutionise care practices, and improve health outcomes, building on the successful partnership with IBM research to deploy its Watson platform via the Alder Play app.  Moreover, under the “Alder Hey anywhere” tagline, the ambition is to generate health solutions that ultimately reach all of the world’s 1.4 billion children.

Other opportunities remain largely uncharted, for example improving port and logistics efficiencies, plus levering national pilot initiatives and associated major utility industry relationships to maximise the application of energy data.

Public engagement will also be critical to the LCR smart city region approach. Ensuring effective proactive links with citizens and all our communities will not only help build lasting trust and safeguards but will also directly inform the development and prioritisation of solutions to the issues which most impact the lives of local people. The ground-level experience of our six local authorities will be vital in helping to identify these issues across a wide spectrum of needs, and develop new and improved public services that leverage digital technologies to deliver public good.

In practice, this will mean public bodies sharing best practise, data and experience across the full range of local services – from transport, to waste, environmental health, planning, education, health and social care. This unified approach will facilitate the interoperability and consistency of quality services across the LCR and seek to both save resources and enable more real-time decision-making. Wider stakeholder groupings in the voluntary and community sectors will be equally vital in 2-way engagement with citizens, plus helping to devise and roll out initiatives. This will be especially important for those with little to no access to digital services – e.g. older and/or vulnerable individuals – who may be those who have most to benefit from smart city initiatives.

What are our Priorities for Action?

We have identified the following priorities to help us to realise our vision of becoming a smart, comprehensively interconnected City Region that applies technology and data to create social as well as economic value for all:

  • Dedicated capacity and integrated governance to lead overall LCR digital and Smart City Region planning and delivery (including data strategy and ethics protocols for the responsible development and application of future technology and analytics)
  • Development, delivery and scale-up of existing and pipeline projects
  • Living labs and citizen involvement programmes to determine use cases, priorities and public service improvements (working through Local Authorities and community organisations), plus associated challenge programmes to apply emerging technologies to provide solutions (working with industry, technology providers, academic/education bodies, health services, and digi-innovation assets).

[9] internationally recognised NHS providers delivering improvements in the quality of care through the world-class use of digital technologies and information.

Digital & CreaTech Sector Development

Why is this Important?

The LCR has a vibrant digital and creative sector that is fast-growing in its own right, as well as being a key enabler of wider recovery and growth across other sectors of our economy, as highlighted in the draft Local Industrial Strategy.

The sector has a diverse LEP-facilitated board established in 2017, and we have strong relationships with key national bodies whose priorities we seek to align with, most notably Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Digital Catapult, Tech Nation [10], Creative Industries Federation/ Creative England, and the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA), as well as working closely with the UK Tech Clusters Group where the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport first announced the production of the new intended UK Digital Strategy in June 2020.

Where are we Now?

Liverpool City Region’s diverse, collaborative Digital & Creative sector predominantly comprises small or micro businesses. The primary clusters of activity are at Sci-Tech Daresbury for data intensive and software development businesses, and in the Baltic Triangle area of Liverpool for “CreaTech” companies (where creativity meets technology). The following key metrics highlight current (ONS, Sep 2020) performance:

  • In 2018 the Digital & Creative sector in LCR produced over £2.2bn of output, £1.96bn from Digital Technology (as per DCMS definition).
  • Output from the Digital & Creative sector grew by 41% from 2008 to 2018 in the LCR, compared to 33% growth in England, while GVA growth in the sector has been more than double that across the whole of the North of England in the same timeframe, albeit starting from a lower baseline position.
  • In 2018 there were 3,980 Digital & Creative workplaces in LCR (2,680 Digital Technology) employing 21,150 people (15,750 in Digital Technology).
  • Since 2010 the City Region has become home to an additional 1,000 Digital & Creative workplaces; 73% of which are in Digital Technology.
  • Labour productivity (the total volume of output (measured in terms of Gross Domestic Product, GDP) produced per unit of labour (measured in terms of the number of employed persons) in the Digital & Creative sector in LCR has grown 55% since 2009 to £104,214, compared to 17% growth nationally.

Over and above the annual Digital Summits held since 2016, the main initiatives dedicated to supporting the LCR’s Digital and CreaTech sector are:

  • LCR Activate, launched in 2017 to help companies innovate by accessing local expertise, research and funding, and run by JMU and the LCR LEP. The project awarded more than £800,000 in grants to companies to match early stage investors’ money on a “£1:£1” basis, contributed to the creation of 70 jobs in the sector, and overall added £2.65M to the value of local creative & digital businesses (source: Capita, 2020) during its three-year duration.
  • Gather, run by digital and creative growth consultancy Form, is a group of programmes funded by the LCR CA to support the sector. Adapted in March 2020 to build resilience in digital and creative businesses through the pandemic, it is building a better-connected ecosystem, delivering high quality business support programmes and enhancing survival and stability.

What are our Strengths?

The BEIS-commissioned LCR+ Science & Innovation Audit evidenced that the LCR has distinctive world-leading capability in the industrial application of high performance and cognitive computing through the unique partnership between the STFC Hartree Centre and IBM Research. In addition to the digital health expertise/assets and leading 4IR business support highlighted elsewhere, distinctive strengths include culture and heritage, linked to Liverpool’s designation as a UNESCO City of Music and the UK’s most filmed place after London.

A historic strength in the games sector linked to Sony Psygnosis’s presence in Liverpool has paved the way for a subsequent immersive technologies sub-sector to flourish, as set out in a 2020 Immersive Tech report commissioned by the Growth Platform, Liverpool City Region’s Growth Company. The report identified a critical mass of 114 LCR-based immersive businesses aligned with a strong entertainment/leisure industry represented in our games, film (content) and music (content/publishing), all of which were (both in employment and turnover) than the average Digital & Creative SMEs, more profitable and growing strongly.

