This time last year my colleague and I flew to Lahti, Finland to participate in the first of many (or so we thought) Next2Met partner meetings. Although China had already reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, we never imagined it would reach Europe or that we would be living through a pandemic for the next year. However, despite the various restrictions, work on Next2Met continued; 28 stakeholders representing the public, private and non-profit sector participated in EMRAs first ever online stakeholder meeting on the 1st of April 2020 to discuss Good Practices that focused on digitalisation in the Midlands. This stakeholder event tested the very essence of the Next2Met project; using digitalisation measures to bring people together and facilitate cooperation. Stakeholders highlighted that the main barriers to digitalisation in the Midlands were gaining and retaining a talented workforce, creating awareness of remote working possibilities and supporting and developing a culture of digitalisation among SMEs and organisations. It also emphasised a need for more information sharing and linkages between stakeholders, especially with the private sector. As a result of this feedback an ‘Extranet Teams group’ was established as a horizontal network for project stakeholders to share relevant information. EMRA also shared our experience of using online tools to host stakeholder meetings at a webinar organised by Interreg Europe which was attended by 440 people from across Europe.
Throughout the year Next2Met partners continued to share, discuss, and exchange good practices. One interesting practice that was identified by EMRA called Digibale (Finland) was explored with Midland stakeholders. EMRA hosted two online meetings; the first meeting showcased the Digibale project to 16 stakeholders from the agricultural sector and the second meeting provided an opportunity for 23 Irish and Finnish stakeholders from the agricultural sector, academics and the manufacturing and software industry to discuss SMART agriculture in the Midlands. This discussion highlighted that it’s unclear whether farmers are fully prepared for a digital transition in the Midlands. It also emphasised that there is a need to address the skills gap and cost scalability within the farming community. Stakeholders suggested that providing education and training, consulting with farmer groups, promoting digital solutions and offering grants or subsidies, to encourage farmers to a digital transition. Stakeholders also suggested that further collaboration, consultation and opportunities for research are required, this is something that an international Digbale project could provide and the majority of stakeholders are interested in continuing this work.
It is clear that Covid-19 has fast forwarded the process of digitalisation, leading individuals and organisations to find new solutions to current challenges, already demonstrated by a significant capability for remote working. If there are any positives to the pandemic, it’s this shift towards digitalisation, the possibilities for more people to work remotely along with a new appreciation for fresh air and open spaces, this could provide new opportunities for the Midlands. Next 2 Met will continue its work in 2021 and explore a number of thematic areas such as best practices in Co-Working Infrastructure, Clusters, SMEs and how business can embrace digitalisation and prepare for a digital transition.