Making space for digital growth. The rise of the tech sector and how planners can support its evolution
As the UK’s digital tech sector goes from strength to strength, Donna Gardiner looks at the role of planning and policy in fostering its future growth…
The digital tech sector is the UK’s fastest growing industry. Recent statistics show that it is growing as much as 50% faster than the wider economy. In London alone, a new tech business starts up every hour. Beyond London, digital tech clusters across the country are driving the economic resurgence of many cities and city regions.
The rapid growth of the sector means that its spatial footprint has become increasingly evident in towns and cities across the UK. In May 2017, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) published guidance on how town planning can respond to, and guide, the future development of the digital economy. It makes recommendations for planners in two areas – specifically how growth can be encouraged in their local area, and how opportunities provided by the tech sector can be optimised for the planning system.
What is the tech sector?
The digital tech sector is increasingly diverse, and there is no straightforward definition. The 2016 Tech Nation report identified 16 different sectors, some of which include, app and software development, digital advertising and marketing, and ecommerce and marketplace.
There are currently around 58,000 active digital tech businesses in the UK. It employs 1.64 million people, and job growth is more than double that of other sectors. Roles are generally highly skilled and well paid, compared to other sectors with the average salary currently 44% higher than the national average.
Digital tech, as a sector, thrives off well-planned spaces with access to good local infrastructure. Tech firms and their employees tend to prefer easily accessible, walkable, multi-use districts. This results in the creation of ‘clusters’ of similar firms in central urban locations.
Clustering has a number of advantages for digital tech businesses – including easy access to large talent pools and the ability to network and exchange ideas face-to-face with local, like-minded businesses and employees – a key driver of innovation.
London, Manchester and the Greater South East have some of the largest digital tech clusters in the UK. However, the Tech Nation 2017 report mapped 30 significant clusters across the length and breadth of the UK – from Dundee to Exeter.
Facilitating sector growth
The recent growth of the sector has already led to a number of economic policy responses, including the development of enterprise zones, innovation and business centres, and ‘innovation districts’. The RTPI guidance also highlights a number of smaller-scale responses that can be utilised to attract and foster tech industry growth. These include ideas such as ‘de-risking sites’ by making sure that planning requirements are practical and clear; using public money for assembling and servicing sites that are more challenging; the provision of Wi-Fi in specific locations; and making districts pedestrian and cycle friendly.
In addition to these responses, the RTPI makes three recommendations for planners on how they can create an environment that is attractive to digital tech firms.
Firstly, it suggests that planners should monitor the local economy to get a sense of what local growth industries are. Policies can then be adapted to local economic conditions. Some local authorities already do this using company registration data. For example, Camden Borough Council uses this data to inform a quarterly ‘Business and Employment Briefing’. It covers a range of measures, including business size and type, employment in the borough, commercial property, unemployment, and qualifications.
In order to attract and assist the growth of the digital tech sector, it is important for local planning teams to have a proper understanding of the sectors’ spatial preferences. This is particularly important when drawing up local plans. Therefore, the second recommendation made by the RTPI is that local authorities should employ someone to engage with local tech firms to find out how planning could help better facilitate their growth.
Finally, the RTPI recommends ensuring that there is sufficient housing, office space and transport infrastructure to meet capacity. These three elements are key, and without them, no amount of other interventions will attract firms to an area.
The Tech Nation 2017 report found that 30% of digital tech community members cited their local transport infrastructure as a ‘business challenge’. Tech London Advocates report similar concerns, whilst also highlighting the challenges posed by digital infrastructure.
The digitisation of planning
The growth of the digital tech sector not only creates jobs and generates wealth, it creates opportunities for improved efficiency in other sectors too. In planning, digitisation can free up time and resources, and create new tools for planners to utilise. From the adoption of geographic information system (GIS) software for mapping, to experimental trials of 3D modelling software and virtual reality in plan making and community engagement, technology has, and continues to present, a number of opportunities to improve the planning system.
Beyond planning, innovations in the digital tech sector aid the creation of ‘smart cities’ – where information and communication technology (ICT) and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies are integrated to manage cities’ assets, with the overall aim of improving efficiency. Examples of potential usage vary considerably, from supporting people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, to the provision of real-time traffic data, controlling streetlights and monitoring environmental data.
As such, a final recommendation made by the RTPI is to make use of local firms’ skills and resources to address cities’ infrastructural challenges.
Despite the rapid growth of the digital tech sector and its contribution to job and wealth creation, there is an increasing recognition that the benefits created by the sector can be insular and often do not spill over to the local economy.
Indeed, studies have found that the higher the share of tech employment in a city, the more income inequality there is. On this basis, the digital tech sector has been criticised for its potential to create a ‘two-tier economy’. There are also concerns about the gentrifying effects of digital tech clusters on local areas.
Clearly addressing these issues poses some significant challenges for policymakers. Last year, RTPI made a number of recommendations in this regard, including helping local people to develop the skills needed by local tech companies.
Driving the sector forwards
The digital tech sector has enormous potential to enhance economic growth. Through its ability to create the optimal conditions for the sector to thrive, planning can help to encourage this growth. Understanding local economic trends, consulting with digital tech businesses about their needs, and ensuring that local infrastructure has the capacity to meet these needs, are vital to successful planning for the digital tech sector. At the same time, ensuring that this growth is sustainable and benefits wider society, are key challenges for planners.
Some of the ideas covered in this article have been taken from Idox’s forthcoming whitepaper on planning and the digital economy – to be launched at Connected Local Government Live 2017 where Idox, together with the RTPI and Future Cities Catapult, will lead the ‘Innovations in Digital Planning’ workshop.
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