An article by Nick Speed, BT Group Director in Wales
As we work together to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s sobering to take a moment to reflect on just how big an impact the crisis has had on both our home and working lives.
BT Group has seen a significant rise in demand on both our fixed and mobile networks, as people stayed at home during the lockdown and millions of people migrated towards working from home. To give some context, in the last week of April alone, BT’s core network transmitted 103.3 Petabytes of data in a single day – the largest total since our records began. When you consider that one Petabyte is the equivalent of 13 years of HD video, you’ll really appreciate how much data we’ve all been consuming.
Our networks have stood up well to this challenge and have been extremely resilient, but the predicament we all find ourselves in has prompted questions about what things will look like when we emerge from this pandemic – and how we build back better.
The conversations on Wales’s longer-term economic recovery that I have been part of in the past few weeks have all been recognising how digital technologies and innovation will have a key role to play.
Covid-19 has had, and will continue to have, an unprecedented impact on businesses, society and the economy in Wales, and is likely to speed up technological change and the move to a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, or Wales 4.0. From virtual meetings to automated factories, online orders to drone delivery, digital services are growing in importance, across an increasing number of sectors and activities.
Firms that are already using digital technologies are adapting better to the ongoing crisis, and others are rapidly upskilling in response to challenges to their business models.
A recent survey by BT Skills for Tomorrow found that more businesses are moving an increasing number of their services online for survival. Two fifths (42%) of small businesses have moved online due to the pandemic, and more than a third (39%) now see digital skills and tools as a key focus area.
Looking to the future, more than a third (37%) are planning for less face to face contact, and almost a quarter (24%) expect working from home to continue.
The pandemic has undoubtedly seen many businesses adapting which could have a beneficial impact on recovery. But this will not be the case for all it’s a mixed picture in terms of SMEs. SMEs account for 99% of all Welsh businesses, providing 62% of total private sector employment.
Likewise, Wales’ rural economy is underpinned by the agriculture and tourism and hospitality sectors – the former already facing a period of change as a result of Brexit and the latter being identified as the hardest hit by the pandemic. As part of our efforts to gain a greater insight into how we can work to give these sectors the required tools to increase their digital capabilities, BT has commissioned an independent report on the rural economy in Wales, which is due to be published this summer.
Even before the pandemic, Wales, like other parts of the UK, was facing an alarming digital skills gap. Cardiff University’s Digital Maturity Study for Wales 2019 calculated that only 16% of businesses are truly ‘digitally embedded’.
Thousands of people and a significant number of businesses lack the essential digital skills they need, which risks widening social divides.
More broadly, we know that technology – particularly disruptive technologies such as 5G, smart ‘internet of things’ (IoT) technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – will play an increasingly important role in Wales’s future economy, displacing many existing jobs but also creating many new, high value roles. We need to explore how digital technologies and innovation can help businesses respond to the crisis and contribute towards the economic recovery in Wales.
AI technologies, in particular, will represent the biggest shake-up in a lifetime to the labour market. This will present two high-level priorities for business and policymakers: retraining for people in jobs which will be displaced; and education and skills development for the jobs of the future.
The key challenge is how we can work together through and beyond the Covid-19 crisis to create a more productive economy, tackle climate change and build a healthy and more equal society.
Through initiatives such as our Skills for Tomorrow programme, and by working with Welsh Government and others, we are committed to helping the country navigate through these challenges and opportunities.
If we get this right, we can hold on to some of the benefits that many of us have experienced over the past 100 days plus. While working from home presents its challenges, being able to work anywhere cuts out commutes and keeps us in our communities for longer – providing a chance to strengthen the resilience of our neighbourhoods and re-energise local high streets that had been struggling. Where once we thought about smart cities leading a digital transformation, we can begin to see this is really about smart places.
Through collaboration and innovation, hopefully we can develop solutions to the challenges we face and, in doing so, make sure that no-one is left behind in the transformation to a digital society.
Find out more here: https://www.bt.com/about/digital-impact-and-sustainability