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Filibustering at General Election Question Time: The Big Digital Debate

Put three politicians on a platform for a general election question time for a Big Digital Debate and how many really useful pieces of information or political direction will come out? Or in the style of a bill being proposed in parliament, will each politician partake of a little filibustering by filling time and ‘talk out’ rather than answer the specific question? You make your decision based on my summary below and if you feel up to it (and have 90 minutes of your life you don’t want to spend elsewhere!) you can watch it yourself at here.

David Wood ‏‪@dw2 Feb 9 The good-humoured bonhomie on ‪#DigitalQT panel is a bit wearing. Success with technology is an existential question for the future of UK

TechUK and BCS certainly raised the profile of the type of tech discussions that need to be had in the UK, but the first piece of news to highlight is London is part of, not central to future UK technology strategy.

Stuart Dredge ‏‪@stuartdredge Feb 9 Ed Vaizey: “Tech City is not just about East London, it’s a cluster network of about 22 different cities, from Dundee downwards” ‪#DigitalQT

The state of play per party

More on that later, but for now I will highlight what I believe was most noteworthy from the session starting with each party’s 5-minute manifesto followed by key questions around start-ups, education, regulation and more. At the end I’d love to hear what you think the real challenges are for tech growth in the UK. Oh and I not going to show any bias to any party – I watched the debate based on what was being said about the future of technology so please don’t have a rant at me about political inclinations!

Ed Vaizey, UK minister for culture and the digital economy shared with us his SCIL acronym for tech growth that developed into SCRIL, DSCRIL… goodness only knows what mixture of letters we’ll get next – hey they might even spell something!

S = skills – focussing on computer coding on national curriculum, apprenticeships, degrees

C = capital – tax incentives, tech city involvement

I = infrastructure – broadband, 4G, mobile infrastructure plan, 5G, IoT

= leadership – plan for UK stay ahead of the game

R = regulation – governance of technology

D = data – balance of technology and trust

Chi Onwurah, Cabinet Office minister for digital government opened strongly with statements about IT not being boring and geeky (as referenced on a recent press interview), and how as a former engineer she wants to help make things work . But aside from government bashing around how the current digital inclusion strategy is not inclusive, broadband roll out behind schedule etc. there was sadly little inspirational content about what the future should hold for UK tech.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Julian Huppert started with a reminder that Cambridge was the 1st technology hub in the UK- hear, hear! Julian – tech city isn’t one city and it isn’t just London! There are now more ARM chips in the world than human arms, legs and heads put together, and Cambridge is delivering constant innovation such as Raspberry Pi. So with his corner (and mine as it’s my hometown) well covered he moved on to his vision of the tech future.

Julian was more philosophical in his approach to technology stating that as with all other stages in our growth, digital tech also meant we have to do things differently – with empowerment and reform. His highlights included: –

  • Power of information
  • New business models
  • Disruptive nature requires change in mindset
  • Sensible and stable regulation – so that people know what’s coming
  • Healthcare – patients know best – control over own data and where to share it
  • Technology impact assessments to be part of policy making

Julian then identified the main issues: –

  • How technology literate politicians are – stop making proposals that are not feasible (i.e. “allowing” encryption technology)
  • Risk – how do we deal with privacy
  • Cross segment of involvement – more women into technology, representative of the user groups including more ethnic backgrounds, across social groups etc. – basically inclusion which you hear from me a great deal
  • The challenge of filling 1million jobs in the technology space in next decade

Question Time Highlights

After the party-political broadcasts above, the debate then opened to audience questions. I have grouped the answers into broad groups and once again, don’t expect anything deeply technically insightful, just political savvy answers!

Growth of start-ups

  • The UK is one of world’s leaders in innovative start-ups
  • Tech City’s recent Tech Nation report highlighted tech cluster around the UK – all activities need to support regions and clusters to drive further growth
  • The gap around mid-cap investment needs to be plugged, hopefully by the banks
  • We need to encourage more scale-ups – need more mid-sized companies to deliver real economic value i.e. in Silicon FEN – ARM $20m company.
  • Allow small companies need to fail quickly rather than desperately hanging on – create a low risk environment to try high-risk things.
  • Make more skill available – either grow locally or bring them into the UK

Education

  • The best and brightest on current courses are starting their own business vs. going into employment adding to the skills shortage
  • Computing has to be firmly on the curriculum (alongside STEM, humanities etc.)
  • Need to build a schedule of delivering the right people with right talent year on year on year.

Where’s our British Google?

  • We don’t have the kind of VC available in UK as in US
  • Need to identify the Future50 from our 22 cities across UK
  • Attract the right level of immigration skills here rather than losing our skills to the US
  • UK companies sell-out to the US, need to encourage them to invest here

How can start-ups export their skills?

  • Longer-term trade missions
  • Get known to be good at something and focus on that
  • More skills around digital economy – look at export credits, trust between buyer and seller and help support that
  • Push an agenda of growth whilst the EU economy has stagnated.

Digital inclusion

  • Financial return for the government of digital inclusion will surpass the cost of doing it.
  • Take a look at the summary image for the event on @TechUK pictures – it’s interesting how inclusion becomes central to this sketch
  • Accept exactly what the limit is – there will be some who don’t want to do digital and there still have to be alternatives.

Data protection regulation

  • Everyone benefits from getting it right but do we need to scrap it and start it again to get it right? Need to create some new options – UK is not EU and not US – we’re somewhere in between

Dave Birch ‏‪@dgwbirch Feb 9 ‪#DigitalQT‪ it is NOT a “balance” between privacy and security. I want both, and I can’t have privacy without security.

  • Every digital industry is affected by this – make this better in Europe, every party should get behind this as a cross party initiative
  • Long term the most important topic – info between individuals and companies.

Summary

For Julian David of Tech UK, his dream of the UK to be the digital leader over next 5 years is going to require a lot more government know how to make this a reality. The idea of having a technical competent guru in each department may not be a bad idea to ensure decision are made logically and across departments and political parties. So thanks to Bryan Glick, editor and chief at Computer Weekly for facilitating the discussion, and TechUK and BCS Chartered Institute for IT for organising – let’s hope this is the start of more in-depth discussions.

For more on the debate (and the encryption hot potato), read a piece in The Guardian , for more video’s and coverage see Computer Weekly and for regular updates on the Digital Debate follow @techUK and @bcs (and for my HR Tech crowd @HRTechEurope).

To end, we should celebrate that this election has the biggest voice for Technology than ever before, but now let’s make sure the people leading the charge represent the needs of business today and tomorrow and make our voice heard across whatever channels are open to us – as businesses, citizens and users.