How to turbo charge the UK’s digital economy
Digital technology has been the cog which kept the economy turning throughout the pandemic. During this period, digitisation has taken place at an unprecedented speed and there is now a broad consensus on the potential for digital to turbo charge the economy. Yet, with patchy coverage and unequal uptake, there is still a long way to go before the UK can claim to have a truly a ‘digital economy’.
Beyond simple zoom calls the potential of innovations such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, social media, and online products have yet to be fully harnessed across all industries. Whether because of limited skills or understanding of how this could impact individual businesses, there is a steep challenge to ensure that every level of the UK economy is fit for the needs of the future.
“Half the country still does not have gigabit connection and there are still some places who barely have functioning broadband”
“The question is how do you build connectivity that will genuinely future proof generations to come as well as make sure people use it” said Matt Warman MP, Former Digital Infrastructure Minister who was speaking at the Public Policy Projects (PPP) Investment 2.0 panel discussion at the Conservative Party Conference 2021. He explained that while we cannot lose sight of how successfully digitised the UK is now, the fundamental basis of a digital economy is infrastructure. And the UK has a long way to go.
“Half the country still does not have gigabit connection and there are still some places who barely have functioning broadband”, he said, "the economy simply cannot be turbo-charged without first making sure that everyone has got the connectivity they need to use digital."
For businesses who are not be digitally-equipped, it may be difficult to see how new technology could offer their operations. Tailored support will be crucial as well as ensuring that talent is available within these businesses. However, while coders and software developers are essential to driving this change within businesses, this is becoming more difficult given the growing skills gap.
Mr Warman explained that there is a growing gap between what universities are producing and what is needed within the economy. This was reiterated by Tech Start Up investor and Founder of Monzo, Tom Blomfield who explained that for start-ups, being able to hire engineers and data scientists is the number one problem they face.
He explained that in the past year, more technology-based start ups are getting funded in days or hours rather than months because of rapid increase in remote meetings, necessitated by the pandemic. Acura for example went public at the beginning of Covid and within a few weeks had been rolled out within 97 per cent of GP surgeries. Rapid adoption and the global accessibility of capital has had a greatly positive impact on start-ups but finding the right talent, Mr Blomfield said, is becoming more and more difficult.
The pandemic’s shift towards remote working has exacerbated this problem which has meant that location simply does not matter anymore. There is a global war for talent which the UK is simply not winning. Dominic McGregor, Founder of digital marketing agency Social Chain similarly explained that as the economy becomes more digital and more technological skills are needed - this gap is only worsening.
One of the problems of this, he explained, is that university courses put the young and digitally savvy into four year programmes which take them out of the vital industries that they are required in. Apprenticeships are a great opportunity for these young people by training them up while also providing the economy with the digital skills needed. However, government programmes are simply not fit for purpose and have made it more difficult than ever to become an apprenticeship provider.
"By focusing on what we are good at doing ourselves and utilising the benefits of global innovation and technology, the UK can create a truly digital economy"
Mr Warman stressed that now is not the time to ease off on apprenticeships. While he admitted that it takes time to get things right and make the system more agile, this cannot go on forever and we must start training people with the right skills for a modern economy.
One crucial change within this is making sure that digital is a priority across all government departments. Syllabus changes can take several years to come into action and DCMS lacks the authority to make certain decisions go faster. Mr Blomfield also raised concerns about the lack of digital talent in the departments themselves and the fact that many ministers simply do not understand the technology.
These problems are even further exacerbated in local government which greatly vary in technical ability across the country. Mr McGregor explained that solving this problem would be to enable risk-taking at every level and utilise the scalability of technology. Once you have a solution which works for a certain area, it is very easy to roll out across the different regions.
Mr Warman also said that the whole system must work in a much more agile way which will require moving away from the monolithic big government contract. “The typical five year tech programme will not be able to set out what’s going on in 18 months, nevermind five years. ”
New technologies such as satellites have great potential but unfortunately the government does not have the luxury to wait and see if these solutions will work, said Mr Warman. Instead, he explained that government must ensure that any technology works for the most vulnerable people and those who need to see improvements in their connectivity now.
Mr Blomfield also explained that ‘turbo-charging’ the UK’s economy, is not purely a UK endeavour. We are always going to be reliant on other countries, he said, and this is not something to be avoided. Instead he said that, "by focusing on what we are good at doing ourselves and utilising the benefits of global innovation and technology, the UK can create a truly digital economy."
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