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Government digital strategy promises focus on skills and industry partnerships

Strategy includes plans to create international tech hubs, digital skills partnerships, a fintech competition and industry collaboration

The government digital strategy, which is being launched today (1 March), pledges to grow the UK’s technology skills and make the country the best place for digital businesses to invest and grow.

The plan is one of a series of strategies released by the government in recent months and sets out how it plans to work with industry to ensure the success of the UK’s digital economy.

One of the key focuses of the much-delayed strategy is around upskilling the UK public and businesses. This includes a digital skills partnership in which the government will work with businesses, charities and voluntary organisations to make sure people have the skills they need to thrive in a digital world.  

According to a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, published last June, the UK’s digital skills gap costs the economy £63bn a year, with up to 12.6 million of the adult population lacking basic digital skills.  

“Digital skills are becoming increasingly essential for getting access to a range of products and services,” said the report. “However, there is a digital divide where up to 12.6 million of the adult UK population lack basic digital skills.”

Karen Bradley, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, said the strategy “sets a path to make Britain the best place to start and grow a digital business, trial a new technology, or undertake advanced research as part of the government’s plan to build a modern, dynamic and global trading nation”.

She added: “To do that, we will work closely with businesses and others to make sure the benefits and opportunities are spread across the country so nobody is left behind.

“There should be no digital divide – every individual and every business should have the skills and confidence to make the most of digital technology and have easy access to high-quality internet wherever they live, work, travel or learn.”

Pledges from private sector

As part of the strategy, the government has secured pledges from several private sector organisations to improve digital skills, most of which are already running digital skills training programmes. These include Google, which will begin a Summer of Skills programme in coastal towns around the UK, helping to develop training schemes to boost tourism and growth.

Other skills programmes include Accenture and FutureLearn partnering to develop a skills programme to “boost learning through online collaboration”, and the HP Foundation’s HP LIFE platform, which aims to improve business, IT and digital skills for disadvantaged groups.

Lloyds Banking Group will also continue its programme to give digital training to small companies, charities and individuals, with a goal of reaching 2.5 million by 2020. 

The digital strategy follows on from the government’s industrial strategy, released earlier this year, which included plans for the digital economy. The industrial strategy promised to overhaul technical education and boost Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] skills, with the government providing £170m in capital funding to create “prestigious institutes of technology” that will be responsible for delivering higher-level technical education.  

Tapping into emerging markets

The strategy also includes plans to create five tech hubs in emerging markets around the world.

The tech hubs will aim to create partnerships between UK and foreign companies, based on the model already created and used by the UK-Israel tech hub. The hub, which has been running for about five years, aims to help UK companies looking for innovation and growth, as well as helping Israeli startups wanting to grow in the UK market.  

The government will also create a fintech competition to increase innovation and development of technologies in the financial sector, both business- and consumer-focused.

Gerard Grech, CEO of Tech City UK, said the government and industry must “ensure that we stay ahead by continuing to provide a supportive environment for British startups and digital companies to grow in, especially since other countries are trying to take advantage of our departure from the European Union”.

Grech added: “In the UK tech sector, jobs are being created at twice the rate of the wider economy, and today’s digital strategy provides an ambitious roadmap for the industry to continue growing at this rate and building a new economy fit for the future.”

Industry partnerships

As well as partnering with industry to develop skills, the strategy also commits to create a secretary of state-led forum “for government and the tech community” which will work to grow the digital economy through innovation “and the adoption of digital in the wider economy”.

CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie said the government and industry would need to work together to “uphold our position as a world-leading digital economy”.

“UK companies are at the forefront of the digital revolution,” he said. “The pledges announced by the government underline businesses’ commitment to build the skills we need for a modern economy, as well as tackle barriers to technology adoption.”

The government will also create a business connectivity forum, which will bring together business organisations, councils and communications providers to improve broadband access for businesses.

The strategy confirms – as already announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond in last year’s Autumn Statement – that the government is set to release more than £1bn to fund ultrafast connectivity, including a £400m investment in ultrafast fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband, and investment in developing 5G technology. 

As reported by Computer Weekly earlier this week, the digital strategy will also set out funding proposals to support the development of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, including a review of AI and £17.3m in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to support the development of robotics and AI in universities.

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