I don’t think any of the parties were as prepared on the tech agenda as they were ahead of the last election.
With the General Election looming and the various political parties building digital thinking into their agendas, techUK, the organisation that represents 700,000 tech professionals across 900 organisations, has launched its own manifesto.
Inventing the Future: How Global Britain Can Shape Our Digital Future is a recommendation-packed, 55-page document that sets out the technology sector’s vision. The organisation says:
Inventing the future is an audacious ambition, which matches the British people’s desire for a new departure. The UK has always been at the forefront of invention and those who invent the future are the ones to shape it.
Antony Walker is Deputy CEO of TechUK, and the man who delivered the somewhat downbeat assessment above. He explains the timing of the report:
Getting Brexit right for the tech sector will be fundamental to the success of the UK economy. What we’re trying to do is not to come up with a shopping list of tech, but to think about what matters to the UK and society over the next ten years.
Overall, techUK breaks down its strategic wish list into five key areas:
- Making Brexit a success for the tech sector .
- Achieving economic renewal for all via a modern industrial strategy .
- Building a smarter state.
- Nurturing skills for the jobs of the future.
- Guaranteeing a safe and secure digital world.
The report says:
The next Government must secure a deal that puts the UK on the best possible footing to thrive outside the EU. This will require a tech-first trade deal; maintaining the cross-border data flows; making the UK a hub for global tech talent; providing confidence, stability, and certainty throughout the negotiations; and placing tech at the heart of Global Britain’s new trade relationships.
But can the UK really achieve these aims on its current trajectory? Take the issue of ‘confidence, stability, and certainty’ and map it against UK data security, which is number five on TechUK’s five-point plan. The report sets out a bold objective:
The UK needs to be the safest place for people to go online. Young people must be empowered to navigate the online world safely through a new ‘digital resilience’ curriculum, and a full, evidence-based review into current best practice should be conducted to underpin a comprehensive online safety strategy.
But together, Brexit itself, national surveillance, and a widespread lack of preparedness for GDPR (a 2017 Computing report found that 46 per cent of organisations are either not prepared for, or barely aware of, GDPR) risk creating a perfect storm of data protection, location, and transfer problems for British businesses.
So while the Prime Minister and the leaders of the other main political parties have talked up the need for technology leadership and innovation in their own Election campaigns, can the UK really claim that it is a safe place for digital business over the next few years? Walker says:
I don’t think the UK is unsafe for digital business. The UK is fully compliant with EU law today, and it will be fully compliant in implementing GDPR, so in that sense nothing has changed. But there is a very significant issue to do with international data transfer. We would like to see a data adequacy agreement in place from day one. That was picked up in the Labour manifesto.
Among the big data security challenges, techUK singles out the recent ransomeware attack that compromised NHS computers and says:
techUK calls on the new government to provide a 10 percent increase in the total National Cyber Security Strategy budget to strengthen government and public sector ICT. This would equate to almost £200 million in extra funding.
The UK has excellent capabilities in terms of cyber security. It’s a boardroom issue that needs to cascade through the organisation. But the lesson of the last few days has certainly been that you’re only as secure as your weakest link.
But some might argue that our political leaders are the weakest link in the UK’s tech ambitions, given Whitehall’s sustained attacks on one technology, end-to-end encryption, that underpins the security of the UK’s entire digital economy. techUK shares these concerns. The report says:
Recent comments to allow backdoors to encryption are misguided and would significantly undermine encryption – a backdoor for government is a backdoor for those with malign intentions. While the sector recognises the need to tackle issues surrounding online security and extremist content, targeting encryption is not an effective policy. The new government should unambiguously commit to protecting encryption.
The role of GCHQ is to focus on national security but also to keep the UK’s digital economy secure. Our security agencies understand that tension well. Our job is to make a case for why end-to-end encryption is fundamentally important... especially when you have less informed people entering the debate and commenting.
