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Innovation From Below: One Digital priorities in 2011

Last week in Manchester I attended the steering group of the One Digital Alliance (www.onedigital.org). In case you don’t know, One Digital comprises four independent support organisations like Wired Sussex covering Brighton (that’s us) Bristol, Manchester and London. It enables us to share and compare with others who have similar aims and, importantly, it is a way of having more political clout with the government, the EU and others in support of our member companies. One Digital gives us access to decision makers at a senior level in a way that wouldn’t happen if we all tried to do it as independent city clusters.

We agreed on 3 key areas where, over the next 12 months, One Digital will be using its lobbying muscle.

The first is to act to improve the opportunities that smaller digital and tech companies have in getting public sector contracts.

The public sector could often benefit from the innovative thinking that smaller digital companies can deliver, but the whole process is really stacked against that happening. It needs the government and other public sector bodies to set a definitive target of contracts that will go to small businesses, but more than that it needs new processes including dividing up big projects into small chunks and thinking a lot more flexibly about the trading record limitations that are usually imposed and which count out smaller companies.

Finally (and crucially), it needs a culture change so that public sector procurers understand how to get the best from engaging with small innovative companies. The latter is often forgotten about, so civil servants and public sector procurers try out these token schemes, but because they really don’t have an understanding of the way that smaller businesses act, they might as well be speaking different languages, and these pilots fail. The procurers need to understand the language and the culture of those they want to procure from.

Secondly, to get the concept of CDIT (Creative, Digital and IT) understood and recognised as a sector. It sounds a bit irrelevant what acronym is used to describe the sector, but we argue that digital at its best is about a whole range of interactions with technology and with culture, design and the arts and that it can’t really be defined or measured outside of those crucial relationships and connections. This connectivity can deliver significant social and economic value to the individuals and businesses involved as well as to the UK as a whole and helps access real resources to support clusters like Brighton.

CDT clusters like ours are composed of active and imaginative individuals, businesses and organisations working across boundaries and it’s only through those relationships that value is actually being created and can be understood – its real people and in a real context. So, it’s about supporting and giving momentum to those existing informal, semi-formal and formal ways of working and thinking rather than imposing a top down model of how you think things need to operate (the usual government approach).

Third, we agreed to support Transformational Digital Infrastructure as a more useful way of developing an infrastructure model than the current sole emphasis on superfast broadband.

The ‘three pillars’ of Transformational Digital Infrastructure (www.shaunfensom.com/node/5)are end-user networks to create the market; hubs to concentrate and aggregate demand for connectivity and hosting; and backhaul connections between them. This approach supports the idea that we can generate opportunities for businesses at all layers, not just at the top content and service layers. The process of setting up and operating connectivity and hosting is as much a part of the opportunity as the benefit of the services.

Shaun Fensom, chair of Manchester’s Digital and also on the One Digital steering group, explains it like this:

“When it comes to broadband I often get the impression that if MegaBroadband Inc arrived and promised to connect the whole place up and offer everyone superfast Internet access, the politicians would say 'great, job done'. Whereas in fact some of the biggest opportunities would have been missed. Certainly local businesses could offer services and sell things over the high speed connections, but this would be a thin layer of competitive economic development sitting on a monopoly. Allowing businesses to drill down into the networks and offer different styles of things encourages innovation as well as competition.

There are two main principles that come from that: first that Infrastructure needs to be layered and open at as many layers as feasible. Where it can't be open, it is best if mutually owned. Second, it's about connections in/out, connections within and hosting - the 'three pillars' - it's not about being connected to the net full stop.

These principles are well applied at the macro level of the Internet - where network meets network. TDI is about bringing them down into the networks themselves. Thus the Internet exchanges are usually mutually owned because they need to be shared and no one should be able to gain control. The connectivity market is separated between local networks and carriers, who meet in the exchanges and hubs. ISPs operate at many different layers and offer different classes of service.”

So businesses need to be able to connect to each other as well as the net, they need to be able to buy different types of Internet access from different ISPs, they need access to easy-in-easy-out hosting and co-location. With those things they can offer each other and others outside a whole range of services, including ISP and hosting services - anything further up the value stack than where they buy.

What I think connects these 3 priorities is a belief that real innovation and the creation of socially useful economic value is a bottom up not top down process. So, policy needs to be about creating approaches that allow and encourage not limit and control.

Will keep you in the loop as to how onedigital get on with its political engagements. Should be interesting.

Phil Jones

About the author

Phil Jones

Hi, I'm the Managing Director of Wired Sussex, overseeing our strategy as an organisation and work to promote our membership and its needs to local, national and international stakeholders, including government.

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