“Connectivity and digital issues are hot topics in rural areas, especially in the wake of the global COVID 19 pandemic which saw a massive increase in demand for technology, connectivity and digital services.”
The session was opened by Dr Greig Paul who provided a detailed introduction on digital transformation. Emphasis and examples were identified focusing on how we have evolved and achieved digitally in a global pandemic context, and where we could be within the next five to ten years as technology develops. Reflections on how technology and connectivity has changed over the past decade were referenced, with examples such as not being able to travel abroad without incurring excessive roaming charges or being somewhere rural and remote and having no access to data, service or connectivity. In the present day, we live and work in a world where connectivity has developed to a point where we can successfully interact from a screen. A point was raised that this can incur positive and negative expectations, as the pressure to always be connected and contactable is rising.
Further conversation focusing on the digital resilience of communities on a local and regional level in more rural areas, as well as the sector focused expectation to be literate in digital skills was also mentioned. A particular focus on the ‘work from home’ phenomenon and how this has changed the way that businesses now operate from home context, proving the efficiency and importance of sustainable digital connectivity. For example, rural areas are now more densely populated during a working week as residents are no longer commuting to the nearest City or Town for work, meaning the demand for more efficient connectivity has increased and necessities such as fibre have become more a sought after requirement rather than a luxury. The next part of the session was a panel Q&A session introducing topics with discussion from attendees around what the digital landscape might look like in one, five and 10 years. The topics and key points made on what communities want and need were focused around:
- Health and social care
- Business and industry
- Entertainment / quality of life
- Public sector transformation
After this, participants joined breakout rooms of their choice and joined in more in-depth conversations. The key points made from each speaker are outlined below.
- Health and Social Care
Dr Phil Richardson, Dorset CCG
Key points raised focused on, how primary care became mobilised within two weeks during the early stages of the 2020 pandemic. This has proven to work well in rural communities and more productivity due to less travel and more connectivity between multi-disciplinary teams. Dr Richardson discussed how remodelling the care model using technology and working with Local Authorities and their key link workers local intelligence will help identify the most vulnerable and will help create more person centred care.
- Business and Industry
Gordon Fong, Managing Director of Kimcell Limited
Key points raised focused on how it is important to still keep ‘Human experiences’ possible in a retail setting, even as digital accessibility increases. It is important that we still have skills to communicate in customer settings, concerns were raised stating that younger people are going to lose basic social skills to communicate in a person centred setting. Other points were mentioned regarding how businesses now have the flexibility to work longer, meaning that more industries are developing at a rapid pace.
- Entertainment/ Quality of life
Gary Littledyke Project Manager, 5G RuralDorset - Dorset Council
Key points raised focused on younger people such as graduates and apprentices and how they are being introduced to the working world through completely different experience. It was said that this will have a long term impact on their relationship with colleagues, work life balance and organisational ambitions. Points regarding the less pressure to commute and live near your place of work but also taking into consideration the ‘levelling up’ through support with central government and society was a focal discussion point raised.
Ceren Clulow – Digital Connectivity Manager, Nottinghamshire County Council
Key points raised focused on wireless technology and how it has become an integral part of the sector. As a population, we take for granted how we use technology in a tourist and visitor context despite it being the most common place we use it. Making more remote visitor and tourism areas connected and to people from more urban areas has allowed them to become more popular and accessible. Key examples included using social media to share photographs and experiences, which acts as an AR and VR function. Also, necessities such as: transport, car parking, network, leisure & hospitality were all discussed in the context that they can be used and enjoyed through using one digital device and contactless payment. This entire function is something that we often take for granted.
- Public Sector Transformation
Dr Deborah Smart, Corporate Director Digital & Change, Dorset Council
Key points raised focused on what a ‘connected rural Dorset’ does. From improving transactional services such as: Council Tax, Benefits, Maintenance, and how an algorithm could be developed to identify vulnerable people in the community and prevent fraud. However, there were concerns raised on how the Council hopes to manage this as issues regarding how ethical this would be and whether it would dismay public trust. In the breakout sessions, elements and case studies of digital divides within communities were discussed. This allowed ideas and strategies to be proposed.
Alastair Boswell, Associate Director – ARUP
Key points raised focused on making the most of the transformation that is happening with vehicles, both public and privately owned. For example, as battery capacity increases, more fleets of buses will be able to become electric and create cleaner air in both rural/ urban communities. However, this can be a challenge from a sustainability perspective, as peak times and travel demands have changed through the presence of the pandemic and the change it has brought to communities and their daily behaviours. In rural areas, implementing these kinds of strategies has become more of a challenge, as most journeys are made by privately owned vehicles. Also, with an ageing population, there is an increased risk of people rejecting to learn about the importance of sustainable travel.
Mark Blackman, Corporate Director Education - Dorset Council
Key points raised focused on how learning happens throughout an entire lifetime. Specifically, learning remotely is the most commonly used method of education in the present day, for all generations. There were a few focal points which conveyed aspects of how we are connected and become engaged through technology at different levels of concentration. Key ideas about how the best learning takes place when someone has a connection with the presenter was discussed, meaning that levels of social engagement is key to successful cognitive development. This can be difficult, particularly in remote and isolated settings. Ideas about how on a community level, education and learning can be rolled out in a sustainable, accessible and connected way for everyone were also mentioned to counteract these concerns.
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