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Having grown up on the west coast of Scotland, I have always loved sailing. So I can certainly see the appeal of opting to work from a laptop while circumnavigating the globe in an 82-foot catamaran such as the Coboat.
As flexible working arrangements become increasingly the norm and entrepreneurs look for quality of life outside the city thanks to high-speed internet access, Coboat’s founders pitch their business as the chance to “free your mind, immerse yourself in nature and boost your productivity on the high seas”.
Among the world’s young and entrepreneurial, the move away from the stresses of city life is only gaining momentum.
Cloud computing has removed the need for office space by providing access to any file, anytime, anywhere − while a more precarious labour market has led an entire generation to favour life experience over being slaves to the rat race.
All of this is good news for Scotland. There are few places that can offer such an appealing combination of quality of life and startup opportunities as Scotland can.
However, if we want young entrepreneurs to stay and create rural hubs for business, then we need the infrastructure to see it through. We need high-speed internet access across the country. Not in the distant future, but in the here and now.
Businesses with social value
Rolling out high-speed internet is just one part of bridging the digital divide. Digital and tech entrepreneurs also need dynamic public and private sector support to match their stage of development − from networking and mentoring opportunities, to access to angel investment or patient capital.
Scotland can even go one step further, leading incentives for entrepreneurs to build businesses aimed at creating positive social impacts from the get-go.
The Edinburgh-based Power of Youth Metta-Network has been doing this for years, bringing young British and international entrepreneurs to Scotland and encouraging them to design businesses with social value in mind through pro-bono leadership training and scale-up support.
You only have to look at the rising tech and startup scenes in countries such as Portugal, Estonia or Israel to see what a difference offering connectivity, an attractive lifestyle and acceleration opportunities can make to a small country in just a few years.
I worked for a spell in Eindhoven in the Netherlands − a city which turned its barren, post-industrial, empty Philips factories into havens for tech startups, by encouraging fellowship, entrepreneurialism and collaboration.
I have seen similar hubs first hand in other cities across the world. There is nothing to stop Scotland heading in the same direction, except the current lack of connectivity in Scotland’s remote and rural areas preventing both new businesses from moving in and native talent in the digital and tech sectors from sprouting up.
Government’s target of 2020 is ‘too late’
The Scottish government has said they want everyone in Scotland to be able to access the internet at any time and on any device by 2020 but, with just a few years to go, progress has only been made in the easiest to reach areas.
There are, of course, a number of logistical difficulties in getting broadband across Scotland’s diverse landscape, but that excuse is wearing thin. Meanwhile, the digital economy waits for no one and economic and educational opportunities are slipping out of sight.
Rural communities in my constituency have produced many thriving businesses with huge potential to raise up further talent and investment, but the simple lack of connectivity is putting Scotland at a great disadvantage at a time when we should be showing the rest of the world what rural communities are capable of.
Starting this journey in 2020 is starting it too late. You can’t export Scottish products if no one knows you exist.
If we want to encourage entrepreneurs to invest outside of our cities; if we want our young people to gain new skills in machine learning, coding and data analysis, then we need to create a workforce of digital natives, by providing them with the digital infrastructure and innovation ecosystems to match their ambitions.
We need to end Scotland’s digital divide and give the digital nomads a home.
Jamie Greene is member of the Scottish Parliament for West Scotland, and the Scottish Conservative Party spokesman for technology, connectivity and the digital economy.