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Creating connections: Stirling’s regional digital hubs

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Digital connectivity is an increasingly important issues across the world. In this interview we speak to Steve McDonald, service manager for economic growth culture, tourism and events at Stirling Council, about the Council’s innovative Regional Digital Hubs project. Not only does this initiative tackle the challenge of rural connectivity but it is also providing training opportunities, boosting local economies, tackling inequality and bringing a new energy to high streets. 

Alice:
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, to start would you mind introducing yourself?

Steve:
I’m Steve McDonald and I am the service manager for economic growth culture, tourism and events at Stirling Council. So, that encompasses all the traditional forms of economic development, we do capital infrastructure projects, we do business support programs, we run business gateway, for example, inward investment is a big focus for us- attracting companies here and supporting the companies that we do have to grow. The Culture and Events service sits within my remit as well so we’ve got our own venues, the Toll Booth, Albert halls, Wallace monument sits within our remit. We run these venues as well as attracting major events to Stirling and support the wider creative and cultural sectors. We’ve got key sectors such as digital and tourism, financial services, with a dedicated focus on these services and officers who support those particular areas. So, an all-encompassing economic development type role.

Alice:
I imagine it’s been a difficult couple of years. How has the pandemic impacted Stirling and the work you do?

Steve:
It has it has completely changed what we do, because we were delivering grants so everything was landing on us., all the business support grants came within our service. A lot of that was quite prescriptive, rates to pay businesses was all set out and it was processing essentially. But it was incredibly time consuming and everyone was working really long hours and at weekends. Some of it was discretion as well, money to us and to support businesses through the pandemic so, that was a little bit different and we had to be more creative in terms of shaping it for our particular area, getting elected members and politicians on board which was quite challenging because there’s only so much money and we can’t support everyone., we had to get balance between being quite focused to ensure the money made a difference as opposed to giving everyone 100 quid, you know, which wouldn’t have made a difference. So it’s been really challenging, but rewarding as well, because I don’t think we’ve ever had so many thank yous and notes of appreciation because obviously it’s been such difficult time for everyone and you know, we did work at incredible speed as well, I look back and we put, million pound funding schemes in place that would take us years normally and we got those in place within weeks just because you had to, whilst maintaining governance because it is public money. it was a difficult time, but rewarding as well, actually. Hopefully now we’re coming out of that and focusing on recovery. again, we’re getting quite a bit of COVID recovery money at the moment to support businesses. hopefully that focus is moving away from that emergency response which was essentially just getting cash out and into people’s bank accounts to keep the lights on essentially. But now it’s focused on, you know, coming out of that and supporting businesses.

Alice:
And do you think it will catalyse kind of long term, more sustainable policy-making

Steve:
I hope, I think some sectors have been impacted, more, more than others and it’s maybe accelerating the decline of some sectors, things like retail and stuff that was happening anyway., it’s about how we transition out of that and, you know, diversify our city centres and, , what are the jobs of the future for people who are, going to be impacted on this. I don’t think we’ve seen the full economic impact of the pandemic yet, we’ve got to be mindful of that and focus on supporting and creating jobs in growth sectors, that’s the focus of our attention to over coming months and years.

Alice:
How did the Regional Digital Hubs come about?

