UK's tech industry calls for new leadership to develop the digital economy

The industry group says that appointment of a digital minister to the Cabinet is essential to unite differing groups behind a single leadership if the economy is to get maximum benefit from the fast-growing digital economy.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

Tech industry group techUK has called for the appointment of a new triumvirate to help steer the UK to a truly digital future.

In a document released on Tuesday, it called for the appointment of a digital minister in the Cabinet, a chief privacy officer and a digital 'trade tsar' for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

And that's not all: the group also called for the government to make the UK "a world-leading domain in data protection", and called on it to reaffirm a commitment to free speech on the web and to mark out a clear legal framework for government surveillance.

But above all, techUK called on the government to commit itself to come up with £875m to properly fund a "digital inclusion programme" to ensure that "no one is left behind by digital innovation".

The proposals were put to the government at a meeting in London on Tuesday to launch what the group called "a manifesto", titled Securing Our Digital Future. Speakers at the meeting included Ed Vaizey MP; the minister for culture and the digital industries, Ian Wright MP; and Lord Clement-Jones, the Liberal Democrat peer and leader of the Lords Communications Committee.

Challenges and opportunities

Victor Chavez, the president of techUK — whose 860 members include Barclays, CSC, and BAE Systems — said that with the rise of the digital society, the country is facing both a challenge and an opportunity.

The opportunity is to be "one of the first developed economies to use digital technology to stem the long-term rise of debt; raise productivity; generate new high value jobs; and build a safe and inclusive digital society". This is an objective, he said, "that I truly believe is within our grasp".

While techUK has come up with a number of ideas, some of them are bound to be controversial with government. For example, TechUK calls for "ten-year innovation budgets that extend beyond parliamentary cycles as a platform for long term growth", which is one idea that would be welcomed by people in industry, commerce and the public sector alike.

However, the UK government tends to see any strategy that stretches beyond its own five-year lifespan as a threat to its prerogative.

The manifesto urges "politicians and policy makers from all parties" to recognise the critical importance of "the global digital revolution for the future of our citizens and our economy".

Over the next five years, it says, "the UK has the opportunity not just to be a digital leader — but to use digital technologies to address the fundamental long-term social and economic challenges that will determine our future, and that of our children and grandchildren".

The manifesto makes clear the opportunities that exist by pointing out the many different technologies that are opening up new opportunities globally. These include:

  • Internet of Things (expected to reach $7.3tn market by 2017)
  • Wearable technology (expected to reach $70bn by 2024)
  • Big data and data analytics (expected to reach $32.4bn by 2017)
  • 5G and associated new wireless technologies (expecting a 40-fold increase by 2018)
  • Robotics (expected to reach $29bn by 2018)
  • Autonomous vehicles (expected to be a £28bn market by 2020)
  • Advanced manufacturing, building automation (expected to reach $49.5bn by 2018)

The manifesto goes on to list 26 separate recommendations for action, including developing a single strategy and provide strong leadership to mobilise and co-ordinate delivery across the public and private sectors.

The manifesto's writers welcomed government initiatives such as Tech City UK, but said that "the reality of the UK tech sector is that it is more diverse and, as highlighted by a 2013 report by NIESR and Growth Intelligence, is far more geographically extensive than is often recognised".

The next government must "continue to champion the UK’s growing reputation as a leading innovator in tech", but must understand the "very different needs of companies depending on their size, market and location and support the full ecosystem of companies small and large, new and established, domestic and international across the whole of the UK". Many would consider that a tall order.

Other recommendations for the government include addressing the national skills shortage in the UK; ensuring that the UK has a "ubiquitous, world class communications infrastructure"; an initiative to further the development of the Internet of Things; recognising the need to initiate and support tech clusters across the UK; and harnessing "digital technology to modernise the technology sector".

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