In addition to our e-Health cluster – the only SME-led such grouping in the UK – we have two primary geographic clusters of activity: Baltic Creative, a property management Community Interest Company for the digital and creative sector in the vibrant Baltic Triangle area of the Liverpool, and at SciTech Daresbury, a designated enterprise zone and science and technology campus, with a nascent digitech cluster. These clusters are complemented by a strong corporate presence in the form of Atos, CGI, EPAM, IBM Research, Telefonica (O2), Very Group, and Unilever’s global data centres and cyber-security hub.

In 2019 the first Tech Climbers report identified the LCR’s top 35 fastest-growing and most innovative tech scale-ups, who are predominantly active in the technology, health and life sciences, education, sales and marketing, and transport sectors. More recently, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority launched a Future Innovation Fund (FIF) to provide grants to SMEs for near to market innovation projects across a broad range of sectors. At the time of publication, the FIF has held two of the three intended pilot funding rounds of £1million each, with grants ranging from £25,000-£75,000. Digital and Creative sector businesses have been prime beneficiaries for tech for good products and digitalisation initiatives spanning health, education, smart cities, culture and hospitality.

Case study: to follow

Case Study: to follow

What are our main Challenges & Opportunities?

A primary challenge is the lack of dedicated capacity to coordinate the wealth of activity in and around the sector and maximise associated developments to create greater scale and impact. Linked to this is the need to better connect innovative tech SMEs with large corporate and public sector bodies as well as world-leading assets such as the Hartree Centre and Materials Innovation Factory. Equally local businesses and sub-clusters would benefit from engaging in a more proactive manner with national bodies to enhance their visibility, presence and the ability of local businesses to access their programmes, plus connect with complementary clusters across the UK and beyond in a more systematic fashion. In tandem, more needs to be done to highlight the games and immersive sub-sectors as distinctive comparative LCR strengths, plus drive greater and quicker adoption of technology in other key sectors, notably Hospitality, Education, Health & Social Care [11], and deliver a more integrated approach across the LCR digital/creative, cultural, and visitor economy sectors.

Local digital and creative businesses (and in other sectors) have a relatively poor track record of securing innovation funding, notably from UKRI/Innovate UK, as well as accessing private early stage investment and patient capital, while there is a specific issue re the perceived relatively high cost of professional fees to claim R&D tax credits. In a more general sense, access to talent – industry-ready workers with basic proficiency and expertise in particular standards and disciplines – and the lack of dedicated, flexible workspace for digital and creative businesses – from offices, studios, exhibition and event space to incubator and demonstrator facilities – are both critical challenges, as they are for many localities across the UK.

In terms of related opportunities, one consideration highlighted by the sector itself is the potential creation of a Chief Digital Officer position to provide a single point of direction, in tandem with according the Digital & Creative Board a strategic say in the allocation of local public funding that directly impacts the sector. Certainly greater capacity could help forge greater synergy across the culture, visitor economy sectors, health/care and other sectors, at the same time as championing greater revenue and/or angel investment for early stage tech companies, wider links to external investment networks, accelerator programme development, and providing more systematic support for seeking public sector investment from national bodies. There is clear scope to build on our existing relationships with bodies such as Nesta (innovation foundation), Tech UK (tech industry membership organisation), Tech Nation (accelerator programmes), UKIE(games industry body), Immerse UK (immersive industry body), as well as using the City region’ global credentials to develop an international programme to help LCR D&C increase overseas trade.

The intention to scale up the existing, successful £3m Future Innovation Fund pilot to a £20m challenge programme is certainly an opportunity to accelerate and broaden sector development, while the cross-sector digitalisation initiatives and digital technologies adoption by businesses linked to Covid-19 highlighted in the next section represent an opportunity for the digital and creative sector in its own right to diversify their client base. Similarly, the two new nascent clusters centred at SciTech Daresbury – digitech, plus the NW Space hub announced in late November 2020 – have major business growth potential, alongside the emerging immersive cluster spanning academia and industry. This in turn underlines the need for enhanced business space, working with local authorities and the CA Town Centres Fund to create and embed these beyond established hotspots and across the whole sub-region. In tandem there is potential to create new programmes for businesses to engage with education providers and young people to develop digital skills and raise awareness of local opportunities.

What are our Priorities for Action?

The strategic priorities as pre-defined in 2018 by the Digital & Creative Sector Board are:

  • Business support & scale up: general coordinating capacity, access to finance, leadership development, events, and specialist programmes
  • Place & space: ensuring the sector has fit for purpose places and workspaces
  • Access to new & international markets: diversifying across new sectors and generating new international business
  • Place marketing & inward investment: effectively promoting our competitive strengths to drive more foreign direct investment and talent attraction.
  1. skills, diversity and digital inclusion is also one of the Board’s priorities, however this is clearly covered by themes 5 and 6 below. In tandem, the “place & space” priority has been pared down from the Board’s original focus on “infrastructure, smart cities & workspace” as the first two elements of this are similarly covered in Themes 1 and 2 of this Strategy and Action Plan.

[10] NB. there has also been an historic issue with the geographic delineation of the LCR by Tech Nation, based on Travel to Work Areas rather than the actual political and administrative geography of the City Region – thereby excluding Wirral, Halton/Daresbury, and some of Sefton. The result has been to mis-represent the LCR sector’s composition, scale and focus vis-à-vis other parts of the UK, and needs to be redressed accordingly.

[11] Beyond the Liverpool 5G testbed.

