Encouraging the creative spark

Charles Kennedy MP, leader of the LibDems, says the Government should take an active role in encouraging and helping new...

Charles Kennedy MP, leader of the LibDems, says the Government should take an active role in encouraging and helping new technology

Many problems in politics arise from differing definitions of issues. Not so in e-commerce. The problem for government and political parties, both in the UK and around the world, is not in defining e-commerce, but in knowing how to react to it and deciding what part, if any, they can play in its future development.

To a great extent the growth in e-commerce in recent years has been in spite of, rather than because of, government. From a politician's point of view, a role for government has been missing from the rapid technological changes of the 1990s. Politicians may believe that government has the power to play a role in almost any aspect of life - but increasingly this is not the case.

The recent technological revolution has been driven, and continues to be driven, by a mixture of a few technology and computer giants like Microsoft, and a large number of small entrepreneurs. The role that government can play in this expansion seems limited at best. The attitude of the entrepreneurs making the running in these industries was neatly summed up recently by Martha Lane-Fox who said, "I think there are things [the Government] can do with tax breaks - with all sorts of things, to encourage people to go into these kinds of businesses. But in the end, the Government can't make things happen."

This seems to reflect the view of those at the cutting edge of the Internet revolution. Whilst government must do all it can to avoid interfering in and over-regulating a growing entrepreneurial industry, it should be prepared to do what it can to foster growth and success. To do this it must support research, give more incentives to companies and encourage more partnerships between universities and business.

I believe government must also be prepared to alert the wider business community to the dangers of being left behind by the new technologies. There are still a substantial number of businesses in Britain who do not use the Internet, and a recent survey showed that only 2% of UK businesses thought that the Internet posed a significant threat.

The Government must lead the way in training and educating small British businesses in Internet use. Furthermore, we should be doing what we can to connect businesses with universities, as is widely done in the US, but much more rarely here - though the Cambridge Science Park is a pioneering example. Under such schemes, companies fund the research which they, in turn, benefit from.

Great strides are also being made in Oxford, where the university has set up a company to manage the transfer of new technology from its academic sources into commerce and industry.

At least 45% of small start-up companies perish before their ideas ever reach commercial reality, and government has a duty to do more where it can. One measure would be to copy the example of the Oxford Trust which provides incubator units designed to protect start-up firms from the ravages of the commercial world, until they can better fend for themselves.

These initiatives should be characteristic of the Government's role in the technological revolution - not legislating but enabling.

That's all part of defining a new role for government in the 21st century. I don't believe small government is always the answer. In the areas of health and education, for example, an active and creative government, providing services to the public is a very large part of the answer.

But in the field of e-commerce, the role of government must be resolutely about enabling rather than doing. Anything else risks damping the creative spark that makes e-commerce so exciting and preventing the UK from benefiting fully in the Internet revolution.

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