Outreach with technology: Rural communities and innovative small businesses are being given hi-tech help. Sally Watts reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CROFTERS, salmon farmers and fishermen gather at a new 'telecottage' in the Shetlands to learn to use spreadsheets and other types of computerised bookkeeping that will help them maintain more effective control of their businesses.

In Herefordshire, the town of Kington (population 2,200) is being transformed into the hi-tech rural community of the future, and the arrival of the technology ('everybody is connected to everybody') promises opportunities to an area suffering from declining agriculture and under-employment.

Both are part of Connected Community, the most innovative project of its kind in Europe, with public money helping to widen the scope of technology, both by improving employment and business prospects for people in remote areas, and stimulating businesses at the sharp end of innovation.

As the Kington initiative begins, a robotics expert, Paul Robinson, ends a six-month secondment with Robot Simulations of Newcastle-upon- Tyne where he worked on development of computer modelling and simulation software. He is the first academic to participate in the initiative aimed at linking academia and industry, with the Department of Trade & Industry covering up to 70 per cent of the costs.

Some projects are jointly funded by public and private sectors, others solely by Government. Among these is Senior Academics in Industry, which invites leading researchers from university science and engineering departments to work in industry for four to six months. Benefits to firms are obvious, and preference is given to small or medium sized companies, such as Robot Simulations, which has six employees and a pounds 150,000 turnover. Roger Verrall, managing director, explained: 'Historically, robots are programmed by sophisticated mainframe computers. Our idea was to bring this knowledge on to a PC - the achievement of our technical director, Dr John Owens. What was then needed was an experienced user. Paul Robinson's department is one of our customers and it wanted the programme expanded to give a wider choice of applications. As a robot user and teacher, he has tested all the programme's features and shown they work. It is already starting to sell and we are increasing our distributors.'

Mr Robinson, a senior lecturer at Plymouth University's school of electronic, communication and electrical engineering, said: 'There's a great need for a powerful software package dedicated to robot work cells but based on the relatively inexpensive PC.

'The user must be able to set up the chosen work environment and see that robots can do the job before committing capital expenditure to equipment. My role was, first, to be a constructive critic, usingmy experience to make the development more inter-active and user friendly and, second, to write an easily followed manual.'

He has now developed the first BSc honours course on robotics and automated systems, starting this term and incorporating much of his work for Robot Simulations. And the firm itself has just received a pounds 25,000 DTI innovation grant.

Senior Academics in Industry is run by the Teaching Company Directorate (part of Cranfield Institute of Technology) at Farringdon, Oxon . John Monniot, deputy director, said: 'The DTI is putting about pounds 1m into three years of trials. We hope to start 32 projects and are looking particularly for smaller firms working in innovation and needing the expertise of highly qualified people. The target areas are applied science and computing.'

The Connected Community programme, such as the one in Kington, is designed to examine the effects of state-of-the- art technology on the economy of villages and small towns: can it create new businesses and employment to offset job losses? The Henley Centre will monitor results to next autumn.

Kington was chosen after a nationwide search. Within a 10- mile radius are a thousand farms, mainly livestock; their average annual net income is pounds 1,400, nearly all from subsidies. Under-employment is high; 25 per cent of the workforce is self-employed; a further 20 per cent work part time. Now shops, offices, schools, surgeries and small firms are being connected. British Telecom and Apple Computer UK are contributing communications equipment and computers worth more than pounds 250,000. The Rural Development Commission and the DTI are each giving pounds 50,000 in grant aid.

'We're getting the kind of IT resource that has only been used in cities,' saidMiles Swinburne, project manager.

Business and computer training, support services and video conferencefacilities are included, and advice is provided by the Hereford and Worcester Training & Enterprise Council and the local chamber of commerce.

Last spring the non-profit Telecottage Association was formed to increase work and training opportunities for people living in remote areas, and to stimulate local business through technology, including shared facilities at local centres or telecottages.

These low-cost IT and training centres offer electronic sorting and mail services, word and data processing, and desktop publishing and computer-aided design facilities. They also teach people, such as business owners, to use a range of equipment and train teleworkers who can then work at the centre or at home.

The first opened less than four years ago in a converted cobbler's shop in the Forest of Dean. Today there are about 60 in places like Devon and Wiltshire, the Staffordshire moorlands, Wales and Scotland. Laura Baisley, who runs the Shetlands centre, reports that they are training disabled people in their homes to be teleworkers. In Scotland, the Highlands & Islands Enterprise Council provided initial funding for the Shetlands centre and others in the Hebrides, Isla, Orkney and Argyll. Additional backing came from local authorities, the RDC and BT.

The Association wants to create new markets for telecottages and teleworkers. Alan Denbigh, executive director, believes 250 cottages will be in operation by the year 2000.

Innovation is booming, to judge by the success of SMART (Small FirmsMerit Award for Research & Technology). This is the DTI's annual competition to help small industries with up to 50 employees which produce outstandingly innovative ideas but lack funds to develop them.

Awards are in two stages, with a year between each. Currently the first is up to pounds 45,000, the second up to pounds 60,000. When the pilot scheme began in 1986, there were 20 awards; last year there were 180. Competition is high, with this year's entries up 10 per cent on 1992.

'SMART is one of our keyschemes and the hope is to stimulate export,' says the DTI.

(Photograph omitted)