Cross-Sector Digitalisation & Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Why is this important?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) uses Industrial Digital Technologies (IDTs) – notably sensors and digitally interconnected (internet of things) devices; simulation, virtual reality or augmented reality; AI; digital twins; 3D printing (a.k.a. additive manufacturing) – to effect improvements in design, productivity and resource/energy efficiency, and shift from linear materials-based supply chains to broader supply eco-systems enabled by digital technologies.

The Government’s 2017 Made Smarter Review, which was directly informed by LCR policy and practice, states – “the positive impact of faster innovation and adoption of IDTs could be as much as £455 billion for UK manufacturing over the next decade, increasing manufacturing sector growth between 1.5 and 3% per annum, creating a conservative estimated net gain of 175,000 jobs throughout the economy and reducing CO2 emissions by 4.5%. Overall, from the data and evidence collated, we are confident that industrial productivity can be improved by more than 25% by 2025.”

However, the importance of this extends beyond the manufacturing base and supply chains to almost all sectors. AI is one of the four grand challenges identified in the UK Industrial Strategy and represents a fundamental shift in the role, primacy and behaviour of humankind, while Covid19 has disrupted all business sectors and catalysed digital adoption of a previously unimagined pace, to the point that digitalisation has become a fundamental prerequisite for almost all innovation.

This dramatic transformation is aptly summarised in the University of Liverpool’s December 2020 Digital Innovation Whitepaper: “shifts in attitude, culture and investment priorities which might otherwise have taken years have been catalysed over weeks. Coronavirus has created a burning platform for decision-makers, with the cost of inaction outweighing the cost of action for the first time since the inception of the Industry 4.0 era… None of these changes will be rolled back. Businesses wedded to analogue processes and business models will quickly find themselves disconnected from the opportunities in a future that is undoubtedly digital-first… There has never been a stronger imperative for businesses of all sizes, from start-ups to blue chip corporates, to explore the benefits of emergent technologies. Those which do will not only secure a recovery from COVID-19 but a sustainable competitive advantage enabling them to thrive in the new normal.”

As highlighted in the previous section, this goes even further than the business world to also encompass health, education and other public services.

Where are we Now?

The Liverpool City Region is an integral part of the largest manufacturing economy in the UK (Make UK Annual Manufacturing Report 2020/21), and home to a host of global companies, including Unilever, Jaguar Land Rover, Astra Zeneca, Alstom, ABB and NSG/Pilkington.  According to the CA’s own analysis, manufacturing accounts for £4.3bn GVA (13% of LCR total), 49,000 jobs (8% of LCR total), and 2,400 businesses (5% of LCR total), and employs a greater proportion of people in Liverpool City Region than nationally or the North West.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, manufacturing industry was experiencing a period of unprecedented upheaval, linked to the global climate crisis, Brexit, US-China trade tensions, changing consumer behaviour, and the rapid introduction of new technologies. Our response was to develop and deliver the highly successful LCR4.0 initiative to support manufacturing SMEs to adopt Industry 4.0 practices, which has in turn given rise to cross-sectoral business digitalisation support programmes LCR4 START – helping SME to start their digital journey, and LCR Holistic – more intensive assistance to companies to develop digital solutions across several key industry sectors as highlighted below.

With regard to the current state of play in terms of the impact of Covid-19 on wider cross-sector digitalisation, the University of Liverpool’s December 2020 White Paper[12] on Digital Innovation based on the very recent inputs of 200 Liverpool City Region and wider North West industry leaders across all sectors, provides excellent insights into trends, benefits and barriers regarding digital technologies adoption by businesses over the last 12 months, as summarised in the following table.

Key Findings re. business adoption of more/new digital technologies during CV-19:

  • 83% using digital technology more in the last year, while 76% adopted new digital technologies
  • 81% stated that adopting digital technologies during Covid-19 has changed their business model
  • 79% increased investment in digital technology specifically due to Covid-19; of these, 23% have already seen a return on investment, a further 44% expect to do so within a year
  • 77% had been able to expand geographically as a result
  • 67% reported that digital technologies had made their business more efficient (59% of small businesses; 72% for medium and large businesses)
  • 64% reported improved customer experience
  • 63% agreed that COVID-19 has changed how their business operates
  • 59% stated that going forward they will invest more in digital technologies
  • 58% say adopting digital technologies has made their business stronger
  • 57% reported a positive impact on the timescales of their work.
  • 54% claimed improved revenue and profitability.
  • 46% said digital technologies had improved market or product innovation
  • 41% highlighted digital technologies as instrumental to their ability to retain jobs
  • 39% said their old business model would not work post-COVID
  • 32% say it has enabled them to reduce costs
  • 29% posited new business generation, from either existing or new customers

These findings highlight clearly just how extensive, rapid and largely positive digital adaptation by businesses have been, while the following table illustrates how prevalent intentions are regarding future adoption of a digital technology they do not currently use, with even two thirds (66%) of micro businesses confirmed their interest in doing so.

What are our Strengths?

The seminal BEIS-commissioned LCR+ Science and Innovation Audit (SIA) published in late 2017 highlighted the LCR’s distinctive world-leading assets and capabilities in high performance computing (HPC) and AI, materials chemistry, infection.

HPC & AI: over and above the fact that the University of Liverpool has the UK’s top-rated Computer Science department (Research Excellence Framework, 2014), STFC’s flagship Scafell Pike supercomputer hosted at the Hartree Centre at Daresbury is believed to be the largest supercomputer in the world that provides services tailored to the needs of industry. Moreover, the Hartree Centre’s co-location with IBM Research and primary UK deployment of IBM’s “Watson” AI platform is a singular global collaboration in terms of a multinational working with a government research body to apply real world solutions in this sphere. In tandem, the SciTech Daresbury science and innovation campus is also the first UK location for an Atos Quantum Learning Machine, the highest performing quantum simulator in the world.

