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Why #techmatters – the challenge for everyone in the UK tech community

The UK technology sector faces unprecedented challenges – and opportunities – but we must never lose sight of the fact that it exists to make people’s lives better

As president of TechUK, I meet and champion the innovators, entrepreneurs and creative brains who have made UK tech a force to be reckoned with. From robots being used in microsurgery to drones being used to tackle plastic pollution in our oceans – smart ideas, delivered brilliantly, that demonstrate just how much tech matters.

It matters more than ever today that we get tech right. From the building blocks of our economy, to the foundations of our democracy, we are seeing the impact of the choices we make around technology. To shape the future, you have to embrace it.

If there is a magic recipe for digital innovation, then the UK surely has all the ingredients. We have created and attracted some of the world’s best and most diverse digital talent. We have world-leading businesses, universities and powerful ecosystems that enable expertise to spill over from one part of the economy to another.

In almost every sector, I can point to world leaders on the cutting edge of digital transformation. Above all, we have ambition and we have each other. What sets us apart from any other country is that in the UK technology community, we stand on the shoulders of each other.

But to really thrive, three things are important. We must stay focused on making tech work for people and our economy. We must not underestimate our international competitors. And, perhaps most importantly, we must accept the enormous responsibility that comes with developing powerful technology.

Supporting people in IT

We do have great people in this sector – but we simply don’t have enough of them. And we don’t have the depth of skills and talent that the economy needs as a whole. This, surely, is our biggest challenge.

The nations that will thrive are those that drive digital adoption – and we need action from the classroom right through to the boardroom. To grow and sustain an ecosystem of talent, we require a liquid and flexible workforce that can support innovation and growth. And, clearly, the cavalry is not coming on this one. Government cannot do it alone and therefore, as businesses, we have our part to play in producing skilled people, and not just consuming them.

The nations that will thrive are those that drive digital adoption and we need action from the classroom right through to the boardroom
Jacqueline de Rojas, TechUK

If you read the headlines, you would be forgiven for believing that we are all about to be replaced by robots. But I hear far more about augmentation than automation. For example, doctors with more time and better tools to deliver better outcomes for patients, and companies that apply robotics to drive productivity, competitiveness and actually grow their workforce as a result.

We should be worrying far more about the destructive impact on jobs of old technology than we do of new technology. If we are to seize our opportunity in this fourth industrial revolution, we must prepare and support people through change. We need to be radical when it comes to a lifelong learning and retraining strategy and, in this regard, inclusion matters.

Inclusion matters for so many reasons, but perhaps mostly because the future state of what we are creating is potentially ungovernable. Relying on a small homogenous tribe of innovators to invent the future is the surest way to fail.

We cannot, for example, allow our world to be organised by algorithms whose creators are dominated by one gender, ethnicity, age or culture. We need diversity of thought, experience, geography and gender if we are to succeed. For example, for every pound of government investment in artificial intelligence (AI), couldn’t we insist on diverse design and development teams to create outcomes that work for everyone?

Look outwards

In staying focused on making tech work for people and for our economy, we cannot afford to be complacent about international competition. Looking outwards, not inwards, matters.

One of the biggest risks of Brexit is that it encourages us to keep looking inwards at a time when the rest of the world is moving at pace. China overtook Europe in venture capital investment back in 2014. Three of the world’s top five most valuable companies are Chinese. China is able to innovate in AI at a scale that the UK will never be able to replicate.

Israel has deliberately and systematically built one of the most advanced and productive innovation ecosystems in the world, cyber security and health tech, and clean tech, specifically water technology. In Estonia – with a population the size of Birmingham – everyone has a single digital identity and public bodies can be fined for asking twice for a citizen’s data. Closer to home, France is throwing open its doors to talented entrepreneurs and major Silicon Valley investors.  

This is a stark reminder that tomorrow’s success is based on what we do today – not what we have achieved in the past. We have to pull out all the stops on innovation policy and think about the signals we are giving to international talent, entrepreneurs and investors. Digital innovation is not just a sales pitch for the UK, it is a way of life, and forms the basis of inclusive growth.

Ethics and responsibility

My final point is about responsibility. For those of us who were around 20 years ago, we knew that the internet was an enormous force for change. We knew it would be disruptive and we all championed that disruption.

But how many of us expected the world to change so far and so fast? How many of us conceived of the ways in which technologies could be used and misused? From online abuse to attempts to disrupt our democracy, technological change has shown the world at its best and its very worst. And that was just the internet. What comes next is far more powerful and far more impactful.

But here, I am resolutely optimistic. There is a deep debate happening within the sector about ethics and the responsibility we have as digital innovators. We have seen some businesses taking significant commercial decisions based on ethical values.

Read more about UK technology challenges

It is our collective responsibility to use our technology for good, to head off the potential for misuse and to respond quickly if unintended consequences ensue. But that means having an informed and thoughtful discussion about the kind of society we want and finding the right tools and means to ensure that we deliver on that vision. This is something that requires collaboration rather than confrontation.

Our mission as leaders in technology, must be to create the conditions where productivity can grow, society can thrive and every individual, from every walk of life, has the opportunity to flourish. Tech matters to us all.

Tech matters because it is the engine of our economy and is ingrained in the fabric of our society. It matters because this is a time of profound change and pace. Ultimately, our duty is to ensure that tech is about changing people’s lives for the better and leaving our world in a better place than we found it.  

This was last published in July 2018

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