Writing for LBN, Southport BID chief executive Rachel Fitzgerald says Southport can create a world class hub for digital innovation and turbo-charge its economy
There can be few people reading this who won’t have taken part in a virtual work meeting over the past year via either Zoom or Teams.
And a significant number of you will also have ‘attended’ webinars with speakers addressing online audiences. It is not quite the same as being there in person and, clapping the speakers has probably felt a bit silly, but we have made it work.
And that acceleration in the use of digital technology by businesses of all shapes and sizes has been the one of the most remarkable aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Without technology, the last nine months would have been very different.
For many businesses, homeworking became, and continues to be, a new normal. Organisations had to innovate to ensure their employees had access to all the tools they required to do their jobs. Holding meetings, dealing with customers, ensuring orders were fulfilled all became much more dependent on digital technology.
Prior to the pandemic, around 18% of retail purchases in the UK were made online. Since March that has rocketed to more than 30%. This has forced retailers to transform their online and digital operations to meet this soaring demand.
As we enter 2021 we have been given a glimpse of just how much we can achieve and how quickly we can adapt by utilising digital technology. And the days when a business could say digital technology is not relevant to them are fast disappearing. And that can be scary for many small businesses used to doing things in a certain way.
Introducing new technology into your business can be transformational if done in the correct way. It can help you to simplify and streamline processes and Artificial Intelligence can free up your staff from some of the more mundane and time-consuming tasks, therefore boosting both productivity and profitability.
In recent weeks I have looked to start a conversation about how Southport can transform and diversify its economy. For more than a century the town has been hugely reliant on the leisure and hospitality sectors. They have been hit badly by the fallout from the pandemic and that is likely to continue for the next few months.
We must, of course, pull together to support our visitor economy and get it back on its feet and growing again. There are some amazing plans for the town proposed under the £400m Town Deal project. Proposals for a new conference centre and the proposal for a new surf report both look amazing.
At the same time we also need to take a hard look and how we future-proof Southport’s economy and diversify its business base. I have asked Alex Moretti, co-founder of local global virtual reality games developer, Fallen Planet, to offer his expertise on how we can create a cluster of digital businesses right here.
In Liverpool, the old Baltic district in the docklands has been transformed from a collection of derelict warehouses into one of the fastest-growing digital hubs in the country in little more than a decade. There is no reason we cannot do something similar here in Southport.
Alex talks about how he and his team love to walk around Southport on their breaks and how inspiring that can be. We live in a beautiful coastal town, with relatively low costs compared to city centres and a fantastic quality of life.
He believes this is the perfect place to establish a hub for the digital and create sector where entrepreneurs can not only collaborate with each other but also get access to shared support and services in one location.
That hub could then link up with Southport College where the chief executive and principal, Michelle Brabner, is keen to provide our young people with real choices for exciting careers without leaving the town. One of the challenges, she says, is “youth flight”. What a difference a dynamic and growing digital and creative sector could make.
Economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will be challenging for us all this year. But with the roll-out of the vaccine now under way we can really start thinking about how we build back better. 2021 offers a genuine opportunity to begin reinventing itself as a place people will want to come to live and work.
Now is the time for us all to come together as a town and as a business community to create a compelling narrative for our beautiful and vibrant town.