This AI and HPC expertise is complemented by the advanced modelling and simulation capability of the similarly industry-facing Virtual Engineering Centre, also based at SciTech Daresbury, as an anchor asset of the University of Liverpool’s new Institute of Digital Engineering and Autonomous Systems (IDEAS). In tandem, the University’s Materials Innovation Factory (MIF) based at its main campus in Knowledge Quarter Liverpool, and co-created with Unilever, is an unequivocal world leader in digital materials chemistry and computer and robotics-aided discovery and design.

Over and above the digital health innovation assets showcased in previous sections, the LCR’s pre-eminence in infection control is epitomised by the fact that a Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine-led consortium was one of only 6 UK projects and the only project in the north of England  to be awarded public R&D investment under the first round of the Strength in Places Fund. At the heart of this £126M project are eight specialist, commercially sustainable, digital research platforms for infectious disease to transform product discovery and development, and help products go from lab to patients faster, cheaper and in more effective formats.

The LCR is also a UK leader in 4IR and advanced manufacturing digitalisation, with a unique concentration of associated sub-regional assets and business support. Driven by the LEP’s Advanced Manufacturing “Making It” Board, this national leadership position started with LCR 4.0, a partnership between the Local Enterprise Partnership, STFC, University of Liverpool, LJMU, and Sensor City – one of  the world’s first dedicated Internet of Things and sensor technologies incubators. LCR 4.0 was the first Industrial Digital Technologies business support programme in the UK, as a result of which more than 300 SMEs are engaged in adoption of 4IR technologies, more than anywhere else in the country. As highlighted above , LCR 4.0 has given rise to two successor projects LCR Start and LCR Holistic, plus the regional Made Smarter North West pilot. First hosted it in in 2017, the LCR is now the annual home for Digital Manufacturing Week (, attracting over 6,000 delegates every November, making it the UK’s biggest 4IR and digital manufacturing innovation showcase event, and one of the largest in Europe.

Last but not least, the LCR houses Manufacturing Technology Centre’s £15M Digital Manufacturing Accelerator (DMA) and Factory In A Box (FiAB), part of the UKs High Value Manufacturing Catapult with links to the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), the Centre for Process Industries (CPI) and the Digital Catapult. This investment gives companies in the Liverpool City Region the opportunity to collaborate on Industry 4.0 projects, access UK leading technical support and develop tools to better embed them in the digital supply chains of the future. In addition, FiAB will further strengthen LCR specialisms in Fast Moving Consumer Goods and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

Case Study: to follow

Case Study: to follow

What are our main Challenges & Opportunities?

The LCR already has an internationally significant competitive advantage regarding applying AI and HPC technologies to solve real world industrial problems, based on the unique partnership between the STFC Hartree Centre and IBM Research. The opportunity now is to consolidate and scale this, which is precisely what the intended National Centre of AI Solutions will do, as the nucleus to a series of sub-hubs across the UK. The same applies to the Atos quantum computing capability anchored at SciTech Daresbury. The associated challenges are to ensure that these technologies and expertise are diffused beyond a relatively small current number of large companies, and then adopted throughout the LCR, NW and UK business bases in order to facilitate innovation, the development of new clusters and industries, and enhance productivity and job creation at all levels. In turn that necessitates concerted action to ensure a much greater proportion of “home grown” talent can fill these potential new roles.

The LCR has a pipeline of other major innovation projects that, if approved, will enhance our critical mass in areas of existing specialism through the application of digital technologies. These include:

  • The University of Liverpool’s £12.7M Digital Innovation Facility opening in 2020/21 will concentrate on areas of research in computer science, robotics, and engineering, distributed simulation and immersive visualisation to enable collaborative R&D and support businesses linked to the exploitation of digital technologies.
  • The intended incubator at the Materials Innovation Factory seeks to partner with very large R&D intensive UK manufacturing companies to co-invest in late stage research and new IP development, to establish Liverpool as the Silicon Valley of Digital Materials Chemistry
  • Glass Futures in St.Helens is a global glass innovation and industrial decarbonisation project that also offers major opportunities for new methods and applications of data analysis across foundation industries.
  • The proposed National Packaging Innovation Centre is an open innovation facility to disrupt the full life cycle of packaging materials, to be operated by CPI, with Unilever as an anchor tenant, and directly supported by the Combined Authority.
  • The New Robotic Telescope in La Palma will be the world’s largest and fastest robotic telescope but operated remotely and the data analysed by LJMU from Liverpool, and will unlock new AI related autonomous operations and software opportunities.

As highlighted above, challenges for manufacturing and other sectors linked to Covid-19 and Brexit are unprecedented, having dramatically accelerated the need to become more efficient through the application of IDTs, previously viewed as a gradual process of incremental adaption to achieve growth, now critical for business survival. Moreover, these compound an array of common UK issues identified in the Made Smarter Review particularly among SMEs: poor levels of adoption, lower productivity than competitor countries, a complex business support landscape, security, lack of common standards, UK tax system, skills shortages, plus issues around cost and knowing which the need to demystify different technologies as identified in the 2020 University of Liverpool White Paper.

The solution is to deploy the unique array of 4IR support available within the LCR ecosystem and maximise our first mover engrained expertise in Industry 4.0 to protect and grow the manufacturing economy and the network of technology companies that support it. Indeed the LCR wants to be at the forefront of not only the 4th Industrial Revolution but the E-commerce, E-health and E-transport revolutions as well, and for all our businesses to have the best tools and chances to quickly adapt and digitise. The LCR4.0 Holistic project is a significant opportunity in this regard to not only help individual businesses but also shift the local economy from a sector specific, linear supply chain to a more interconnected, and sustainable, digitally enabled supply chain ecosystem, building on the experience of LCR 4.0.

