The mere existence of an industrial strategy for the UK – especially one that prioritises science, technology and innovation – is a hugely positive step for everyone in IT. But it’s nowhere near enough – yet – to put in place the foundations to ensure the UK tech sector thrives through Brexit and beyond.
IT is, by its very nature, an international industry. As trade body TechUK pointed out, the UK IT sector is heavily dependent on EU relationships, and anything that makes such partnerships more complicated is going to hold back future development. An industrial strategy for tech must be open, global and collaborative. If Brexit negotiations lead to obstacles in the UK’s trade relations then IT will suffer more than most.
The UK tech community is also more dependent than most on immigration – nearly one in five UK IT workers come from overseas. We already have serious skills shortages that threaten to hold back startups and the digital transformation of companies and government – we cannot lose that imported talent. If anything, we need to be open to more skills to help us grow – unless and until we are able to produce enough home-grown talent, which we are some way from doing.
But it’s not just Europe that is a potential concern. In the US, one of President Donald Trump’s early edicts has been to weaken protections for data held in the US about foreign citizens. This has been a thorny issue for some time – in the past year we’ve seen the longstanding Safe Harbour arrangements, allowing US companies to transfer EU citizens’ personal data, collapse over fears about US intelligence agencies’ bulk data collection activities.
The replacement vehicle – Privacy Shield – could become equally unworkable if Europe maintains the same level of concern about what Trump’s US does with its data.
A successful industrial strategy depends not only on free trade in goods and services, but in data too. Cutting the US or the EU off from the free flow of data would be disastrous – and not just for the tech sector.
The strategy rightly acknowledges the need for better education and skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects. The proposal for £170m towards new Institutes of Technology promises to create a new generation of Stem-educated workers – but not for years yet. In the short term, government needs to incentivise employers to provide more training in the digital skills we need today. The much-delayed digital economy strategy needs to offer concrete proposals to support the industrial strategy’s aim for more retraining and access to lifelong learning.
A successful industrial strategy depends on people, not politics.