Writing a review of 2017 is a bit like trying to fit War and Peace into a single tweet – even with the new 280-character limit. Every week, there has been a new headline, either celebrating the huge value of our industry to modern British society or presenting apocalyptic warnings of the “rise of the robots”.
We also had a general election, not one, but two budgets, and Brexit to add to the mix. Proof – if proof were needed – that now more than ever, tech is the centre of gravity for public policy and debate.
The dominant focus of the year has undoubtedly been Brexit. It has had an impact on almost every big spending decision, company move and government policy. One of the major challenges for all industries has been identifying how Brexit will impact them and making sure the government understands the solutions needed.
It was fitting, therefore, that TechUK started the year with a report from Frontier Economics setting out the exposure of the sector to Brexit, The UK digital sectors after Brexit, and also ended it with a report, alongside UK Finance and Dentons LLP, on how the government can secure the free flow of personal data post-Brexit in No interruptions please: Options for a future UK-EU data sharing relationship.
There is, however, still a lot of work to be done to secure a good deal for the tech sector, but it is clear the government now regards issues such as data flows, immigration and ongoing participation in research programmes such as Horizon 2020 as key priorities for the negotiations.
The general election also had a major impact for tech. The Conservative manifesto devoted an entire chapter to our sector – the first time ever a manifesto has given tech such attention. After a bruising election result, the ambitious proposals for tech have remained prominent in the government’s agenda.
Initiatives such as the Digital Charter will present challenges in the year to come, as industry, government and civil society work together to tackle issues such as online harm, and set out a detailed plan for how government and businesses can collaborate to solidify the UK as the best place to start, grow and scale a tech business.
The two budgets, coupled with the Industrial Strategy, have shown there is a real commitment to tech. There has been significant progress, such as the announcement of a new Centre of Data Ethics and Innovation, the roll-out of geospatial mapping, and the inclusion a sector deal for artificial intelligence in the Industrial Strategy.
While the sums allocated towards areas such as 5G are not yet enough to meet some of the biggest challenges we face, the government has begun to identify the right targets for making the UK, in their words, “fit for the future”.
For TechUK, 2017 also saw us launch a number of major initiatives directed at some of the underlying challenges our industry faces. To coincide with International Women’s Day in March, we launched our Returners Hub, helping to bring women back into the workforce after career breaks.
Alongside our support for the new Tech Talent Charter, and work with the government on the introduction of T-Levels, these are important steps in ensuring our industry not only trains, but also retains, the talent we need.
Support for the digital revolution in the public sector has also been a major part of the industry’s work this year. TechUK’s work to build a smarter state has included a groundbreaking new partnership with NHS Digital, while we have also published Digital devolution: A guide for new mayors, supporting new metro-mayors to put technology at the heart of their plans for each region of the UK.
Of course, we still face significant difficulties in the year and years ahead. One of the things that has been clear this year is that tech has risen higher up the social and political consciousness than ever before.
However, the occasional – and perhaps misinformed – push by some members of government for wide-sweeping new powers, such as putting a stop to end-to-end encryption, are unlikely to disappear.
Government has been quick to show it is aware of the complexities in this sector. Recent conversations have shown the UK, like the rest of the world, is grappling with the major changes to our lives tech is bringing. Yet, it is these conversations that will be crucial in building a consensus around how we respond to the opportunities digital technologies have to offer.
As we look towards the New Year filled with a range of challenges and opportunities, from the beginning of discussions of the future UK/EU relationship and further steps in the government’s Digital Strategy taking shape, let us hope that next year sees fewer unexpected political moments and more progress on the issues that really matter to our industry. If our sector is the new centre of gravity, then 2018 is the year to ensure the planets align in our favour.