By Dean Terry, Managing Director, Corporate and Public Sector, BT's Enterprise unit


A digital fabric for the next generation of public services

Before the pandemic, local authorities and businesses were already coming together to explore the use of technology in connecting people, supporting businesses, and bonding communities. But the realities of having to respond and adapt to Covid-19 has seen digital adoption accelerate at a rate of knots. We’ve witnessed the healthcare sector rapidly transform by trialling remote diagnostics to reach more people than ever before. We’ve seen the manufacturing sector deploy 5G-enabled solutions to speed up their operations on the factory floor. And we’ve seen local authorities zoom in on digital ways of learning to better reach and engage students.

Technology has empowered local authorities to keep delivering vital services, but now there’s an opportunity to expand its reach to benefit more people and bring more transformation and growth than ever before.

To deliver the transformation of industries on a massive scale, we need to create what we call a ‘digital fabric’. In other words, an underlying foundation which will enable the next generation of digital services. The basis of this new digital fabric is converged connectivity – across both fixed and mobile – supporting an overlay of devices, data, skills and applications. This digital fabric will ultimately deliver better social and economic outcomes, such as inclusive growth, more productivity and driving a green recovery, while opening up better access to health and wellbeing services.

But local authorities cannot do this without the support and expertise of a network of technology providers that can help shape their strategy and deliver a solution that can support the future of their communities.

As a critical national enabler, we’re working with several local authorities to accelerate digital transformation in their regions. For example, through its “100% Digital Leeds” campaign, Leeds City Council is working towards a future in which there are no barriers to digital inclusion. As part of this, our Local Full Fibre Programme aims to give all 285 schools in the district access to the best possible connectivity, along with 293 other council-owned buildings, 156 NHS sites, and council housing across the city.

But fulfilling a local authority’s vision of delivering a digitally-enabled future for its citizens also depends on access to continuous innovation, insight and research. And raising the right investment can be a challenge that requires assistance from the private sector.

That’s where partnering with a company that has a long history of innovation can help. For instance, we’ve invested £2.5 billion on R&D over the past five years, and currently employ 4,000 “innovation scouts” whose role is to predict how the future will look so that we’re early pioneers of the latest emerging technologies

One example of how we are exploring breakthrough innovations to support the public sector is our Green Tech Innovation Platform. The initiative, launched in June 2020 in partnership with US-based innovation platform Plug and Play, was designed to uncover new sustainable technologies which can help the public sector achieve its net zero carbon emissions. To date, it has focused on three areas: smart streets; smart buildings; and remote working – technologies that could potentially transform local communities for the better.

The pandemic has shown us the importance of community in times of crisis. A combination of local knowledge, valuable relationships and networks have enabled communities to provide their citizens with what they need, when they’ve needed it. The increased levels of community engagement during this time have also given local authorities a greater insight into the support that’s required of them.

The delivery of this support – and the impact it can have on people’s home and work lives – can be vastly improved through digital transformation. Technology is, after all, a powerful enabler. But as places become better connected, people must have the skills and confidence to use digital technology to its full value, which also helps reduce the widening of the digital divide. Local authorities therefore need to work with partners who can help deliver the training needed to boost a community’s digital skills.

The BT Skills for Tomorrow programme seeks to give millions of people the skills they need to flourish in the digital future. We’ve already reached our original goal of helping 10 million people across the UK with digital skills, five years ahead of schedule, and we’ve set a new target to reach 25 million people by the end of March 2026.

Ultimately, digital transformation is key to revitalising communities feeling the impacts of the pandemic, and local authorities when joined by key partners who align to their goals can greatly accelerate this. Creating a digital fabric requires systematic change, the result of shared visions and collaboration that ensures a wide breadth of expertise and technology know-how. Strong partnerships ensure projects keep moving forward, overcoming obstacles as they appear and engaging with every stakeholder. They are key to connecting for good and unlocking the evolution of public services.