Amid radically shifting patterns of international trade, our global Western facing port – that can handle 95% of the world’s shipping and even before the £400M L2 investment completed in 2018 already accounted for 45% of the UK’s North American container traffic – is clearly another major opportunity in both macro-economic terms but also regarding digital technology driven efficiency improvements.

What are our Priorities for Action?

Beyond the desire to make the most of our existing international competitive advantage with regard to providing industrial AI solutions, plus re. digital materials chemistry, infection/heath innovation, and clean growth, and the need to enhance SME access to and benefit from our major innovation assets, the LCR has a mission to make our supply chains the most digitally connected in the UK and become a global centre of excellence in the adoption and deployment of Industry 4.0. Our priorities in this domain are three-fold:

  • Maximise world-leading High Performance Computing & AI capabilities
  • Deliver major digitally enabled projects in other areas of competitive advantage
  • Drive technology diffusion & enhanced digital adoption across all sectors.

[12] The result of an online quantitative study conducted in September 2020 by Influential Marketing Agency’s preferred online B2B panel suppliers, involving 200 interviews with management level or above respondents from businesses across the North West (19% from Merseyside) in the 22 main industry sectors.

Digital Skills for Recovery & Growth

Why is this Important?

Digital technology has revolutionised the way we work, and whist digital skills are becoming increasingly valued, enhancing digital skills in the workplace will be even more vital in the future given the extent to which digital technology and the ability to use it permeates every aspect of our daily lives, including the workplace across almost every industry. Improving digital skills, at all ages and levels, from basic to post-doctoral, is therefore a major national challenge, and critical to the LCR’s post Covid-19 recovery, growth and productivity across all sectors and communities.

Improving digital Skills is in essence about creating better alignment between the opportunities afforded by digital developments, the current and future needs of industry, and the ability of our local population to engage and thrive. Ultimately the productivity of our economy and ability to compete with other global locations is reliant on narrowing digital skills gaps. This has clearly become even more important in the context of Covid-19, given the resulting unimagined levels of home working and accelerated digital adoption as highlighted in the previous section. Research conducted by Microsoft in partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London, published in November 2020, warned of the risk that a lack of digital skills could pose to post-pandemic recovery, highlighting that 80% of UK leaders surveyed see investment in digital skills as important to economic recovery, with 69% believing that their organisation is currently facing a digital skills gap.

Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) for the Good Things Foundation and published in September 2018, suggested a net present value of providing everyone in the UK with digital skills of £21.9 billion. Against this backdrop, the LCR Digital and Creative Skills for Growth Action Planidentifies how the Government’s pre 2020 Digital Strategy breaks skills needs down to three distinct levels: Essential – General – Specialist. Whilst this provides a helpful focus, it omits the ‘fusion’ type, i.e., the advanced set of skills that a growing range of jobs now require as core competencies.

Digital Skill Levels

Our draft Local Industrial Strategy sets out the LCR’s ambition to use technology to deliver benefits that extend to residents and businesses within all our communities, however the need to improve digital skills is one of the principal barriers to delivering this. The future of technology and the skills required to manage and realise the potential of this technology are notoriously difficult to predict, nevertheless it is possible to anticipate some general trends around demand for particular skills, and we therefore need to deliver a proactive approach to mitigate the risks of workforce displacement and avoid the mass unemployment that characterised previous industrial revolutions.

The introduction of new technology, support for reskilling, and continuing professional development for all sectors will help our residents’ transition away from roles that are likely to become obsolete into higher value roles that will be demanded in the future. Our Economic Recovery Plan accordingly sets out our ambition to work in partnership with Government on a far-reaching digital skills programme to retrain businesses and workers for an increasingly digital world.

Where are we Now?

The Liverpool City Region has some of the highest rates of socio-economic poverty and digital skills deficits in the country, and our approach has been based on extensive local research, notably linked to the LCR for Growth Action Plan, which evidenced a mismatch between educational supply and sectoral demand, confirming increasing demand for digital skills at all levels. In particular, it highlighted strong continuing employer need for skills in Excel, and particular point of time demand for certain programming skills. Evidently the skills required for tech roles are not necessarily being taught, and the challenge thus remains to enhance the general digital skills required for all job roles, the advanced digital skills required for particular jobs, and develop the higher level ‘fusion’ digital skills for particular roles in non-tech jobs, for example logistics where staff to use handheld tablets to allocate and distribute stock, the fact that top-level chemistry recruits at Unilever also require programming skills, or the basic data manipulation aptitude required for positions across innumerable sectors.

Building on the Skills for Growth Action Plan, the clear importance of collaboration between businesses and education providers to address the future digital skills demands of employers,  plus research (including with people with lived experience) prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Combined Authority has commissioned and/or delivered a number of dedicated digital skills programmes in the last 3 years:

  • Include It Mersey (funded by the European Social Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund) – a volunteer-led project providing digital champions and ambassadors to help people across the LCR to get online and to improve digital learning and skills.
  • Using our devolved Adult Education Budget (AEB) to set up digital Test and Learn Pilots to enhance the delivery of basic digital skills in advance of the national digital entitlement that is intended to help increase the employability of learners in line with the Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy.
  • Supporting InnovateHer’s programme to challenge and overcome tech sector gender stereotypes across the City Region and wider UK.
  • Introducing a Digital Accelerator programme for local resident students attending local universities.

What are our Strengths?

