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Northern Lights: We must make bigger connections for a real powerhouse

The Sheffield City Region has all the assets required to be a globally significant player in the Northern Powerhouse: a centre for innovation and translational research that brings the power of digital solutions to every aspect of our lives, from health and wellbeing, creativity and the arts, through to advancedmanufacturing, education, training and skills.

In Barnsley, where the local authority had the foresight to establish a Digital Media Centre long before it became politically fashionable to do so, there is now a flourishing community of creative digital entrepreneurs many of whom travel from far and wide to be part of Barnsley’s vibrant and supportive digital network.

Tracey Johnson, the driving force behind the centre, is also ahead of the game in embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

She has already secured InnovateUK funding to set up IoT Tribe North: with strong links to the London investor ecosystem, this intensive 12-week programme for early stage Internet of Things start-ups could be the start of something big. When I was asked to get involved in their inaugural event it quickly became clear – Barnsley understands the power of digital.

Other parts of the region, tell a similar story.

Doncaster, which is already one of our most connected cities, is home to a £300 million logistics cluster, iPort, which is proving to be a magnet for some the most advanced, digitally aware companies on the planet – think Amazon and Walmart/Asda – who have chosen to build strategic warehousing in our region, along with German car manufacturer, BMW.

Amazon Robotics, introduced into the Doncaster facility back in 2016, is not only driving up productivity at theplant but also ramping up demand for skilled software engineers and robotics specialists. Doncaster is also taking a lead in the use of digital technology to train a new generation of aviation maintenance engineers.

A new Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) training centre will be built at Doncaster Airport with the support of the hugely successful AMRC training centre in Rotherham. Backed by the Sheffield City Region, Peel Holdings, and the Doncaster Council, the new centre will train hundreds of specialist service engineers and use advanced digital technologies and augmented reality platforms to connect equipment experts anywhere in the world to the new MRO facility.

A recent government report by the Department for Business and Skills on the UK Aerospace MRO and Logistics Industry found that there is a severe shortage in skills in this sector and the situation is getting worse; with few land constraints on development at the airport, this makes a digital Doncaster a prime candidate to take its share of the UK’s £15 billion a year market.

Sheffield’s own digital industry is, of course, booming. A recent report commissioned by the University of Sheffield and led by its Director of City and Cultural Engagement, Professor Vanessa Tooling, revealed digital firms in the city are experiencing rapid growth, with turnover increasing at 47%.

Indeed, the city’s ever- expanding digital tech sector now has close to 5,500 technology companies across the region, the largest 25 of which have a combined turnover of just under £2bn, employing 12,657 people: the sort of critical mass that adds real weight to the city’s pitch for Channel 4 to move to the region and establish as national institute of digital talent and technology.

Add to this Sheffield Hallam University’s bold proposal for an Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre on the Olympic Legacy Park, which will make use of digital technologies – sensors, virtual and augmented reality – to deepen our understanding of better pathways to health and performance in sport, and it is clear that this is a region where digital has not only spread far and wide, but is gaining momentum.

But here is the irony. While digital is breaking down barriers to communication around the globe, here in the Sheffield City Region policy makers seem bent on raising barriers. So yes, we do have the assets required to be a globally significant player in the Northern Powerhouse: but to exploit these assets to the full we need leadership. Leadership with a vision that stretches to see the bigger picture: a picture where we are not only connected with one another in our own region, but where we are actively making connections with our neighbours in Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, Lancashire, the North West and North East. For it is only when we make those bigger connections that the north can once again be a powerhouse.

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