A decade of success in the Digital Economy

Posted by Dr John Baird on 10 April 2019

What is the Digital Economy?

Back in 2009 when asked, "what is the digital economy?" my predecessor, John Hand, responded "it is very broad and varied, and he was right!

Digital economy (DE) is about much more than IT, it's about how we interact with the digital world, how we live with it, and how it affects us.

The EPSRC-led DE Programme was a new concept when it was launched as a cross-Research Council programme under Research Councils UK, now UK Research and Innovation. Its vision; to harness the enormous potential of digital technologies on society; was to be achieved by bringing together people from many disciplines. These multidisciplinary teams look at the things that matter to us all. Things like personal data and information security, healthcare, social care, finance, information systems, as well as graphics and visualisation technologies for use in simulation and entertainment.

Success so far

The Digital Economy Theme has invested more than £200 million in outstanding research over the last ten years, bringing together academics, businesses, government bodies, charities and public organisations to deliver real-world impact through exciting initiatives such as:

  • Sandpits: a way of bringing together people from a variety of disciplines to tackle socio-technical challenge topics
  • NetworkPlus awards: bringing together new research communities to identify, prioritise and develop future research challenges
  • Digital Economy Research Hubs and Next Stage Centres; in partnership with Innovate UK, the Digital Catapult, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and users such as the BBC; work to make the results of the applied socio-technical research accessible, helping to take it from the lab to industry and consumers
  • Research in the Wild: 'the wild' meaning 'out there in everyday life'
  • Nine Centres for Doctoral Training: training new digital economy researchers so we have the skills needed for the future

Back to the BT Tower

In March 2019 we returned to the BT Tower, where the DE programme was launched in 2009, to showcase some of the best digital economy research and thank those involved for their hard work. Exhibits showcased a range of research projects and it was amazing to see the developments that have been made over such a short period of time including:

  • Motion-tracking technologies from the Centre for the Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research & Applications (CAMERA), a Digital Economy Next Stage Centre based at the University of Bath. In a joint endeavour with animation company Aardman, the technology has already been used to animate characters in an interactive video game. It has also been used as a tool to monitor and enhance athlete training performance and there are plans for a smartphone app to enable arthritis patients to monitor their own symptoms.
  • The TOTeM: Tales of Things Electronic Memories project; derived from a "Design in the Digital World Sandpit; tells the stories of old objects. Have you ever picked up an item in a second hand store and thought "I wonder who this belonged to?" The TOTeM team, working with partners such as Oxfam have built an Internet of Old Things, allowing users to attach memories to objects in the form of a video, text or audio and connect with people who have shared similar experiences.
  • The "Their eyes say it all" project, based at Dundee University, is working with people who have severe speech and physical impairments to help them engage more effectively in conversational storytelling. If you consider that Stephen Hawking spoke at only two words per minute, compared to an average of 150 to 180 words per minute for speaking people, it is easy to see how technology that gives users timely access to phrases when conversing will help conversations flow.

This is just a small taste of the breadth of digital economy research. There are so many more exciting projects in our brochure: A decade of success in the Digital Economy: research for a connected world (PDF).

I am looking forward to the next ten years, I'm excited about what is in store for digital economy research, the new technologies that can be developed and the challenges that lie ahead, and I expect we will have an even more broad and varied future.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of John Baird
Name: Dr John Baird
Job title: Theme Lead
Department: Digital Economy
Organisation: EPSRC