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As the UK’s largest digital infrastructure provider, Openreach supports more than 620 Communications Providers such as BT, Sky and TalkTalk in connecting their customers to phone, mobile, broadband, TV and data services across the country.

Our network covers over 31 million homes and businesses, underpinning thousands of schools, hospitals, banks, mobile masts and large businesses – even broadcasters, CCTV networks and data centres. So it’s no exaggeration to say that our network touches virtually every aspect of daily life in some way.

We know that providing connectivity alone isn’t enough to help individuals and businesses fully realise the true value of the technology that companies like ours are enabling. That’s why we’re excited to be part of a movement of businesses, local authorities and arts and cultural institutions, convened by the RSA, to put lifelong learning at the heart of a city’s social and economic development.

We are excited about the combination of digital and real-world learning

Teaching digital skills is vital for people of all ages to be able to access services, support their children’s education and achieve their goals. But it’s clear that we also need to find ways to help people develop the ‘soft skills’ that will enhance their opportunities to find work or establish businesses and acquire the networks/social capital they need to succeed.

Technology helps us do more, but human interactions still matter. People still want to connect in physical places, share experiences, build relationships, and learn from each other.

It’s the merging of the digital and real worlds that excites us. A digital platform, full of learning opportunities, can help people to navigate to online and offline experiences in their city, acquire the ‘digital badges’ that will enhance their CV, progress them to further learning opportunities, and improve their employment prospects.

Our job at Openreach is to provide one essential component of that map – good, reliable connectivity – and we see the Cities of Learning model as a brilliant way to bring the investment we’re making in the UK’s broadband infrastructure to life.

There is no doubt that the city is the perfect place to experiment with alternative methods of gathering and documenting the skills and experience people need to succeed. The city provides the necessary concentration of institutions, great diversity, and vital infrastructure (such as public transport) that makes the Cities of Learning model so exciting.

Taking part in Cities of Learning in Salford helps us learn from other businesses

As the RSA starts these experiments in locations across the UK, we were particularly excited to join a group supporting the prototype work in Salford. This is an opportunity to concentrate on a community with its own unique identity and sense of place, but one which will also influence activity in the wider Greater Manchester area at the same time.

Over the next 12 months, Openreach is building ‘Full Fibre’ broadband across Salford as part of our Fibre First Programme. And, as data consumption increases by 40% each year over our network, we’re investing to make faster, more reliable and future-proof broadband available to meet the demands of new technology and how it will enable initiatives like Cities of Learning to succeed.

Contributing to Cities of Learning is also a way of helping us to understand how people and communities are interacting with new technology. Understanding the barriers people face – perceived or actual – helps us understand how we can work with our partners in industry to improve their experience.

Our own people are also part of this equation. Openreach employs 32,000 people, who live, work, and have a stake in every community across the UK. We want them to feel proud of the investment we are making in the communities we serve and how we are going above and beyond to support education, skills, and access to jobs. 

Openreach has made a significant investment in tailored approaches to learning and development to meet our own commercial needs. This translates into a more general commitment to lifelong learning and a focus on developing people over periods of long tenure with the business.

Participating in Cities of Learning is as much about what we might learn from other businesses and institutions as what we are contributing to the initiative itself.

Business and government partnerships are essential to creating real change in lifelong learning

Systemic change in the way people approach learning and development – particularly outside of the formal academic environment of a school or college and through life – is simply impossible to deliver without a partnership between business, local and national government stakeholders and communities.

Businesses are increasingly alert to the fact that learning cannot stop as we exit the school gates. But we don’t have all the answers. Each individual is different, including in the barriers that they have to overcome in order to meet their aspirations, and a partnership approach is essential.

That’s why this project is so powerful. It allowed Openreach to use some of its annual corporate responsibility investment to act as a catalyst, leveraging the vital match funding from our project partners to get the initiative going.

Salford & Greater Manchester Cities of Learning

While we cannot predict exactly how individuals will ultimately benefit from the Cities of Learning model, we know that it has stimulated interest and enthusiasm from key organisations with a stake in the ongoing development of Salford and Greater Manchester and indeed in other cities and regions around the country and the world.

Their expertise and their recognition of the opportunity that this represents will ensure that our contribution really makes a difference to the communities we are ultimately trying to support.

We are fascinated to see what the first phase of the Cities of Learning prototype in Salford and Greater Manchester uncovers. And we look forward to working with the other members of the consortium to see how we can help many more people to seek out the learning opportunities that will support their long-term career ambitions.


Richard Brophy is Head of Corporate Responsibility for Openreach and a Fellow of the RSA www.openreach.com

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