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UK digital progress must not be hindered by Brexit uncertainty

Let’s think about the UK in 2027 for a moment. By then, just 10 years from now, we will have been out of the EU for eight years. We might not even be the UK any more, but if we are, the population is likely to have grown to 70 million, according to the Office for National Statistics – up from about 65 million now. Some 30% of those people will be aged over 60 – one in 12 will be over 80.

Consider the added pressure on public services – especially NHS and social care. Who knows what state the economy will be in – until the terms of Brexit are known, and any subsequent trade deals we manage to agree, it’s impossible to predict. We may still be finding our way in a much-changed economic environment, in a very different world.

In that case, we need to fall back on a few certainties – things that we can state with confidence will be sure-fire hooks upon which to hang our business and public service coats.

We can’t rely on financial services the way we have for the past 20 years – not until we know how Brexit affects the City. We can’t expect to revitalise a manufacturing sector that largely has moved eastwards. We’re already scaling back on clean energy investment – and with a Trump-led US administration seemingly backing away from renewable energy entirely, we may still be making the argument for divesting in fossil fuels.

But we can argue, with confidence, that 10 years from now the world will be vastly more digital. What would we, in the UK, need to assure is in place to exploit the opportunities that will offer?

For one thing, we’d need near-ubiquitous availability of high-speed communications networks – most likely based on full-fibre broadband to everyone that wants it, and a second-generation of 5G mobile technology.

We all know this. The government sort-of knows it, and is making positive – if baby – steps in the right direction. Ofcom’s success in convincing BT to put Openreach at proper arm’s length shows the regulatory environment is moving forward, if slowly.

The growth of digital transformation in business is gathering pace – even Whitehall is getting there, although local government and the NHS are lagging behind.

We can hope that moves to encourage better technology and engineering education in schools and through apprenticeships will have started to bear fruit by 2027 to address skills shortages.

But still it doesn’t feel like any of this is happening fast enough, and two years of uncertainty while we negotiate the terms of our new relationship with Europe will perpetuate caution. And yet we know, with confidence, that our future is assuredly more digital.

Once prime minister Theresa May triggers article 50, we have two years when much of the UK rocks in its chair, worrying for the future. The tech sector has its concerns too, inevitably. But the digital revolution continues apace regardless. Despite all the short-term uncertainty, the next two years can be a time for tech to take confident steps forward – the UK economy in 2027 will depend on it.

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