The UoL 4.0 Challenge
Bringing students, businesses and government together to tackle digital challenges in Lincolnshire, United Kingdom
The lack of digital SMEs and digital jobs in Lincolnshire has historically been underpinned by a lack of digital infrastructure in Lincolnshire. As a predominantly rural region, Lincolnshire has lagged behind more urban areas in availability of broadband infrastructure. Approximately 9% of premises cannot access Next Generation Access (NGA) broadband, although in some of the more rural areas this is as high as 14% (Lincolnshire County Council, 2018). This lag in broadband availability has affected the ability of SMEs to adopt digital technology. However, the evidence is that – even where NGA broadband is available – SMEs in rural areas are less likely to adopt and realise the benefits of digital technology.
The structure of the Lincolnshire economy creates a key challenge, with existing studies (e.g., Warren, 2015; Salemink et al, 2015) suggesting that technology adoption is slower among smaller businesses and those in traditional sectors. Because of the reduced propensity to innovate, and the deficit in digital skills, intervention is needed to help SMEs develop digital capabilities and encourage adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies.
Problem solving process
The UoL4.0 Challenge is an exemplary application of the triple-helix model of innovation (Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 1995). In this context, the UoL4.0 Challenge is a laboratory for knowledge-based economic development, where relationships between university-industry-government may flourish and mature, and their effects harvested. The primary benefits are increased access to knowledge and improved ability to meet challenges. Furthermore, as Elvekrok et al. (2018) suggest, firms’ outcomes may be constrained by lack of resources; but participating in joint projects has a positive impact in their performance. This indicates that collective efforts as UoL4.0 Challenge may benefit participating businesses.
The UoL4.0 Challenge approach is an interpretation of the Triple Helix of Innovation. As such, it connects businesses, government and university is positive cycles of innovation beneficial for all the actors involved:
- For SMEs, to explore how to connect their new commercial ideas with their potential markets; this by means of developing and using of digital technologies and applications.
- For students, to increase their employability levels, by means of developing technology-based entrepreneurial and problem-solving skills, to better deal with challenges posed by cyber-physical systems.
- For academics, to develop and test Challenge-based principles and examples that may be disseminated to other I4.0 communities around the world.
- For government agencies, to link businesses with know-how hubs, and increase the leverage and impact of its governmental programs and actions.
Expected results and outcomes
The UoL4.0 Challenge navigation through Covid-19 has shown the resilience of this approach. The project has continued to engage SMEs and other types of organizations in the Challenge-Based Learning process, and demonstrated a continued demand for digitalisation support during (and facilitated by) the pandemic.
- The UoL4.0 Challenge has engaged 13 SMEs, charities and other organizations in the Challenge-Based Learning process. A further four SMEs have been recruited for the current cohort, with more expressing interest for the February intake.
- Delivery of a series of UoL4.0 Challenge Awards Ceremony Events, which engage academics, students and SMEs from the region. Three have taken place so far, of which two were online.
- An effective promotional campaign has supported the project, including branded UoL4.0 Challenge Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram and a series of videos that share testimonials from participating students and businesses.
- The development a partnership delivery approach with Business Lincolnshire Growth Hub, which has supported the UoL4.0 team with business recruitment, tone of promotional messaging, and referral to appropriate support to implement solutions (e.g. digital vouchers, short video workshops).
- Engagement of more than 400 undergraduate students in collaborative projects with SMEs
- Among participating SMEs surveyed, 50% have implemented digital solutions as a result of taking part in UoL4.0 Challenge.
The team will be monitoring the following outputs on an ongoing basis:
- Among participating SMEs, an increase in use of digital tech in the process of service/product delivery, marketing and customer service.
- Among participating SMEs, easier access to finance, innovative incentives and new markets and improving data flow between companies in supply chains.
- Among participating SMEs, an increase in the percentage of enterprises that provide/use training to develop/upgrade their ICT skills
Adjustments were made to accommodate the impact of Covid-19 pandemic in students’ acquisition of employability skills. To operate CBL, before Covid-19 the module was framed in 36 hours of direct contact (24 hours of lectures and 12 hours of seminars), 48 hours of CBL group work and 66 hours of self-study. It comprised teams of between 5-8 students working during a period of 12 weeks, to solve the challenges allocated to them for the duration of the module. During Covid-19 the direct contact and groupwork were conducted online. Lectures involved large numbers and were delivered using the University’s Blackboard Collaborate Ultra platform. Microsoft Teams was adopted as a tool for collaborative work for seminars and group work. Each team was allocated a private channel on MS Teams which they used for their collaborative activities. In total, 27 MS Teams were created. Each week had a seminar session in which the Tutor confirmed the progress made by each team and discussed that week’s challenge task for 5-10 minutes. This blended approach allowed students to achieve a similar level of learning and distribution of marks as in previous editions face-to-face.
Another difficulty was the difficulty to find appropriate spaces for groupwork. Availability of physical space is always critical in universities, but online systems provided alternative virtual spaces that support students’ activities.
Recruitment of SMEs to join UoL4.0 Challenge was also affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. For some businesses, the pandemic provided a catalyst for digital transformation which increased their need for digitalization support. Other businesses were in survival model, had staff on furlough, or found an increase in demand for their services (e.g. counselling services) which meant they had less resource to devote to projects like UoL4.0 Challenge. To overcome this, the project developed a theme of ‘Online Delivery of Goods and Services’ at the start of the pandemic to attract SMEs that were looking for support for moving their services online.