The only tech question that matters for a new PM: are you ready for the digital future, Mr Johnson?
It’s traditional upon the coronation of a new Prime Minister to write a list of all the things they need to address in the tech and digital sectors. It would be a long list – digital skills, IT education, broadband, 5G, the impact of artificial intelligence, tech startups, e-commerce, regulation, privacy, data protection, digital identity, fake news, social media, and so on. Please, feel free to add your own.
For all her many faults and failures, former PM Theresa May did oversee perhaps the most tech-friendly government there’s been. For all his many faults – let’s see about failures – Boris Johnson is unlikely to diminish his administration’s support and promotion of the digital economy.
Behind his campaign promise to “insert high-speed broadband into every orifice of every home”, there lies the reality and appreciation that the only future for the UK economy is one built on a thriving tech sector and a digitally enabled citizenry. The intent is there – the question marks will continue over delivery, but that would be the same whoever was in charge.
Inevitably, the single most important issue for everyone in technology – as it is for everyone else – is Brexit. The threats to our digital economy from a no-deal Brexit are real – if data flows dry up, it would devastate any UK business that operates overseas. If our ability to sell digital services to the EU is constrained, our digital skills base could be shattered.
But we all know Brexit is the number one for priority for PM Johnson – even if we don’t yet know what that will mean in practice. The only certainty these days is uncertainty.
So what’s the message the tech sector and IT professionals should be sending to Johnson, should he wish to listen?
The next decade will bring greater social, cultural and business changes as a result of the digital revolution, than we have seen even in the last 10 years. All the short-term policies we need are obvious – see the list above – and even the most technophobic minister will understand that.
But with Brexit and the potential for another general election looming, who’s going to think about the long term? Who is going to reshape the education system for a world where children can find out the date of the Battle of Hastings online quicker than a teacher can write it on a whiteboard? Who is going to find the next generation of digitally literate teachers to prepare those kids for a rapidly changing world?
What about transforming the wider skills base to be ready for the wave of automation that will remove thousands of white-collar jobs? Who’s going to ensure that the vast data collection from internet of things devices is harnessed for our greater good and not simply to boost profits?
Who is going to devise a regulatory system that anticipates, not reacts too late, to new technologies and their implications? When our everyday activities are being governed and influenced by a real-time data economy that can work beyond the confines of nation states, who’s going to make sure the average citizen’s needs are looked after?
Here too, you can add your own.
We’re on the cusp of a radical change in the way we live and work. And we need a government that’s preparing for that. We need a prime minister with his or her head up, looking ahead and able to deliver a vision of a digital society that works for everyone.
Our question to the new PM should be: is that you, Mr Johnson?