Steve:
the Regional Digital Hubs came about as part of our city region deal. So a key sector for Stirling is digital which was created on the back of Code Base coming to Stirling. Code Base were original based in Edinburgh I think, but their second port of call was Stirling and Code Base Stirling has been a real success story. we’ve got a number of digital, businesses, who are in Code Base in Stirling city centre. I think it had almost 100% occupancy pre pandemic and things are moving back to that. that was seen as a key sector, it’s a really cool building and it’s great for innovation, it’s a great space for companies to work together, there’s access to investment and business support programs, the whole shabang works really well. The thinking was phase two of that was to roll that into our more rural areas as well and a key driver for that is connectivity which is a challenges for some rural areas of Stirling. So to give you an example, the first digital hub that we put in place was in Strathardle, which is out in Aberfoyle, so about 40 minutes drive from Stirling, out in the national park. Aberfoyle serves a wider number of rural places. So, you know, I started at Stirling Council about 4 years ago and that was one of my things is we’ve got this money here for the rural hubs, lets what the demand is so I went out to a couple meetings and we had instances of fairly successful businesses run by local people. There was one particular example, chap running a global business, living in Strathardle and he spent half the time in London. he was kind of going between the two places. And it was a bit ridiculous because lived about half an hour from Aberfoyle, but he was having to drive into Aberfoyle to make some phone calls, send some emails, he then would drive home. So connectivity was a huge driver and essentially it’s a mini code base that we put in Aberfoyle. We did a bit of demand analysis and there was a number of digital businesses that were operating in that sphere so occupancy was pretty good in the Aberfoyle hub. But not just digital businesses we want to create a space where people could go, they could collaborate, have excellent connectivity and just a nice space where people could go and work. Stirling’s economy is made up a lot of microbusinesses and SMEs and a lot of people were working from home pre-pandemic so we wanted to try and provide a different type of model for those folks to work in. So the Aberfoyle model works really well. Obviously COVID impacted that significantly and we had to shut the doors for a significant period of time and we did second guess ourselves during that period thinking have we done the wrong thing here? But I think there’s even more demand for these hubs now because I don’t think people go back to commuting full time. We’ve got a number of people in Stirling that used to commute to Glasgow or Edinburgh and that might not happen quite as much but also as you know yourselves, working from home is not great all the time you know, you need space to meet other people and work with other people. So we’ve done that with the Aberfoyle Hub, we’ve got Hubs also in Drymen and Balfron which were completed and are working well with pretty high levels of occupancy. We’re also nearing the completion of hubs in Cowie and Bannockburn which are a little bit different. The hubs that have been completed are in fairly affluent areas of Stirling, they were strong communities and had a strong business network behind them to make that happen. So we worked closely with them provided the funding, but it was a bit easier because that strong network was in place, but we have to direct the funding to where its needed as well. So now Cowie and Bannockburn are less affluent areas – Cowie is an ex mining village and mining village and Bannockburn has its own challenges so we’ve invested in hubs there as well. I think with be slightly different. We want to get STEP our business support agency in and running entrepreneurship programs for young people and I suppose more generally putting a stronger emphasis on a program of support. It’ll still be a place where people can go and work, but we want people to also engage with our employability services and skills development as well. So there may be a different focus on that and hopefully people will decide to start own businesses or do something a little bit different off the back of that. So there’s been huge benefits from it. I think I mentioned the connectivity, that’s an essential part of it, but it’s just that that collaboration space has been really good and even encouraging local supply chains is something that the pandemic has accelerated in a positive sense and looking a bit more local for services which has maybe not always happened before. In summary that’s worked really well, that collaboration and getting our key agencies (including the council) out to be more visible in rural areas because that wasn’t always the case. When I first started, that was a common complaint that people didn’t see the presence and the support and were reluctant to travel to Stirling for a seminar on marketing or something. we’ve kind of changed that round and said, well let’s invest in these hubs and let’s put these seminars on rural locations as well, because Stirling’s population is about half and half in terms of the rural/urban so it’s important to concentrate as much on the rural areas Stirling itself. So that’s the rationale and the story and the Hubs

Alice:
Brilliant, it sounds like a great project. LGIU work in a co-working space in Edinburgh called The Melting Pot which has been brilliant it’s been such a good way to connect with people.

Steve:
Yeah. I think in the larger cities it’s quite commonplace for these co-working spaces to exist, but for whatever reason, they didn’t really exist in rural Stirling and it was people working at their kitchen tables or having to have meetings and cafes and things, which is fine, but it’s not always appropriate.

Alice:
And are they older buildings that are been converted?

Steve:
It’s a mixture.. I think in the main we’ve tried to focus on bringing back into use older buildings. I think one in Balfron is a newer development just because there wasn’t an appropriate space already there, but we do try to focus on bringing old buildings back into use. So the one in Bannockburn, for example, that was driven by RBS moving out. So it was a vacant unit on Bannockburn high street, which was a challenge. Stirling Council decided to invest in that and bring it back use as a Hub. And the one in Cowie was a shop that was unfortunately burnt down. So it was a bit of an eye-sore in Cowie and its now a new-build in the space of that older building that was destroyed.

