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How the BBC can atone for its errors in the West Midlands.

The BBC has woefully under invested in the Midlands for years. And as we hurtle into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that’s not something our regional politicians can let continue. So: what should we be asking of the BBC for the future? South Korea, of all places, has some pointers.

Samsung’s D’Light Showcase in Gangnam offers a tantalising glimpse of the future

The sheer scale of BBC under investment in the West Midlands since the closure of Pebble Mill is something to behold. Solihull MP Julian Knight, who chairs the DCMS Select Committee, castigated the Corporation last year after its annual report showed just 2.8% of the network television programming spend was in the Midlands. It spends 49% in London and 14% in the North of England. For me, the ultimate ignominy was having to travel to Manchester to film the BBC hustings for the West Midlands Metro-mayor. You couldn’t make it up.

The BBC now says it wants to change. It signed an interesting agreement with Create Central in April which could help turbocharge the new Digbeth creative quarter, and which could be home soon to Steve Knight’s new studio venture. But there’s no timetable for the BBC plan, or a budget and critical stakeholders like Equity and The Musicians Union seem frozen out of the dialogue.

This must change – and this is where we can learn from both our past and trailblazers like South Korea

THE story of the West Midlands Industrial Revolution – as I argue in my biography of Matthew Boulton – married both engineering genius and design genius. So the Soho Manufactory had both the greatest engineers – like James Watt, and the greatest artists. With that alchemy we changed the world.

The place that changed the world

Similar things are happening today. The infotainment system in a new Jag is worth more than the engine. There’s more code in an XF than in an Airbus. We’re marrying engineering brilliance – and digital design brilliance. ‘Content’ and ‘objects’ are fusing together. Those who succeed in doing this best – and I think South Korea is leading the way – will win out in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So, how could the BBC’s new investment help us? What does the BBC need to get right?

1. Set a ten year budget to scale up to spend 9% of the programme budget in the West Midlands. That would be about a quarter of a billion pounds. We’re about 9% of the UK population. Why wouldn’t we provide 9% of the programming services? This would be a huge demand side kick to the digital and content sector in the region

2. Create a BBC-sponsered University College trust to bring together universities like BCU with some of our great colleges and academies like BOA. Skills are the key to great content but we need to start earlier with a wider range of schools to transform the diversity of the industry which remains overwhelming white and male. A University – College Trust (as I proposed in Robbins Rebooted) would begin to create hard-wired pathways, to provide a clear line of sight into creative careers for children from a young age and fix the broken bridge between Levels 4 and 6 in our terrible skills system. Some of our institutions – like Birmingham Royal Ballets Dance Track programme or Birmingham’s training orchestras are interesting models to learn from, dropping in inspiration to primary schools.

3. Invest in artists and festivals. People create content – not buildings. So, creating a stable of aspiring young artists with small grants, investing in festivals and live performance and partnering with regional arts organisations to show case great content is essential. More of this live experience should be in our streets and squares and could help bring life back to city centres. Much as it is in America and on London’s South Bank.

4. Create a South Korean style Creative Content Lab with one of our universities. We should consider earmarking a big slice of the BBC investment to create a 4IR-Creative Content Lab. This could be modelled on Catalyst/ Catapult centres and bring together existing content players like museums, arts council funded institutions and the games industry to create new apps that exploit big data, AI and VR together with some of our great manufacturing names. The focus could be on both nurturing talent but also creating nurturing smaller firms for spin-out. This plays to our strengthes, push new areas like haptics and helps the BBC drive our broader industrial policy.

5. Help create better culture sector coordination in the region. The BBC is a big beast. It should be the head of the comet in the region. When I was writing our manifesto for Metro-mayor mayor, we found it harder than it should have been to coordinate with arts and culture organisations, unions, institutions and artists. As a result our culture-lobbying power is weaker than it should be. And a new, bigger BBC could help fix this.

So. There we are! Five ideas that I’ll be presenting to the IPPR’s roundtable with the BBC later. I’m looking forward to the debate – and below is a bit of the write up of my takeaways from South Korea.

Here’s my note on IKorea 4.0 back in 2018, and what I thought Labour could learn from it

iKorea 4.0/ D-N-A

1. S Korea is now overhauling its strategy for the future and focused squarely on the Fourth Industrial Revolution as its inspiration – or iKorea 4.0. As in the past, policy makers are focused on a series of enabling technologies rather that the more amorphous approach of Industry 4.0 seen in Germany (and the U.K.) and the country is set to replicate this approach with a couple of important twists in the years to come. They are fond of quoting Davos research which estimates 7 million jobs will be lost as the 4IR gathers speed over the next five years; ‘countries and individuals that understand the nature of the current changes and quickly adapt to them will flourish while others will lag behind and lost jobs’. (Davos, 2016)

2. The key enabling ideas are summarised as DNA – (big) Data; Networks and AI.

Liam and the South Korean ministerial team leading the creative content strategy in Seoul

3. ‘Data’/ content. Alongside ensuring big data capacity, in practice a lot of the ‘Data’ element of the strategy will be driven by a much sharper focus on content as the driving force for demand of 4IR services.

