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UK reveals plans to become ‘international technology superpower’ (…again)

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 22, 2023
The recently created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology has said that the new roadmap should help the UK achieve ‘tech superpower status’ by 2030.

digital britain

The UK has published a strategy today that aims to provide a framework for it to become an ‘international technology superpower’ by 2030. This, however, isn’t the first time that the UK has laid out such ambitions. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson made similar promises in the wake of Brexit back in 2019, claiming that the UK was the perfect choice to “lead the way in the advancement of knowledge”. 

However, last year MPs assessing the government’s progress in achieving such superpower status found that the UK’s ambition was on track to become another empty slogan. 

Fast forward a few months and we now have the newly created Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which is giving the slogan another shot - with the hope that more progress will be made this time around. 

The aim of the new strategy: that by 2030, polling will demonstrate that the UK is seen as one of the top science and technology nations in the world, and a leader in Europe. And, in addition, will be collaborating more deeply with our leading nations and investing in the application of science and technology to tackle the urgent global challenges facing the planet. 

The government said today that the UK’s vision offers an alternative to the “authoritarian regimes” that are using technology “as a tool of oppression”. The strategy is guided by four principles - to be open, responsible, secure and resilient - and aims to promote the positive use of technology, drive innovation andUK tech leadership, while boosting security from new and emerging threats. 

As a side note, there is one key point in the strategy that highlights ‘privacy enhancing technologies’ as an area of focus for the UK, which is quite ironic given the government’s recent attempts to undermine end-to-end encryption on private messaging applications. But, anyway…

Upon launch of the strategy, Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: 

We are a top-class breeding ground for emerging tech, but being a superpower means working with our international partners to turn these nascent technologies into global industries.

Our International Tech Strategy will ensure we deepen collaboration with our allies on the technologies of tomorrow, driving growth and prosperity for the UK while strengthening our national security.

The document highlights that the technology sector in the UK was worth $1 trillion in 2022 and home to more than 85,000 start-ups and scale-ups. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly commented and said:

Now more than ever, it is important that the UK steps up to promote British tech excellence worldwide and takes a stand against the malign influences that seek to use tech against us.

That is why we’ve announced this strategy, helping to deliver on our ambition to be a tech superpower by 2030, backing UK businesses and helping us solve the challenges of tomorrow through innovation and international collaboration.

The details

The strategy hopes to provide focus to the UK’s technology ambitions, whilst also hoping to be a loose enough framework so that the government can adapt to what is a rapidly changing landscape. There are the guiding principles already mentioned, but the strategy also lays out six strategic priorities. These include: 

  • Priority technologies and data - building strategic advantage in these areas to ensure the UK is world-leading and developed in line with UK values.

  • International partnerships for global leadership - supporting shared growth and addressing global challenges.

  • Values-based governance and regulation - promoting the UK’s principles and vision for a future technology order that benefits all by working with partners and through international fora to shape governance.

  • Technology investment and expertise for the developing world - building capacity to bridge the technology divide and supporting partners to make informed choices.

  • Technology to drive the UK economy - continuing to drive UK technology exports, and promoting the UK as the best place for technology companies to raise capital and attract foreign direct investment.

  • Protecting our security interests - ensuring sensitive technology does not fall into hostile hands and that the UK retains critical technology capabilities 

In a smart move, thankfully, the UK has declared that it won’t seek to be a world leader in all technologies (or put it another way, it is being specific and isn’t pursuing ‘technology’ as a blanket term). Instead, the strategy has highlighted five technology areas that will be a focus. These include: 

  • Artificial intelligence

  • Quantum technologies

  • Engineering biology 

  • Semiconductors 

  • Telecoms

All of these will in turn be enabled and underpinned by a focus on: data. 

In addition, the strategy published today has highlighted a number of key priority actions that the government will pursue (and to its credit, these are more specific than we’ve seen from similar strategies in the past…at least *some( of them are measurable!). 

The government’s key priority actions include: 

  • Use international levers to support delivery of the UK’s Science and Technology Framework, developing a cross-government implementation plan informed by engagement with priority nations.

  • Embed the UK’s principles throughout HMG’s technology strategies, delivery plans and partnerships, and deliver values-based technology leadership that provides a liberal alternative to authoritarianism.

  • Create a new Technology Centre of Expertise, part of British Investment Partnerships, providing access to UK expertise to support sustainable economic growth around the world.

  • Create the world’s most extensive and capable technology diplomacy network, increasing the number of UK Tech Envoys, increasing UK tech expertise across the global network, and uplifting the capability of UK diplomats through training, secondments and recruitment.

  • Shape the global governance of technologies, including championing the OECD Global Forum on Technology, building on the success of the UK’s Future Tech Forum.

  • Establish a prioritized set of technology-based partnerships with key partners around the world, delivering mutually beneficial objectives and unlocking new opportunities.

  • Build on the UK’s election to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Council, working with partners to deliver an ITU that works for all its members, increases worldwide connectivity, and bridges the global divide. Shape the global technical standards ecosystem in line with our principles and values.

  • Develop technology solutions to global challenges through FCDO investment in mission-driven Research and Development (R&D) and technology development.

  • Coordinate across government to progress work to make the UK the best place to invest for technology and promote exports of leading UK technologies.

  • Promote the ‘best of British’ technology expertise and leadership through our embassies and high commissions around the world.

My take

The strategy is worth taking a look at in full, as it goes into more detail regarding the individual technology focus areas mentioned and how the government will aim to achieve these goals. On the face of it, this strategy appears to be an outward looking, collaborative, international framework for technology development, one that focuses on principles and standards that could offer a promising route to success. However, the problem is that no matter what this document says, it’s hard to deny that it feels at odds with the current political mandate in the UK - one that’s inward looking, hostile to our neighbours, and doesn’t listen to the experts when they’re in the room. How those two marry up will remain to be seen. And let’s not forget we’ve got a General Election well before the 2030 deadline the government has set itself…

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