The Essex and Herts Digital Innovation Zone (DIZ), co-founded and led by Epping Forest District Council, is a cross-sector, cross-border partnership seeking to explore the opportunities of digital infrastructure, applications and innovations to future-proof local economies and the provision of health and social care. The DIZ is delivered in partnership with Essex County Council and Hertfordshire County Council as well as five district councils (Broxbourne, East Herts, Epping Forest, Harlow, and Uttlesford), and partners from the health, higher and further education, voluntary and community sectors and the private sector. The DIZ has an ambition to be recognised as a ‘beacon’ area for place-based digital innovation.
The west Essex and east Hertfordshire areas cover both a mix of urban and rural areas with large and small businesses and which serves over 500,000 residents and over 35,000 businesses. Partners in these areas from local businesses and the local authorities as well as the health, education, voluntary and community sectors each wanted to play a key role in making sure that the place is ready to respond to the challenges and opportunities ahead. Although the geography crosses many borders, and the partnership crosses a number of sectors, it has in many ways a common business and health economy. The partners aimed to work together to maximise the opportunities for the wider area and to make the place a beacon for the application of new technology to grow economic prosperity and provide the best services to local communities.
The DIZ was co-founded and led by Epping Forest District Council to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the ‘digital revolution’ in order to deliver prosperous and inclusive economies, healthy communities and generate investment through digital advancement.
Three of the key priority areas of the DIZ are:
- Infrastructure: securing and delivering a £1.7m Digital, Culture, Media and Sport-funded project to deliver a Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) providing ultrafast broadband to 74 GPs across the five districts.
- Inclusion: delivering an innovative digital inclusion project funded by NHS Charities, to develop an online platform to raise up digital skills and address a lack of equipment and connectivity. The ambition is to develop a ‘databank’ for donating unwanted/unused mobile data.
- Knowledge uplift: delivering a series of Smart Place Seminars and online events that focus on specific digital issues – such as skills, infrastructure, health & social care, garden towns, digital exclusion, high streets, and place-based approaches in digital innovation.
The work of the DIZ is intended to bring about real-life impacts and benefits for the residents and businesses of its districts, while a core element of the work is also focused on making the DIZ the best-connected place of its type in the UK. The DIZ is exploring with health partners how the Local Full Fibre Networks can enable care to be moved closer to the patients, at times that are more convenient to them and in ways that give them flexibility over how to connect and access healthcare. The project also aims to uplift the general level of fibre connectivity available to the communities, enhancing their ability to access everything that our increasingly digital lives can offer. This also makes the area more attractive to businesses looking to relocate, providing the high-quality connectivity they need.
Georgina Blakemore, Chief Executive of Epping Forest District Council said:
“Epping Forest is committed to making our district a great place to live, work, study and do business. Enabling digital delivery through multi-agency collaboration is central to our goal of more efficient and effective services tailored to the needs of residents, businesses and communities. The DIZ is designed to secure the critical infrastructure and new ways of working to deliver on that vision and to achieve our shared vision to be “the best-connected place of its kind in the country.
It’s a joint venture to enable all the partners to access funding and support that they would not secure on their own, to pool investment, align services, and share expertise on our common journey. Already acknowledged nationally for its approach and delivery, it goes well beyond local government to access investors and partners in health, business, education and the voluntary and community sector in its orbit.”
The key learning from the DIZ’s experience to date is the fundamental value and importance of the partnership and driving greater collaboration across government, business, health education and the voluntary sector. Through establishing a platform and resources for joint action value has been added, and programmes delivered that acting individually would have been impossible. Councils and partners in non-city areas can achieve far more in collaboration than they can as individual organisations if the right approach is taken and resourced.
In 2020, Digital Leaders included the DIZ in its #DL100 list and awarded it the ‘Cross-Sector Digital Collaboration of the Year’. In 2021, the iESE awarded the DIZ a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ following its submission to the Public Sector Transformation Awards.