◦ Their strategy explicitly states: ‘the content industry is the driving force of Industry 4.0’ that creates jobs and promises unlimited possibilities for growth’. It’s already an industry with £66 billion in revenues up, 1.7x in the last ten years. Around 1/3 is publishing and broadcasting. Content exports are now $6 billion – up fourfold in 10 years and dominated by gaming (over half of exports). The country’s goal is to be one of the world’s top five content powerhouses, up from 8th today. It’s market size is currently around half of the UK’s.

◦ Today’s plan draws on the infrastructure created by the the Cultural Industry Promotion Act in the 1990’s which knits together broadcasting, gaming, cartoons and stories.

◦ The new programme backed by $500M aims to (j) nurture talented people working to knit together new technology and creative content; (ii) enrich through support this talent with facilities like campuses that bring together equipment and incubator space through a national network of 10 Korea Content Labs; and (iii) support exporting.

◦ What’s fascinating is the way one agency KOCA has oversight of broadcasting, gaming, culture, content and digital business – and is therefore is a good position to help sponsor businesses which are driving the fusion of these industries.

◦ The big data industry will always be slightly hamstring by the security risks around storage as it faces dedicated, long term cyber-espionage challenges from North Korea (which took down the banking and social security system a couple of years ago) and China. Equally the country lacks an Estonian-style e-ID system; there are widespread digital signatures but there isn’t much trust in Government, recently dominated by dictatorship, and at risk of foreign cyber attack

South Korean firms are marrying together new interfaces to brilliant design

4. Networks

◦ S Korea already has ubiquitous fibre and three mobile networks at 100% coverage of 4G. The country boasts the fastest smartphone internet connection speed (we don’t make it into the top 7) and is the first country with low range wide area networks that allows internet of things device connectivity. Crucially the Network is good at home, at work and on the go – on metro and rail (which boasts networks strong enough to stream Netflix)

◦ Now: the S Korea aims to be the first country to commercialise 5G – expected in 2019, followed by wide scale roll out

◦ This is the backbone for commercialise applications. Samsung for instance is investing heavily in a suite of connected technologies (linked devices controlled through phone-based apps and screens) to create ‘smart homes’ (lots of domestic appliances controlled from your phone); smart classrooms (smart screens with educational material linked to tablets for students) and ‘smart shops’ (connected advertisements, ordering, paying and delivery).

◦ 5. AI. S Korean policy makers laud estimates which show AI May boost American productivity by 35% by 2030 and add 14% to global GDP over the same period.

◦ Here S Korea estimates it is a year or so behind the U.K. and allegedly looks jealously at our Turing Institutes. Samsung however recently decided to make its £45M AI centre in Paris. There was a moment of national shock in 2016 when DeepMind/ AlphaGo defeated the national Go world champion in four straight games. This has prompted a £1.45 Billion investment in AI, focused on a series of challenges;


Goal is to stretch life expectancy by three years, capitalising on technology like Lunit which has a much better success rate at picking up breast cancer tumours; AI based new medicine; and electronic exchange of medical records

Intelligent transport

The goal is to reduce congestion by 10% and accidents by 5% for instance by creating intelligent road signs near accident hot spots – recognising the live risks and then adapting warnings and smart roads

Crime fighting

Improve crime arrest rates and reduce marine accidents; eg through use of intelligent CCTV

Defence and security

25% more unmanned guard and surveillance

◦ These challenges are aimed at clearing away a load of factors in the way of private sector investment in the sector including; regulation (creating regulatory ‘sandboxes’/ new safety standards for AI malfunction; clarifying property rights in AI networks; clarifying responsibility for Automated Vehicle accidents); lack of public procurement and support for startups. Equally the South Korean model has always been ‘perfect at home – and then export’.

Implications for Labour

There are a number of ideas that we can draw from S Korea and adapt for our programme:

1. Our overall story

2. Our infrastructure policy

3. Our content development story and use of the creative industries fund

4. Our approach to applied R&D in this area

Recommendations for discussion

1. Rather than position our plan as ‘Digital’ we should set out a bold, Fourth Industrial Revolution strategy. Our story then is simple: a party born in the first industrial revolution is determined to ensure Britain wins the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Only Labour is prepared to make the right, smart investments in the future and make sure everyone – not just a lucky few – is able to adapt and do well in these new times.

2. We should launch our draft infrastructure paper quickly – but rather than just pose the question of how much it’ll cost to accelerate a USO of 10 Mbt/ second, we should set a longer term ambition for ubiquitous 5G plus networks to support Internet of Things, and commit to develop a road-map for its delivery.

3. We should consider earmarking a big slice of the Creative Industries Fund to create a. National network of 4IR-Creative Content Labs. These could be modelled on Catalyst/ Catapult centres and form a network where we seek to bring together existing content players like museums, BBC, arts council funded institutions and the games industry to create new apps that exploit big data, AI and VR. The focus could be on both nurturing talent but also creating nurturing smaller firms for spin-out. It’s striking how Samsung is harnessing KandyKrush-style formats developed in the gaming industry to make its interfaces cool and fun.

4. Finally, we should consider whether a specialised 4IR Institute should be created within Innovation U.K. (the old Technology Strategy Board creates by David Sainsbury) to pull together 4IR strategy. The key question is this: how do we make a handful of big investments in strategic technologies where we have a competitive advantage, rather than the usual ‘little bits for lots of things’ approach that we typically take to this.

5. Finally, there is an annual U.K.-Korea Content Summit held in London in June for which they’re dispatching ministers. We should be a proactive part of it



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