Hull and East Yorkshire, the “fastest growing” region for digital according to a recent report from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is in the ascendancy.
The DCMS report showed that the wider Yorkshire and Humber digital sector’s economic output grew by 6.5% between 2014 and 2019, faster than the growth rate of the rest of the country.
Yorkshire’s digital sector could also reach up to £1.6 billion in annual GVA by 2025, with the potential to create more than 42,000 new jobs.
The region is at the forefront of digital growth in the UK, and its biggest success story is found in the East Riding. The number of employees in the digital sector of Hull and East Yorkshire – population 600,000 – is expanding at a rate of 8% each year, the fastest in the UK, says Adzuna and Dealroom data.
Meanwhile, total venture capital investment in Hull in 2020 amounted to £81.4 million, catapulting it to sixth spot in the country.
This is positive news for a region that can sometimes be overlooked, but Hull and the wider county are cementing their success by continuing what they already do well, identifying new ways to innovate, and focusing on how their unique obstacles can be overcome.
“Hull and East Yorkshire is a region on the rise when it comes to technology and digital adoption,” Kate Patton, Scaleup Engagement Manager for Yorkshire and North East England at Tech Nation, told Prolific North.
“We as an organisation are always here to support this fast-scaling sector in any way possible,” she said, citing “purposeful passion” from figures in the regional sector as behind its achievements.
What’s behind the region’s growth and success?
One major contributor to the region – comprising a significant part of the venture capital investment figure in Hull – is Connexin, the IoT and Smart Cities scale-up which has rolled out Internet of Things projects around the North.
It is in the process of building its new 10Gbps-capable full-fibre network, and leading the way in terms of digital growth in Hull and East Yorkshire. “The Hull and East Yorkshire region is full of entrepreneurs,” its co-founder, Furqan Alamgir, said.
He said this is “matched by forward-thinking local authorities… and regional large players such as Yorkshire Water, [who] have fostered and created new digital opportunities that benefit both the region and tech businesses.”
Connexin is one of many examples of technological innovators in Hull and East Yorkshire, big and small. Alongside it is incumbent telecoms provider KCOM, Hull’s largest employer for tech, which is also investing at least £100 million in terms of infrastructure across all of Hull and East Yorkshire.
The influence of these key players attracting and securing investment is matched by innovative startups including proptech firm Bimsense, which recently raised £250,000 in funding, as well as impactful metaverse specialist VISR, which has contracts with national and global names like Microsoft, Audi and BP.
And destinations like C4DI, the centre for digital innovation, are strong incubators for up-and-coming tech businesses as well traditional ones looking to innovate.
Local champion Antonio Tombanane, MD of GB Recruitment, is also the founder of Tech Week Humber, which launched its first event back in 2019 – attracting the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and IBM – on the back of the lack of digital skills in the city and the region, he said.
Antonio Tombanane: “There’s a lot of opportunities in this region”
He told Prolific North: “The fact that Hull is one of the fastest-growing is not because it’s ahead of everybody, it’s probably because… we’re catching up.”
The region is growing, he said, “because we’ve caught on that there’s a lot of opportunities in this region.” Due to its heavy manufacturing heritage, there’s now a huge amount more investment in digital transformation, as the sector changes rapidly.
Concurring with Furqan Alamgir, Antonio also pointed to the fact that opportunities have been opened up by the local authorities. With KCOM as the incumbent, the council and local authorities are opening up for other companies to come and disrupt that industry, he said.
Local government and politicians have “made it easy for us to go out as businesses and make things happen,” through incentives and opening up the market to greater competition.
At Hull City Council, Mike Kenworthy is Assistant Director for Digital and ICT, helping to oversee the city’s ambitious digital strategy, which includes engaging tech giants for Hull’s benefit, as well as nurturing local talent and innovation, including the implementation of Smart Cities tech. He joined the city council three years ago, moving to Hull to take up the role.
“We have a lot of the major players either already working with us or very interested in getting involved in Hull,” he told Prolific North. “One of the first things I did when I came was bring Microsoft in as a strategic partner to the council.
“There is a real determination on both the part of the public sector and the private sector within Hull to work together,” he added.
One example is with Connexin, which has created a CityOS for Hull, allowing the local authority to pull data in from a variety of sources – including pollution and traffic monitoring, which can be overlaid with information around crime, health and community wellbeing, to allow for innovative solutions to be found.