The Liverpool City Region has a diverse blend of formal and informal digital skills provision, with six universities and six FE colleges, with a range of independent training bodies, a particularly well developed third sector network of digital skills providers, and as highlighted earlier, the University of Liverpool has the UK’s top-rated Computer Science department.

There are also strong areas of specialism across the FE sector. City of Liverpool College was the first in the world to be awarded Microsoft Associate College status, and has had a £2.5m investment in a digital academy with the latest industry standard technology. Hugh Baird College’s delivery of Digital T Levels will be the first in the City Region to begin the roll out of these new employer focused qualifications from September 2021, while the Studio School specialises in technology and used its location at the heart of the Baltic Triangle to maximise industry engagement and work experience in local digital firms. Indeed the LCR’s array of (inter)nationally significant digital assets, in some cases world-leading companies, rich blend of opportunities across sectors, and ambition to be the most digitally connected City Region in the UK, all provide a clear line of sight for students to target their aspirations towards.

We are also actively engaged in pilot and innovative approaches to the delivery of digital skills. As highlighted above, we have focused our devolved AEB budget to fund a series of test and learn pilots in the 2019/20 academic year in advance of the introduction of the new national statutory AEB digital entitlement. Linked to this, the LCR is one of only three DfE funded Digital Bootcamps, which will deliver £1m of employer led digital skills delivery for around 1,000 people across the region.

Case Study: to follow

Case Study: to follow

What are our main Challenges & Opportunities?

More needs to be done to ensure that the current digital skills gap does not become a skills crisis. We have an opportunity to help equip both current and future employees with the right skills that employers need, thus helping our businesses become more efficient, more productive and embrace new ways of working. However, the scale of the digital skills gap in the City Region will not be able to be closed with the resources of our c.£53million AEB funding alone, which is already stretched on existing English and Maths entitlements. Whilst the DfE’s digital bootcamps funding is welcome, this £1m will support only 1,000 people. It is therefore vital that not only further funding be realised to scale things up, but also that what resources we have are optimally delivered.

As Digital Skills for the Workplace, T-Levels and Entitlement Provision is developed, these will have to meet employer needs. However, whilst we work closely with employers to understand the current and future digital skills requirements, there is a continuing challenge around engaging and supporting employers to provide the insight and describe the skills required by industry in a form that helps shape provision.

The City Region has ambitious plans for a Local Digital Skills Partnership to collectively bring together organisations from across the spectrum to increase skills to strengthen the ambition to achieve an inclusive digital economy. We are keen to learn from the six local Digital Skills Partnership (DSP) Trailblazers, introduced by DCMS in 2018. By working collaboratively, the DSP pilots are developing new and innovative models to improve digital skills across the regions, and we will look to gather best practice to inform the work of a new Local DSP.

We are committed to taking an evidenced based approach to action and a key challenge is lack of regular and consistent intelligence on local digital skills gaps.  There has been a cessation in the production of national research – the Skills for Life Surveys stopped being published in 2011 and the 2017 research detailing the percentages of having and using the 5 basic digital skills was carried out by an organisation that no longer exists. We therefore need to drive forward the systematic collation and use of local intelligence to inform digital skills related activity.

Priorities for Action

Just as “digital” is now essential to most facets of daily life, from work to play, learning, health, and public services, so are the digital skills at all levels, from basic to post-doctoral, in order to maximise the associated benefits. Within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, equipping people with core digital skills is critical to helping people back into work, while ensuring our local businesses have access to the skilled and productive workforce our economy needs to grow is also vital. We will therefore deliver actions across the following priorities:

  • Comprehensive research & evidence base
  • CV-19 recovery & basic skills initiatives
  • Matching skills supply with industry demand across future growth sectors.

Digital Inclusion

Why is this Important?

Digital inclusion focuses on ensuring that people have the motivation, skills, and/or access to be able to use digital technology and the internet.  People who lack one or any combination of these attributes may be digitally excluded, and are at increased risk of being left behind in an increasingly digital society. This relates not just to those who make no use of or cannot access the internet at all, but also those who are only making limited use.

Digital poverty is a subset of digital exclusion, and is defined as affecting those who are digitally excluded as a result of finding the cost of appropriate equipment and connectivity prohibitive. This sits alongside other forms of digital exclusion, such as a skills gap, or the availability of and access to connectivity, and these barriers may be experienced singly or in any combination.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the marginalisation of those without either the basic skills and/or financial or practical means to access digital connectivity and public, financial, health, and retail services, accessing culture and entertainment, socialising and, perhaps most devastatingly, learning. There is evidence both that the removal of non-digital access has driven some previously reluctant people online, and that income reductions and competing cost pressures has made internet access unaffordable for others.

This is even more so in places such as the Liverpool City Region with relatively prevalent and high levels of deprivation. Essentially, those already at a disadvantage are most likely to be missing out further thus widening the social inequality gap. Therefore, helping people experiencing digital exclusion to go online and develop digital skills can help tackle wider social issues, support economic growth and close equality gaps.

As outlined in the previous section, digital skills are increasingly essential in relation to employment, both as a pre-requisite – government estimates that within the next two decades 90% of job roles will require some sort of digital skills – and in order to both identify and apply for job opportunities, within interviews for a large number of positions during the pandemic being conducted online, in many cases just involving a video self-recording. This serves to highlight the risk that the digitally excluded will be increasingly at a disadvantage in the employment market.

At the same time, the internet is progressively being used to interact with public authorities or services, many of which are now ‘digital by default’, in part as the result of cuts in funding available for public services. For many this is convenient, however for others it presents a significant challenge and makes already difficult circumstances yet more trying. One clear example is claiming Universal Credit or completing a ”jobsearch journal” without the internet access that many take for granted, further exacerbated by the closure of libraries during the Covid pandemic.