Alice:
I imagine they are potentially a really good attraction for people moving to rural areas as well. During the pandemic, obviously a lot of people wanted to leave cities and one of the downsides not having great internet connection or having to commute.

Steve:
Exactly, it’s a big part of our inward investment sell as well to people because people can come and base their business here and we’ve got good connectivity and good space that you can come and work with other people.

Alice:
And have you collaborated with other councils on the project?

Steve:
We haven’t really although we’ve, we’ve started conversations with Clackmannanshire and Falkirk. A lot of our work has been driven regionally and there’s benefits to that. Because we do attempt to encourage these hubs to network as well and you know, share experiences and share supply chains, So I think if we can expand out to other places that’s only a positive and we have set those discussions with Clackmannanshire and Falkirk.

Alice:
And is each hub run as an individual unit?

Steve:
Yes is it’s although it is something that we are exploring because it puts a lot of pressure on communities because there is a reliance on people to take that on and that’s been okay in Aberfoyle, Balfron and Drymen because they’ve got strong networks there It’s more of a challenge in Bannockburn and Cowie so the council have invested some resource for staffing the hubs to support these hubs to get up and running. But something we’re kind toying with is having a centra resource to coordinate that stuff as well because a lot of it just happens by chance. So even how we market them as well that’s something that we are looking at.

Alice:
Does this project tie into Stirling’s 20 minute neighbourhood plans?

Steve:
Yeah. nothing’s off the table really. I think in terms of where we base these things, it’s just, it’s been on a place basis so far.

Alice:
Absolutely, I guess so much of that 20 minute neighbourhood conversation has been very urban focused. People have kind of struggled to think about what it might look like in rural areas, which is why this project is so important. I was just wondering how you measure success with these Hubs?

Steve:
I think we’ve probably been a bit lax on that. Actually we’ve focused on just getting things done and maybe retrospectively we could have put in place stronger measures. We do measure occupancy. We’ve invested quite heavily in the capital infrastructure in these hubs but it’s the revenue bit that’s the challenge so since COVID hit we  had to sit down and look at all that again. So I think putting in place performance measures is going be really important moving forward. It’s something we’ve been a wee bit remiss with if I was being honest, aside from, occupancy and the number of events and basic things like that. But I think we do need to look at that, in terms of how we manage that going forward.

Alice:
So at the moment is it a a kind of individual membership model?

Steve:
Yes people buy a membership for them. They’re very flexible and you can use it however many hours a month or whatever it might be and people pay on the back of that. So we do have in place, in the Aberfoyle one, because it’s a Council building there’s a lease in place for the local community. So we’re not charging market rent for that. It’s very much you pay for the cleaning essentially and essential maintenance.

Alice:
And if you were to do the projects again or in a different place, what would you do differently?

Steve:
I think putting in place performance measures would be important. I think probably a bit more of a joined up approach as well in terms of how we market them. I think a lot of that’s been done retrospectively. You know what, a lot of this was driven by capital funding and deadlines for spend so that focus on getting the project completed. But I think performance measures and I think just being a bit more coordinated I think the hubs would all benefit from that. A lot of that stuff just happened just by chance, by the good will of the people operating them but as a local authority we could have had a more structured approach to that, but you know we live and learn and it’s fine becasue they’re in place and they’re working well. So I think we can build on that success.

Alice:
And are they popular?

Steve:
Yeah they are. Occupancy has been strong. COVID kind of railroaded everything with these things because the doors are closed, you know. So I think we need a bit of a reset and refresh and a big push on marketing to help build people’s confidence and remind people, the hubs are there to use and because you know, yourselves, you get out the habit and it takes me, I swing of things, we’re just so used to kind getting up and getting behind your laptop. So I think we need to remind people that they are there and of the benefits but I think, there’s more opportunity than was before with these spaces.

Alice:
Brilliant, yes there are definitely growing opportunities for spaces like these. That was great thank you so much for speaking with us Steve and sharing such great insight into this project.



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