Much of what Hull offers businesses and individuals is ahead of what other cities offer, including 100% fibre-to-door and a free LoRaWAN network allowing for disruptive technologies to be implemented. Kenworthy also believes that Hull’s compact size makes it the perfect place for tech companies to test out new innovations.
He said: “We’re 27 square miles, very small for a city geographically. But we have everything that if you wanted to use a city as a test bed, it’s actually really easy to do” – something he said helped seal the deal with Microsoft. What’s more, it has a regeneration team who, said Kenworthy, “are really supportive of anybody coming in – that helps in terms of developing business in this area.”
And with increased attention being paid to sustainability and carbon neutrality, Hull’s focus on green energy sets it up brilliantly. According to Kenworthy, “there’s a lot of interest in Hull, especially around the green energy side. We’ve got the [Yorkshire] Energy Park, and Humberside as a whole has a massive impact in terms of green energy.”
Antonio Tombanane also pointed to the success of the green energy sector, saying “billions of pounds” have been invested in the renewables sector, alongside loads more investment in wider areas, including, naturally, telecoms. He said: “People have raised quite a lot of finance over the last few years, so there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening here.”
IoT leader Connexin developed a CityOS for Hull
Challenges for Hull and East Yorkshire
Hull and East Yorkshire’s remarkable success doesn’t make it plain sailing for the region, however. The area’s challenges revolve around both a distinct lack of digital skills – hence the launch of Tech Week Humber – and something of an image problem preventing more of the talent it needs flowing to the area.
Kenworthy added: “It’s not the kind of place to shout about what [it does]. They’re worried that maybe what we do isn’t that great, but it is really good what they do. That’s changing – but because of that, people don’t think ‘I want to go and work in Hull.’”
Nor do people see it as a “great place to go and live,” he added. “They still have a vision of somewhere which has tremendous problems, which it does in certain areas – but everywhere has it… we’re working hard at it, but it seems to be things like that people think about Hull.
“I’ve seen the confidence of the city grow. So yes, I do think things are going to get better, but I think they could get considerably better.”
If they can get across how brilliant the place and people are, “Hull has a bright future,” he said. “It’s a hard sell to some of the [companies] that I would like in here more heavily. It’s hard work”.
The impact of the local shortage of digital skills led to the launch of a new Local Digital Skills Partnership by the DCMS, which both Tombanane and Kenworthy are involved with. It is a coalition of local government, businesses and educational institutions to identify and address skills gaps.
“They’re making inroads as far as people who have the skillset and qualification,” said Kenworthy.
On top of this, the team behind Tech Week Humber recently launched the Edge Hub, a destination for skills and enterprise in Hull. Based at Kingston House, it has partnered with tech leaders including Microsoft, AWS, Google and IBM – with the intention, Antonio said, of “upskilling, delivering training, and driving change at scale.”
C4DI helps tech firms grow and traditional ones innovate
Connexin’s Alamgir agrees about the challenges a significant skills gap poses to the region. “Whilst the region has key institutions such as the University of Hull, Hull College, East Riding College and the Ron Dearing UTC, there is still a ‘talent gap’,” he said.
“The Humber region can build on its digital growth by investing more into skills of the future.”
What comes next
Upcoming plans for digital in Hull and East Yorkshire are intended to consolidate its recent wins and ensure that people feel the real benefits of its growth.
For Mike Kenworthy, he said it’s about taking the tech which has been invested in, and asking what it does for the citizen down the street. “Ultimately, it’s Jeanie down the street who pays our wages, and for me, I want to develop Smart Cities so citizens of Hull actually look at it and [say] ‘I’m benefitting.’”
He says he’s “yet to see” the ‘levelling up’ that’s been promised, and the next step is convincing decision-makers on the importance of making big digital investments. “It’s going to cost money… several million pounds to do all this,” he said. “But ultimately, if we make people’s lives better, health better, and improve their wellbeing, it’s worth every penny.”
Antonio Tombanane, of Tech Week Humber, also believes that the future success of Hull and East Yorkshire hangs on making positive advancements impactful, relevant and useful for individuals.
He said: “The gold rush is around connectivity, broadband, Smart Cities – that’s what everyone’s competing for right now, because the market’s for the taking… [but] if we’re not helping other people then we’re not really going to succeed.
“We’re at the stage where we’re talking about everything that’s happening, and we need to bring the people with us.
“How can you inspire the next generation, the next talent pipeline, or the next entrepreneur to start to innovate at scale?”