According to Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index 2020, age remains the most significant indicator whether an individual is online with 77% of over-70s being considered to have very low digital engagement and only 7% likely to have the capability to shop and manage their money online. ONS data over the last decade demonstrates that the share of non-users aged over-65 is rising. Although each successive generation may be more digitally engaged than the last, health and cognitive decline may lead to declining digital engagement, while technological advances may render people’s previous skills obsolete. Part of the challenge will therefore involve ensuring that support is available to help the older generation make the best use of new technology.

At the other end of the spectrum, pre-Covid, ONS also found that 7%/700,000 young people aged between 11 and 18 in the UK lacked internet access via a tablet or computer, whilst 60,000 had no access at all. Moreover 68% of this age group who do have internet access reported that they would struggle to complete schoolwork without it, highlighting the criticality to education and learning.

Across all age groups, disabled adults make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users. According to ONS, in 2017, 56% of adult internet non-users were disabled, much more than two and a half times the 22% proportion of disabled adults in the UK population as a whole[13]. A similar pattern of non-use is also seen amongst people who are economically inactive, including those on long-term sick leave.

Where are we Now?

Pre Covid-19 as many as 1 in 5 City Region residents lacked basic digital skills and had not been online recently. Other factors such as age, poor long-term health and/or disability, unemployment, and education – particularly lack of basic literacy and numeracy – also played a role.

Although superfast broadband coverage in the City Region is generally good, there are parts of Wirral, Sefton and Halton where it is poor. In addition, there are areas where take-up of available superfast broadband is low. These tend to be more deprived areas of the City Region, suggesting that cost of hardware and/or connectivity. 23% of neighbourhoods in LCR are defined as e-withdrawn, compared to 10% nationally, as detailed on the map below.

Proportion of premises with Superfast broadband, 2019 Levels of deprivation in the LCR, 2019

Premises Coverage[14] Below USO Superfast Ultrafast FTTP
Halton 58,340 0.5% 98.4% 67.7% 2.0%
Knowsley 69,211 0.4% 99.2% 77.2% 6.0%
Liverpool 219,322 0.4% 96.4% 79.6% 27.8%
Sefton 126,811 0.3% 98.5% 66.1% 21.2%
St. Helens 83,114 0.5% 98.3% 85.3% 4.1%
Wirral 149,909 0.2% 97.6% 67.9% 32.1%
Liverpool City Region 706,707 0.4% 97.7% 74.2% 20.5%
North West 3,284,679 0.9% 96.9% 60.1% 12.3%
England 24,403,277 1.3% 96.1% 58.9% 13.4%
UK 29,063,154 1.7% 95.6% 57.1% 14.5%

Given the data above, and particularly the widespread availability of superfast broadband, it is apparent that physical coverage is far from the most significant barrier to digital inclusion in the city region. Therefore, overcoming cost, skill and attitudinal factors provide the keys to moving the currently excluded online and increasing the use made of digital technology by those whose use is currently limited.

ONS, OFCOM and Lloyds Bank data highlight regional variations in digital skills and internet use. Overall, the North West broadly performs around the UK average although OFCOM identify 31% as extensive internet users against 37% for England, and 41% as limited or non-users against 39%. Recently published analysis by the University of Liverpool Heseltine Institute breaks this data down further to estimate that 22.70% of LCR working age residents, or 324,590 people, are limited or non-users, whilst 30,560 households with school age children are offline or headed by limited users.

It is apparent that the regional data available may not facilitate accurate analysis of the Liverpool City Region. As a result, in December 2020 CA has commissioned its own local research to obtain a more granular understanding of digital exclusion across the City Region, and to assess the impact of the Covid pandemic and related public health measures on digital exclusion locally.

What are our Strengths?

LCR has a strong third sector network in the form of VOLA, a network of voluntary, community and social enterprise organisations currently responsible for delivering the ESF and Lottery funded Include IT Mersey programme referred to at 6.2 above. Many members of this consortium were historically part of the UKOnline centre network and therefore have an established track record of supporting the promotion of digital inclusion. As an immediate short-term intervention during the period of lockdown, the VOLA network, supported via an LCR Cares grant, distributed 300 devices, including 3 months’ worth of data, to families in digital poverty.

As part of LCR Cares – a crowdfunding campaign that by October 2020 had raised more than £2million to support community and voluntary organisations on the frontline of helping local communities cope with the impact of Coronavirus – the Covid-19 Community Support Fund provided  both kit and connectivity through a partnership of third sector providers. This has been targeted towards those most in need and the intention is t extend it if possible.

LCR is also home to the Furniture Resource Centre, a nationally recognised social business that is extending its service to deliver a ‘Recycle IT’ project.  This collects unwanted IT equipment from organisations and then, after wiping data and hard drives, tests and refurbishes the equipment before distributing it at low or no cost.

Both VOLA and FRC are in dialogue about forging a partnership with the CA whereby we use our connections and publicity to leverage and identify sources of redundant IT equipment within LCR, whilst VOLA provides a referral mechanism for households experiencing digital poverty to receive the equipment.

As part of our commitment to digital inclusion, free Wi-Fi is available at the five underground stations on the Merseyrail network, while there is also free Wi-Fi on all Merseytravel bus services delivered by Arriva and Stagecoach, as well as USB charging points on the majority. The CA has also set up a Digital Poverty Task Group to develop specific actions to overcome the “digital divide” that is critical to realising the CA’s core aims relating to social justice and inclusive growth. As identified in the draft Local Industrial Strategy, varying levels of broadband accessibility, digital skills and confidence levels, and the ability to afford digital services are all barriers to delivering the vision of creating a city region where the benefits of modern technology reach into every community.

