The EU's Digital Single Market (DSM) cannot succeed without a 'grassroots' strategy that enables, supports and promotes businesses, groups and individuals already working at the heart of local communities across Europe.
DSM implemented bottom up, not top down.
Our recent DigiChampz case study in rural Yorkshire concludes that a network of accredited digital champions can offer strategic vision, help, and advice at a local level. Digital champions might also provide a much needed three-way communications channel between local digital economies and policy decision makers in both Brussels and London.
Barclays Digital Eagles have already seen the opportunity to be part of a community ecosystem that helps local areas benefit from digital technologies.
We talk about smart cities. We now need a conversation about 'smart villages' too, and the contribution rural economies have towards the digital single market. We want to see policy decision makers digging deeper underneath the fabric of rural economies to enable local supply chains, create locally-branded market hubs, and thus promote economic and social prosperity for all.
To help achieve these goals, DSM must encourage more entrepreneurship outside the traditional tech industries. For many, cookies are what you make in the kitchen, networks the friends whom you meet in the evening. DSM's real challenge therefore is to get non-traditional digital businesses - the butcher, baker, hairdresser, local retailer and small manufacturer, etc - online, and trading well. Only 7 percent of EU SMEs are trading cross border. That needs to change if Europe wants to stay globally competitive. Yet, far too many businesses still don't know what they need to know about the opportunities and benefits of the digital economy. Many are in denial, whilst others fear to tread the digital highway because of lack of confidence, e skills and their own coherent strategy when it comes to doing business online.
Technology is all about enabling us to lead our lives better. Without users, it's nothing. Let's encourage more home and community-based working through better connectivity, relevant e skills, locally-managed online trading hubs, and smarter community engagement. Money earned locally will be spent locally. There are other benefits too: less time spent commuting; reduced costs for travelling into an urban office every day; reduced carbon footprint; less need for urban office space; and more time spent with family and friends.
We still need to tackle 4 key areas
Surprise surprise, lack of fit-for-purpose broadband remains a major issue in rural areas. Local governments still tiptoe in fear of national telecoms companies blocking their attempts to do good for local ratepayers.
And the real baseline for good connectivity is not speed. Instead, it's fit-for-purpose communications in real time, everywhere. The case study is a rural auction house that allows online bidding in real time at the same time as real bidding on site. If broadband goes down, commissions are lost and customers go elsewhere. And it's not the broadband company that's the first line of complaint, either!
We need a national debate on broadband so that Britain can connect disparate voices of concern across the country and build a coherent, nationwide strategy that brings super connectivity to everyone, regardless of where they live and work. Let's face it, there is a blurred line now between business broadband and residential broadband as more people now do some work from home.
2. E Skills
This e skills issue runs deeper than just providing people with the skills to access the Internet, do online banking, or speak with friends and family over Skype.
Many businesses simply don't know what they ought to know about the digital economy. It's not all about fancy search engine optimization, email marketing and behavioural advertising. Businesses also need a strategy that connects their core activities to online marketplaces. They want to be shown what's possible and to work in a smarter way to deliver best results. And whilst digital natives, for example, the young might appear to be tech savy by file sharing, playing games and surfing social media, do they have the appropriate e skills to hold a job down long term?
3. Online Market Hubs
This, for me is the most exciting opportunity for the digital economy. To build locally-branded online trading or market hubs that empower local supply chains, bring in validated suppliers with quality products and services, and sell them into global markets. Local rural economies have a real opportunity to develop trust marks to support credible e commerce, which, if supported, can target cross border markets.
Money drives everything. DSM is all about doing the deal online and bringing money back into the local ecosystem. Unlike many online business hubs (which are simply information only websites), market or trading hubs are creating the wealth that we need to invest in local infrastructure, public services, jobs and opportunities. But, they need management and validation locally to ensure there is credibility, trust and confidence.
4. Community Spirit
There is a real spirit of local community across the Europe that you cannot measure. Individuals, groups and businesses putting time aside to contribute to the greater good within their local area.
But who drives local digital aspiration? How can we provide local schemes that help community groups be smarter online? How can groups raise more funds, look for grants, make the best use of local resources? Libraries and community hubs together can provide a real powerful resource to help drive forward economic and social mobility through the digital economy. We just need to reinvent them in a smarter way to support young adults, engage with the lonely, and to provide solutions to community based issues through, for example, the Internet of Things.
DigiChampz Event - 2nd June
We will be discussing all these things at a meeting with senior policy makers at the European Commission representation in London on 2nd June. If you would like an invite, please contact me Will Roebuck for further information.