What is digital capital and how does it fit with the government’s levelling up agenda?

There's more to improving our standing as a future-facing economy than digital skills

Over the past few years, you have almost certainly heard of ‘level playing field’. More recently, however, a new term has come along based on the same principle – ‘levelling up’. Coined by the government, the term typically refers to implementing measures that will give all areas of the UK the same access to skills and resources, with the digital economy, which is so vital to our national success, playing a key role. While these are commendable aspirations, there are many questions about how we achieve this goal.

Defining the problem

To solve any problem, you have to first understand it and this is something of a problem when it comes to ‘levelling up’; beyond the broad definition, the scope and more granular detail are quite tricky to pin down. For example, while the term is often discussed in relation to a focus on the North of England – particularly in relation to the Northern Powerhouse – commentators have rightly pointed out that plenty of other areas of the UK are also short on infrastructure, investment, social capital and skills. 

Rather than get bogged down with tying the levelling up agenda to geographical spaces, David Richards, founder of the Laptops for Kids campaign and a board member of Tech Nation, says levelling up should be “a drive to address regional inequalities throughout the UK and boost underperforming regions through investment in infrastructure, R&D and education among other things”.

“The goal is to put the entire country on a level footing and ensure every part of the country has the resources to succeed,” he adds.

Bring in the digital capital

To achieve this goal, skills and resources need to be liberally distributed. One subset of these is digital capital, which Richards describes as “a combination of the right infrastructure and access to technology, along with the development of key skills that enable adoption of innovative technologies”.

While it’s not the only element of the levelling up agenda, digital capital is nevertheless central to its success. So much of our future development depends on new digital infrastructure, such as 5G, and skills that will help new tech companies emerge in growth areas like renewable energy, fintech and smart tech, as well as sectors and industries that are yet to be established. 

TechUK recently published a series of reports looking at growing the UK’s digital capabilities to foster economic recovery post COVID-19, both at a regional and national scale. Digital capital is crucial to that recovery, the reports say, and they identify numerous goals for addressing what TechUK calls the ‘digital capital gap’. In addition to skills-building and funding, the reports identify the need for digital infrastructure such as high quality internet, support for research and innovation, and the building of digital ecosystems focused on solving common challenges. TechUK is also clear that there is a need for collaboration across the public and private sectors.  

Bringing it back to Whitehall

With levelling up very much a government initiative, and a clear need for a high level, policy focused approach to digital skills building, the government has a crucial role to play in building digital capital. 

Charlie Hoult, founder of IT consultancy Opencast Software and mayoral candidate for Newcastle in 2019, tells IT Pro: “The regions need to demonstrate that they have people and businesses with the right skills that deserve the investment.” This is difficult to do, however, without support.

“The government should be leading by example,” he says. “They should be investing in technology and in businesses outside of London and city bubbles. The government can prime markets, but there is no use in trying to encourage other businesses if they aren’t willing to take action themselves.”

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This view is echoed by Richards, who says the government has a key role in ensuring infrastructure like 5G and good fixed line internet is in place, including in rural areas, and widening access to laptops to reduce digital poverty. Access to laptops might not sound very cutting edge, but digital capital, as the TechUK reports point out, is about the acquisition of basic computer and internet literacy as much as it is about advanced technical skills.  Similarly, government has a role in ensuring the right skills are included in the national curriculum.

Digital capital is a small term that encompasses a wide range of capabilities, some infrastructural, some investment related and some focused on personal abilities. Taken together they are vital to ensuring that across all its geographies, the UK is able to make the most of emerging economic sectors. Arguably, investment in digital capital will be even more important than was envisaged when the levelling up agenda was first proposed, because of the damage to the economy and to individual livelihoods and wellbeing caused by COVID-19.

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