Tech in the suburbs: how innovation is shaking up towns and villages in Britain
As tech hotspots spring up everywhere from Newbury to Norwich, we take a look at how UK innovation is having an impact beyond the M25…
Digital innovation in the UK is not limited by city limits. With hotspots including Newbury, Aldershot, Stevenage, Slough and Burnley boasting higher than average levels of tech as a proportion of the wider economy, a report by Tech Nation shows the UK’s ‘digital suburbs’ are alive, kicking, and driving up UK tech productivity. From world-class robotics in Devon to gaming and blockchain in Dundee, these tech hubs are lighting up the map as start-ups break away from London’s Silicon Roundabout (the area between Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street) in smaller towns and cities around the country.
Challenging the conventional view that UK tech activity is based in large cities, areas like Guildford, Aldershot and Heathrow are now among the most digitally-dense locations in the UK, while the M4 corridor has been nicknamed in the Tech Nation report as the “productivity power path” or “high-tech highway”. Calculated as a percentage of the local economy, these towns now have a significantly higher concentration of tech activity, employment and turnover than London. Down in the South-West, Exeter, Plymouth, Truro and Redruth are leading the tech revolution, with tech businesses generating £605 million each year. In Exeter, highlights include Exeter College’s world-class robotics and engineering centre as well as the Impact Lab, formed by seven Devon-based organisations including the University of Exeter and the Met Office.
As technology makes it easier to run businesses from virtually anywhere, this trend seems to spreading outwards as the industry’s up-and-coming talent seek a change of pace. While historically seaside resorts have been associated with seasonal, tourism-based employment – today things are changing, and not just in Brighton. From newly-trendy artist’s residence Margate to ‘Silicon Beach’ Bournemouth, many former retirement towns are reviving their local economies as hotbeds of art, culture, media and high-tech businesses. Small businesses outside of the tech sector are also feeling the benefits. Upgraded payment systems and mobile Point of Sale (POS) systems such as Barclaycard Anywhere, which connects smartphone or tablets to card machines using Bluetooth, are helping the UK sell and spend seamlessly. We’re seeing more and more innovations originally intended to keep life moving in the capital being adopted around the country to meet the shifting needs of new generations of digital natives.
Transport, for example, has rapidly evolved to become more convenient, greener and better able to serve sprawling urban and suburban areas. Following on from the launch of the Oyster card by Transport for London back in 2003, similar systems have been implemented across the country. Passengers on Newcastle’s Metro can flash their Pop cards as they commute and Nottingham’s Robin Hood card lets passengers hop seamlessly between bus, tram and train operators without having to fumble for cash. Introduced by TfL in partnership with Barclays back in 2010, the cycle hire scheme was introduced following the success of a similar scheme in Portsmouth, encouraging commuters to ditch public transport, lessening the strain on the environment and helping people get healthy. The bikes have proven phenomenally popular, with cycle points popping up in towns from Brighton to Bristol. These were followed by lift-sharing and car-sharing apps, giving users easy access to fast, and affordable transport from wherever they happen to be in the UK. In London you’re never too far from public transport, but in other towns getting from A to B can be trickier. Formerly restricted to big cities, services like Uber now can be found virtually everywhere, as consumers expect a more seamless travel experience.
With electric trams in Sheffield and hydrogen-powered vehicles being developed in Wales as part of an accelerator programme in partnership with Barclays, creating greener, more energy-efficient journeys is a key focus for innovators and local authorities alike. We’re used to seeing drivers behind the wheel of electric cars and at charging points in towns across the UK – but what about cars with no drivers at all? In recent years, the UK’s biggest trial of driverless cars has been rolled out, Milton Keynes. Currently reaching top speeds of 25mph, MK’s 130 roundabouts make it the perfect location to trial autonomous vehicles – albeit with a human co-pilot to check everything is going smoothly.
As the world of work advances in line with new digital trends, services, leisure and entertainment in smaller towns are becoming more advanced to appeal to all generations of consumers. We have UberEATS and Deliveroo to bring us whatever dishes our hearts desire, same-day delivery giving us all the perks of living in the city, and a thriving experience economy; where apps, seamless payments and sophisticated digital experiences rule. What next? In the US brands are trialling drone deliveries for online shopping and scooter-like robots that can deliver fresh-from-the-oven pizza in minutes. With invisible payments like Barclaycard Connect, offering restaurants integrated POS solutions, it would be fair to say that life in the UK’s digital suburbs looks set to become virtually indistinguishable from city life in the months and years to come.