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How could Freeports become engines for social change?

Credit: Alamy

John Drever, Technical Director on Future Borders | Atkins

5 min read Partner content

Government spending on major programmes is now expected to meet new challenges – Covid-19 recovery, tackling economic inequality, fighting climate change, and assuring equality of opportunity and wellbeing – as well as boosting the economy. One such programme is Freeports – so how can they meet the challenge?

Freeports are being hailed as key tools to level-up the UK economy, and address the issues faced by the UK’s deprived coastal regions. That means adding social as well as economic value to the communities that surround them. The question is, how? First, we need to adopt some broad thinking. Fundamentally, Freeport consortia must understand their unique sense of place. What local skills do they already have? What do they need?

Only by building an accurate picture of what life is like on the ground now can they hope to add value in the future. This this will mean engaging with the people who live and work there and encouraging local communities to have their say in proactively shaping their local Freeport.

Understanding a sense of place

As part of this, consortia also need to understand the importance of placemaking. Regeneration of an area doesn’t just happen by accident, it’s carefully planned. Take Newcastle, Liverpool, or Bristol. In recent decades their historic city centre docklands have gone from being virtually derelict to becoming magnets for commercial activity and nightlife. As the Project for Public Spaces says, “placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces” – which in turn creates value for those who use the space.

So, adding social value is about more than creating jobs. It’s about letting local communities shape their surroundings for mutual benefit, for social as well as economic value. If residents have confidence that good things are happening, they will stay, live, and work there. This, in turn, promotes better wellbeing. In terms of making exciting new places – could this be an incredible opportunity for Freeports to also become wellbeing hubs that tackle climate change? Epicentres for renewable energy and electric vehicle production? We need to get excited about the possibilities.

A vital role for data analytics

Shaping, measuring, and evaluating Freeports’ success in boosting social value is crucial – and this is where data analytics are set to play a vital role. There are real-time data sources that we can tap into now to ensure Freeports develop in the way we need them to. Geospatial data, for example, can map and code an entire population in a deprived area and see where patterns form, such as using data on fuel poverty, debt prevention, Instagram likes, Facebook shares, Twitter retweets, LinkedIn job applications, energy performance ratings, and traffic jams. Add other data sources, such as new software licences being issued to local tech start-ups, or the numbers of 5G installations, and the picture gets richer.

From there, could we build up a social value digital twin, that draws together intermediate indicators to show us where good progress is being made and social value is increasing? We think it’s possible. And because these methods can measure progress far more quickly than established methods, such as the index of deprivation, they can inform faster changes in direction, and realise better outcomes, earlier. We can’t wait 20 years to determine whether a policy change has been a success or a disaster – so getting fast, smart feedback loops into Freeports design is vital to their long-term success and legacy.

The real need for ‘co-opetition’

But none of this can happen without robust data-sharing, and all parties involved signing up to the idea of ‘co-opetition’ – whereby competing businesses must cooperate to achieve collective success. This is a real challenge, as there’s a lot of resistance, largely due to concerns about data security. Everyone must be at the table for it to work, and not to engage will lead to all missing out on exceptional opportunities – such as driving crucial improvement in sustainability, operating zero carbon logistics, introducing pontooned automated trucks, and completely digitizing the Freeport’s supply chain so that they can, consolidate consignments, and reduce carbon. All of which directly links to the criteria of fighting climate change.

For its part, the Open Data Institute recognises this as a challenge too, and is  working to encourage more data sharing across industry, which it calls “difficult terrain” but “one we think is important and, much like the high seas in the sixteenth century, worthy of exploration.” We will have the ability to digitize the border of a Freeport – so why wouldn’t we want to seamlessly digitize the production or manufacturing processes taking place within it? Not to do so will mean missing the bigger picture; and the environmental and societal value that could have been created is gone.

If we get this right we could soon be exporting not just manufactured goods from our Freeports, but the whole Freeport design. The UK’s Freeports are set to become powerful mechanisms to level-up the nation’s economies and communities. Now is the time to be guided by data, and by local stakeholders and communities, if we are going to shape Freeports to fully fit their task of levelling-up socially and economically deprived areas of the UK and leave a valuable legacy.

Atkins’ report into how freeports can supercharge social value is available here.

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