That was the key take-away from an expert panel at the recent Supercharging the Digital Economy event in London, organised by IT trade association TechUK. The panel, which included technology experts from a wide range of fields and firms, referred to key challenges for the UK government, such as research and development, governance and the skills gap.
Here, we summarise developments in four areas of advanced technology – 5G, blockchain, artificial intelligence and the cloud – and provide best practice advice on how the UK government can help IT decision makers to embrace digital transformation.
Asserting the UK role in the development of 5G networks
Dan Warren, head of 5G research at Samsung Electronics R&D Institute UK, said that while previous generations of mobile, such as 3G and 4G, have focused on technological advancements, 5G is focused squarely on business use cases. Warren says potential benefits for all organisations are significant and expects to see commercial deployment of 5G in the UK from 2020. However, he accepts more work needs to be done:
There’s been a significant change in the UK tech environment around connectivity in general. The development of 2G and GSM was driven by Europe and the UK government played a key role in helping to drive standards. 3G was driven by more of a global partnership, while 4G saw other regions and countries move on to the front foot, such as North America, Korea, China and Japan, and those countries have carried that momentum through into 5G.
Warren said the good news is large amounts of European and UK government funding have already been dedicated to research around 5G. He said development work around the technology will help provide the connectivity backbone for innovations in other areas, such as IoT and blockchain. As other panellists suggested, innovations in those areas provide a potential boon for workers in both the public and private sectors:
From a government perspective, internalising funding to support telecoms R&D is a really good idea. While they are few UK telecoms vendors, we have strong R&D capability that’s enshrined in the UK because we have significant operators that carry weight. We can potentially take a lead. It does take a long time to agree principles across Europe. As a single country, as we will be under Brexit, we can move quickly.
Helping organisations make the most of blockchain
Genevieve Leveille, founder and chief executive of AgriLedger, recognised most people have limited knowledge of blockchain technology. She said it remains a bit like a digital version of the Wild West but also suggested a large amount of the great work around the development of the technology is taking place in the UK, particularly in London. She said the next 12 months should be focused on demystifying Blockchain and proving uses cases:
The key to Blockchain is that it’s an underlying infrastructure. Blockchain will bring trust, remove the number of intermediaries and allow people to reduce cost. The NHS is looking at Blockchain very closely because, if you can prove something has happened, you don’t need to check as you have a record that cannot be changed. People fail to understand this story – blockchain is not about bitcoin, it’s about the data. And once you trust data, you’ll be willing to make a transaction.
Leveille warned attendees that any organisation not looking to make the most of blockchain in four or five years’ time will have missed the boat. She said the UK government can play a key role in helping IT leaders in all sectors to exploit the benefits of blockchain:
The fundamental problem today is technology moves faster than regulation. Many of these regulatory concerns cannot be dealt with in a sandbox. We need our regulators to look at blockchain and to provide guidance.
Creating a pipeline of talent to exploit the opportunities from AI
Phill Brougham, head of European sales at DigitalGenius, said it is important to cut through the hype around AI. While the power of automation is significant, many experts are focussing on the potential of AI to replace jobs.
Brougham encouraged attendees to take a more positive stance, suggesting AI augments existing roles. He said to think, for example, of how AI can help customer service workers drop their emphasis on repetitive tasks and to focus instead on services that help create added value for organisations and their clients. To make the most of AI, IT decision makers in all sectors must explore their options carefully:
Separate the Hollywood version of AI from what’s real. There’s a lot of cautionary tales about AI going wrong, so it’s important to apply the technology in the right way. Diagnose the use case, think about where your organisation is experiencing pain and identify potential partners. View anyone that says they can solve all your problems overnight with suspicion.
Brougham says one of the key issues for organisations looking to exploit AI is the digital skills gap. While other nations, such as the United States, also face similar concerns, he said the UK is probably not doing enough to generate a pipeline of talent:
We need to invest more in STEM in general. There’s a gap that might be corrected but it is an area that is really lacking today. In terms of a government response, investing in STEM and helping to foster the education of young people is going to be really crucial.
Developing governance to help serve citizens effectively through the cloud
Helen Kelisky, vice president in cloud at IBM UK, recognised the role of the cloud has changed as more organisations have adopted the technology. Early implementations were focused on cost cutting. The use of on-demand IT then morphed and decision makers in all sectors tried to use the cloud to create agility and increase productivity. Now, a third stage of cloud is beginning, said Kelisky, where organisations must use data to unlock knowledge and manage insight. She said the UK government can play a key role:
What’s important is how you can use these digital services to deliver innovation quickly. The government is trying to do more to deliver better services for citizens but there’s also an ageing population. Innovation, with cloud as a platform, can help organisations to change their business models for the better.
Kelisky said she believes the UK government is already doing a good job at using the cloud to deliver better services to citizens. However, she also believed the government could do more to exploit opportunities around on-demand IT, particularly regarding rules and regulations:
I would set out some clear guidance around the governance of the cloud. I’d also encourage the regulatory authorities to catch up – they are making progress but there’s still work to be done.