Case study: to follow

Case study: to follow

What are our main Challenges & Opportunities?

The challenges to achieving digital inclusion are extensive and range from the practicalities of getting people online through to creating a societal culture of interest of inclusivity. These challenges are not unique to the City Region, nor are they cheap and simple to address, however we do have strong foundations locally from which we can start to build a better approach to securing digital inclusion. The development of the LCR fibre backhaul network is in part a response to remove lack of physical access as a barrier to digital inclusion, hence the priority around facilitating affordable connectivity in tandem with local loop development.  Moreover the appointment of a commercial Joint Venture partner provides the opportunity to address digital poverty through the application of social value, as this was explicitly included and identified by bidders, suggesting that there is an appetite for such an approach amongst potential partners.

As similarly outlined above, the Liverpool 5G testbed and successor 5G Create project are in practice digital inclusion as well as health and social care initiatives that have significant potential to be expanded further afield across the LCR, highlighting the critical linkage between this theme and the tech for good section.

However, we recognise that digital inclusion is not only about having the physical access to the internet, but also the skills, confidence and capability. There are several factors that increase the likelihood of digital exclusion including low-income levels, unemployment, low skills and poor housing status. Currently, the Liverpool City Region is characterised by higher-than-average populations in terms of the characteristics linked to digital exclusion.

The City Region’s registered housing providers are engaged and willing to support a programme to tackle Digital Poverty and are already developing collaborative arrangements with third sector partners such as VOLA. Emerging approaches include a social housing pilot between Swedish FTTP operator VX Fiber and Torus Group, and exploration of a public sector voucher scheme. Furthermore, there are a number of initiatives from elsewhere that could be adopted to reduce digital poverty, which it may be appropriate to consider; these include providing free wi-fi access for underserved communities, and establishing hardware lending programmes

The Education Development Trust has identified that nationally 12% school children have no access to devices at home, and 11% no broadband connection. For the reasons referred to previously, the LCR position is likely to be more challenging still. Nor does this data reflect situations where young people are having to share access to equipment and/or attempt to study using a smartphone alone. One strand of research and activity for the Digital Poverty Task and Finish Group therefore relates to schools.

There are many worthy initiatives already being undertaken at all levels across the City Region, however the other critical challenge relates to the lack of dedicated capacity or resources to map let alone coordinate this to create greater scale and impact, over and above a lack of comprehensive mapping or baseline data.

What are our Priorities for Action?

Following on from the above, our priorities for action are:

  • To build up a comprehensive research and evidence base, in order to understand the scale and the scope of digital poverty and exclusion across the Liverpool City Region
  • To develop and deliver a dedicated multi-stakeholder collaborative programme, mapping, resources and governance to address digital inclusion issues
  • To tackle Digital Poverty, via dedicated activities to address the gaps in ongoing interventions

[13] For these purposes a person with a disability has been defined as someone who has a current physical or mental health condition(s) or illness(es) lasting or expected to last 12 months or more and that limits their ability to carry out day-to-day activities

[14] Ofcom Connected Nations Update, Summer 2020

Action Plan

The purpose of the Action Plan is to drive the delivery of actions to fulfil identified strategic priorities, which are in turn based on perceived gaps and opportunities. It will do this by:

  • Mapping existing and ongoing key initiatives
  • Delineating other key actions to be taken
  • Serving as an important frame of reference, both for local digital strategies and LCR-wide strategies, investment programmes, and policy frameworks; and
  • Facilitating progress monitoring and reporting via existing and prospective new governance structures.

There is no formal mechanism for determining which actions should be included or otherwise, however key criteria are:

  • where digital is the primary focus or means in a project rather than just an integral element;
  • projects must actually or potentially impact (e.g. capable of being scaled out to) at least 2 LCR LA areas and/or be of regional or (inter)national significance, rather than being purely local to a single local authority area.

It is important to note that the Strategy and Action Plan are intended to serve as a frame of reference for, and to complement rather than replace, existing and intended local and individual organisational digital plans. As overarching documents, they cannot be exhaustive in the sense of capturing all the actions that need to be undertaken in all localities, and would be unwieldy if they tried. By the same token, these are very much for and about the whole Liverpool City Region rather than just the Combined Authority, so successful delivery will depend on the individual and collective buy in, ownership and direct actions of all key stakeholders and organisations from all sectors.

Taking Things Forward

Any Strategy and Action Plan are only as good as their execution, so ensuring appropriate governance and resourcing will be vital.

Currently the overall coordination and governance of the various strands of digital-related activities appears fragmented, both at City Region level and within individual local authority areas. Over and above the multi-stakeholder LEP-facilitated Digital & Creative Sector Board, a newly established framework of CA Portfolio Holder and elected member briefings, and the informal strategy/action plan development group, there are a number of other groupings, however these have a particular thematic focus, notably re the digital connectivity programme, rather than feeding into a cohesive systematic overall framework.

While Strategy and Action Plan development has been completed using existing CA and LEP resources, this has highlighted the lack of dedicated capacity for overall coordination beyond individual themes and/or elements of them.

Streamlining and integrating these disparate groupings at LCR level, facilitating effective coordination across services within individual Local Authorities and areas, and identifying resourcing and capacity requirements for ongoing development, management and delivery, are therefore key actions contained within the Action Plan.

In the meantime, monitoring will be coordinated using a traffic light format via the group and thematic leads responsible for drafting the Strategy and Action Plan, and fed into current structures, including the CA Corporate Plan performance monitoring system. The ongoing evolution of both the Strategy and Action Plan will be revisited on an annual basis before a full refresh at the end of 2023.

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