How Sunderland is Transforming Communities for the Digital Age


17th March 2021

Topic Living & Inclusion
Sector Living & Inclusion

Sunderland City Council has partnered with the Centre for Digital Citizens, which aims to explore how citizens and communities can become part of designing innovative technologies that work better and smarter for the people using them.

The impact of COVID-19 has shown that technology is key to the way we live and work, with the UK fast becoming a nation of digital citizens. However, this has also shown us that digital literacy and access to resources are some of our biggest boundaries to living in a fully digital community with many socio-economic groups finding themselves excluded from the changes in how we live.

Sunderland is already recognised as a digital leader, with investments in place to accelerate and advance digital innovation in the North East. By working with the Centre for Digital Citizens, which began in November 2020, communities of all types can explore topics and ideas for the next generation of citizen led digital public services, ensuring equality so that no one and nowhere is left behind.

Centre for Digital Citizens in the North East

The Centre for Digital Citizens is a £9m project that has been funded with £3.7m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), with matched funding from university and industry partners.

The Centre for Digital Citizens is led by two of the world’s leading technology research labs at Newcastle University and Northumbria University, bringing together 28 academics and 18 post-doctoral researchers from across the two universities, as well as the work of additional communities and individuals.

The goal is to work alongside citizens from across the entire North East through participatory research and co-design. Covering topics such as design and the digital transformation of public services, the hope is that the Centre will also become a catalyst for future innovation, as well as cementing itself as a beacon of digital education and support within the region.

Sunderland City Council sits on the ‘Connected Citizen’ working group and among core aims to co-create the next generation of citizen-led digital public services by placing people at the centre of our digital worlds, can prioritise the evolving needs of individuals to facilitate future demands.

The North East experiences a wide-range of socio-economic disparities when it comes to status, geography, healthcare services and social connectivity. It was important that the Centre for Digital Citizens took these issues into account to create digital services that would enfranchise North East communities, rather than further isolating and excluding them. As our world, including our public services, education, health resources and workplaces move online, it is crucial that people are able to move and grow with them.

Tackling Digital Issues Within the Community

We understand that digital connectivity is not only the key to economic recovery following COVID-19, but is also the way forward to empower, unite and progress – the pandemic has merely accelerated it. It’s clear that businesses and communities must embrace it to thrive, but what is also essential is the identification of groups which require extra skills development and support to ensure no one and nowhere is left behind.

It is vital that individuals continue to gain the digital skills needed to succeed now and into the future. Bridging gaps between groups and communities to avoid digital disempowerment will help to ensure that technology solves problems and enhances people’s lives, rather than hindering or holding them back.

With this in mind, the infrastructure must be in place to ensure that no one is ‘left behind’, with equal access to resources that will have long-lasting social value.

From Sunderland City Council’s investments, such as the continued roll out of ultrafast 5G across Sunderland enabling people to gain access to high-speed broadband, to resources and skills deployment to equip people with digital capabilities addressed by the Centre; solutions to tackle emerging challenges in creating ‘digital citizens’ across North East Communities has already begun.

How the Centre is Creating ‘Digital Citizens’

As part of the Centre’s core initiatives, the following topics are to form part of the wider education around digital literacy, to create ‘digital citizens’ who can better engage with the increasingly digital landscape:

The Well Citizen – This will explore how people are using shared and publicly available data to inform personal health and wellbeing. This will support in reducing health inequalities across all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. For example, improving access to online resources and apps which support health and wellbeing, as well as opening communication channels between individuals, care workers and healthcare providers for better monitored and regular healthcare support.

The Safe Citizen – Discovering how the role of algorithms and data technology can support fair and secure societies. By educating communities about online threats which range from viruses, privacy breaches and cyber-attacks to the more complex issues of online bullying, misinformation and fraud, individuals can protect themselves and their assets from psychological, financial and social harm.

The Connected Citizen – A key goal of the centre is to work with the community to design ideas of the next generation of citizen-led digital public services, taking into account the wants and needs of the public and how they might change and grow in future. This will help continue to improve digital leadership within the region, by placing people at the centre of our digital worlds.

The Ageless Citizen – Exploring the life-long role technology plays in supporting learning opportunities for all ages. From school age children and those in higher education, to adult learning and continuation into seniority. This will ensure that all age groups, across all communities are equipped with the knowledge and skills to navigate a more digital landscape.

Supporting Our Smart City

Sunderland’s smart city vision is one of an engaged collective of people, places and opportunities. Opportunities to live, learn and earn – to grow as individuals and as successful businesses.

The Sunderland Our Smart City programme continues to play a pivotal role as an enabler, putting in place the infrastructure and partnerships to underpin this new digital landscape, which is critical to the successful future of the region.

While it is essential that we tackle the issues of today with a keen eye on investment, growth and training; the Centre for Digital Citizens helps us to navigate the challenges of tomorrow and supporting us to forge a new direction to live, work and thrive in our connected, international city of Sunderland.