My Lords, let me start by reminding your Lordships of my education interests in the register, particularly as one of the chief officers of TES. I thank my noble friend Lady Morris not only for instigating this debate, but for the passion and clarity with which she opened it.
A few weeks ago I was sat in the Home Room in the House of Lords having a conversation over dinner about the “digital village”.
It is a classic wood-panelled room with a long wooden table set for dinner with white table linen, House of Lords crockery and plenty of wine glasses. There were around twenty of us there, including our hosts from The Prince’s Countryside Fund, Lord Don Curry, DEFRA minister Lord John Gardiner, Helen Milner from the Good Things Foundation and representatives from BT and Facebook amongst others.
Such evenings are either a perk of the job or an occupational hazard – depending on how the conversation goes!
There was a slight misunderstanding around the table. The minister wanted to talk about rural broadband, and the important issue of getting bandwidth to the last settlement. However most of us wanted a wider discussion about the potential of digital to empower rural communities.
The discussion was informed by a great report that the Fund has commissioned from Professor Sarah Skerratt. The title “Recharging Rural” echoes the recommendations of making rural communities more sustainable. The problems are familiar: an aging population with fewer and fewer village amenities. The conclusions can be summarised around better digital connectivity, better transport infrastructure and more diversity of employment.
Since then I have been reflecting on what more policy makers could do in using digital to redefine what is possible in peripheral areas.
Anything that is done has to tackle inclusion. There are still areas and residents with very poor connectivity, and still 11 million people in the UK without the skills and confidence to be active online. I have also written elsewhere about problems around the readability of the web. The efforts from government to reduce this exclusion need to continue apace.
Scarcely populated areas struggle to sustain services because, by definition, they can not offer the economies of scale that urban areas can. But we can now aggregate dispersed populations to create viable rural services using digital.
The rise of Babylon to supplement NHS GP services has been controversial. Whilst there is every reason to be suspicious of this private sector entrant into NHS primary care, and accompanying worries about personal data security, the core service is certainly interesting. The notion that NHS GPs in rural areas could offer a similar service is compelling.
Their service has an app interface that allows the patient to talk to an artificial intelligent bot about symptoms which then triages the individual and can connect over video to a human GP 24:7. The GP can then prescribe, and presumably get a prescription delivered. If the choice is that, or phoning a triage nurse and either being directed into a hospital some distance away or being given a GP appointment the next day, which would we choose?
Similarly I am no fan of the corporate practices of Uber, but I also recognise a great service. Could their platform technology be re-purposed to better organise volunteer hospital transport, or Uber Pool technology to create new forms of rural transport?
I now have oversight of Tes Institute, a digital teacher training business. We have been able to train teachers in a way that was previously inconceivable in far flung places like St Helena and the Isles of Scilly, because we blend a social learning experience online with peripatetic tutors.
There is no doubt that public service delivery can be transformed with digital innovation to the great advantage of rural areas. This can significantly help the existing rural population. But can it make communities more sustainable by shifting their demography?
That is a harder problem to crack. It is not as simple as installing high bandwidth connections and selling great quality of life and good schools to aspirant entrepreneurs. Whilst this could go a long way it needs more to trigger a behavioural shift.
I have been interested for some time in shifting thinking away from a sense that urbanisation is inevitable in a post-industrial economy. The pressures on our great cities are now almost overwhelming as house prices, air pollution and congestion make them harder to sustain. So why not follow Dave Coplin’s vision from this 2013 RSA talk around flexible working?
If government mandated two or three day a week season tickets on our trains, knowledge workers could come to cities for some of the time and get the benefit of clustering and creative exchange. But if rural market towns also had flexible working facilities like WeWork (the largest real estate tenant in London, New York and Washington DC), then those people can then work and start businesses in rural communities. They then support local retail and daytime economy, and get the quality of life of the school drop off and pick up.
All of this points to the opportunity of digital in making rural Britain more diverse and therefore sustainable. It needs vision and a magpie mentality to steal the best of digital enterprise and bring it to serve the public interest.