Skills and the new world of work
When it comes to skills. the report warns that short-term political expediency may damage the UK’s long-term prospects:
The UK tech sector faces a triple hit on digital skills. Alongside the existing digital skills gap in the UK, significant uncertainty on the access to EU talent, and new restrictions to hiring non-EEA workers introduced in April 2017 risk hindering growth. The dynamism of the sector means tech creates new jobs at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the economy, and demand far outstrips supply.
So what can the government do about it? Well, techUK makes a number of detailed recommendations, saying that the next government can equip the future generation with world-class digital skills from an early age by:
- Ring-fencing the £250 million revenue raised by the immigration skills charge to help fund domestic digital skills programmes.
- Reversing cuts in the arts curriculum funding to link STEM with the arts (STEAM).
- Expanding the National College for Digital Skills model nationally; and providing £10 million in new funding to help educe digital exclusion.
More, it should place digital skills at the heart of every apprenticeship, do more to inspire girls and women to work in STEM careers, and – above all – launch an independent Commission into the entire education system and the future of work, to ensure that everyone has the skills to flourish in a 21st Century economy.
Of course, the skills issue is itself wrapped up with the new world of work and emerging technologies, including building a smarter state and forging a new industrial strategy. But all of this seems to be taking place in a political environment of ‘cut, cut, cut’, not ‘invest, invest, invest’.
Walker accepts that there is going to be more change to come in terms of digital disruption, creating new jobs but also threatening existing ones with large-scale automation. This means that young people will need to be both highly skilled and highly adaptable to survive, let alone flourish.
But are they? Many employers and local digital skills initiatives report a serious problem among millennials: a lack of critical thinking skills. Does techUK share that view? Walker says:
The short answer is yes. We would argue that while we want STEM – they will always be valuable skills and they allow people to be analytical – you need to have the critical thinking that drives the will to do the analysis.
Creativity is one of things that will distinguish the human from the machine, and issues such as empathy and intuition will be very significant in the 21st Century. And these are exactly the issues that a new Commission should focus on: what are the skills that will allow young people to thrive in their lifetimes?
There will be further challenges facing the next government, says Walker:
The impact of changing demographics and an ageing society, on pensions and on the costs of delivering healthcare... we are on an unsustainable trajectory. Either we put tax up to an unprecedented level, or we transform the efficiency and effectiveness of the NHS and other public services. The smarter state is the only state we can afford.
All of which brings us to technologies such as AI, robotics, and automation. Walker warns that all businesses will look to cut costs in this way and that “everyone will have the opportunity to look for efficiencies”, but that isn’t what the new economy ought to be about:
A really smart business looks to create value and build value. You can save money, but you can also redeploy your assets and build higher-value products and services. That means using people in a different way. So you might have fewer people at the checkout, for example, but more people making the customer experience more compelling. It isn’t just about cutting jobs but rethinking business and how you provide value in this world. That will be the differentiator.
So what is the big picture for TechUK? What is the one thing that the next government needs to do? Walker is clear:
There needs to be a significant uplift across the board in terms of the amount of investment. Putting three per cent of GDP into R&D that would put us in the vanguard of innovation across the world. That will be even more important in the context of Brexit.
The next government should also harness the power of tech to solve the UK’s “productivity puzzle”, according to techUK and:
- Make the UK the best place to start up and scale a high-growth business.
- Create an open and dynamic regulatory framework.
- Develop the conditions for investment in world class digital and data infrastructure.
All told, that’s quite a ‘to do’ list.
Walker accepts that this will be a very “unusual election” with a “tremendous focus on the issue of Brexit”.
And this is the problem. Campaigners have become so hung up on Brexit itself, that some of them have stopped thinking about what kind of society we want to create on the other side of it.
In short, we’ve stopped seeing the wood because of all the trees, and that could be disastrous when it comes to forging a real, deliverable, practical vision for the future in which action and investment match the rhetoric. As Walker says:
This is about long-term industrial strategy and recognising that the benefits of tech innovation and digital growth need to be felt everywhere. People feel that not everyone is benefiting from these things in those parts of the country that have seen less investment than the South East.