The Official Broadband World Forum blog recently spoke to Martin Reeves, CEO of Coventry City Council, and Roy Grant, Head of ICT at City of York Council, about the growing importance of gigabit internet services for developing future and smart cities.
Coventry has long been famous for its textiles and automotive industry – it has always been an engineering city, with a hard, industrial edge.
To remain an industrial hub, however, the modern metropolis needs to ensure it is also a digital hub. Coventry, one of the UK’s only gigabit cities, has managed to remain a step ahead of the game since embarking on its first significant phase of regeneration a decade ago.
“We were in effect digging up the city, and thinking differently about its physicality,” says Martin Reeves, CEO, Coventry City Council. “So we were able to also try and think about the kinds of infrastructure which aren’t just about the next year or so but future proof it for the next ten or twenty years. We were able to invest in a fibre ring around the city, and to do it in a way that meant it could be grown upon and commercialised, as it has been subsequently. I think it was really quite visionary.”
While there’s no question that, for Coventry residents such as Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin and BMW, the city’s ultra-fast broadband capability is increasingly integral to their manufacturing needs, the same digital investment has also helped encourage emerging new economic trends in the city.
“We’ve got a growing sector around gaming, around digital health, self-medication, wearable technologies, and much more,” says Reeves. “It means that, while we’re using digital to keep our automotive sector future proof and grow it, we’ve also got the digital sector itself growing too. Even sectors we need to make more of, like the tourism, hospitality, and service sectors – these are increasingly going to be defined, modelled and remodelled by the power of digital.”
Ultimately, Reeves sees Coventry’s gigabit speeds as only the beginning: it’s what you do with them that counts. “If you can get the enabling infrastructure in place, what you open up then – in terms of where digital could go – is a whole panoply of options for the future.”
As examples, Reeves points to the changing nature of Coventry’s public services, the plans for extending fibre connectivity to often overlooked communities, and the possibility of developing what he calls a “genuine digital high street,” one that is able to integrate the increasingly hybridized nature of retail.
Years ago there was a sense that digital and the power of the web would make city living less important. Reeves thinks this is far from how things have since played out, and stresses instead the power of digital city (particularly when digital is enhanced by city-wide gigabit speeds) to add to the city and the allure of the city to businesses and innovators.
“What you get now in places like Coventry is an amazing melding of the classic city culture, where everyone sits in cafes talking to one another, innovating – melded with some amazing stuff where, sat in that very progressive, forward looking, creative hub, you can link yourself to similar creative places from all over the world at the same time.”
In Coventry, the convergence of its traditional and future identities runs deep: long since known as one of the “best connected” cities in the UK, this looks like an accolade it is set to retain.
If Coventry’s digital development and gigabit city status describes a story of continuity and development – York’s presents one of reinvention.
Famous for its railway and confectionary industries, York has had to weather the storm of the former’s long decline, while many of its biggest employers in the latter – including Rowntree’s and Terry’s – have left for other regions or shores, while the likes of Nestle have long since scaled down their presence in the city.
As such, York was faced with the challenge of having to almost entirely redefine its economic essence.
“The city has to adapt and be agile and learn to grow and prosper with those key major arteries moving out,” says Roy Grant, Head of ICT at City of York Council. “Through digital, we really positioned ourselves to attract private and public sector investment and to attract and retain good things and good people. Even though we were a second tier city, we positioned ourselves not to be overlooked as opportune for investment and commercial industries. We wanted to encourage people to decide that York would be a good place to site their business.”
The effort has already borne fruit, including 500 new jobs coming to York through insurance company Hiscox. “Part of that sell is about that digital connectivity, and what that does for them as a business. But it’s also about what that does in terms of the population and the residential market, it improves that digital native skillset, in and around the York area.”
However, there is at least one more traditional part of the city’s economy that has been bolstered by the digital investment: York remains a firm part of the tourist trail that comes in to London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Oxford, hosting 7.1 million visitors a year. “The question is always, how can we retain those people longer in York? How can we drive that number up?” York sees its flagship free city centre 24/7 wifi as a key way to encourage, support and stimulate tourism.
First rate connectivity becomes even more important when you consider the changing demographic of English tourism, with decreasing amounts of visitors arriving from Europe and the US and increasing numbers coming from the Far East (particularly China). For visitors coming from such distant cultures, digital becomes increasingly important, and York’s city centre wifi is not only free, but multilingual.
“We’ve actually produced a Visit York guide, which includes child-friendly wifi, and is now being deposited in the airports in China, so people are picking up what’s available in York before they actually step on a plane.”
Grant also emphasises the wider social benefits that come from York’s fibre backbone. “As a council, 80% of our spend is on adult and children care support. If we could take that down to 75%/70%, wouldn’t that be a great place to be. Currently, we have social care work and other sorts of agencies who go out to people on a round regular robin trip. Well, through the airwaves we can actually do a sentiment check: check in with everybody and see that they’re ok. Then we can focus in our attention and requirements to those in particular need. It’s about the betterment of York.”
Martin Reeves and Roy Grant will be part of an interactive discussion at this year’s Broadband World Forum (20-22 October, Excel, London), ‘What does it take to Deliver Gigabit Cities?’