What are people thinking going into the General Election on 8 June? Chances are it is not about how to make the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business.
The Conservatives want to talk about Brexit and Theresa May’s leadership. Jeremy Corbyn wants to talk about anything other than Brexit, ideally the NHS. And Tim Farron wants to talk only about Brexit or how to reverse it. That leaves little room for bits and bytes. But this issue is more important than it might seem.
The sense of dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement, which so many citizens across the West feel and which has fuelled the emergence of populists in the US and Europe, is not unrelated to the nature of the digital economy.
The rise of AirBnB, Apple, Uber and many other US-based technology firms has provided great benefits for Western societies, but has been disproportionately beneficial for the urban, educated middle classes. Those who feel left behind by globalisation also feel left behind by digitisation.
They have lower digital skills, less digital access and have to pay a greater part of their income to surf for cheaper flights and lower-cost goods. If you’re a care worker on an annual income of £14,000 living in Wirral then the new mobile plan feels less attractive than if you’re a graphic designer in London on £40,000. Making technology work for everyone cannot just be an afterthought.
The other reason it matters is because of how big the UK’s digital economy is now and how important it will be in the future, as older industries manage with the transitional complexities of Brexit.
The annual Tech Nation report from Tech City UK shows that the UK’s digital economy is growing at twice the rate of the wider economy, that tech workers are paid on average 44 per cent more than non-tech workers, and that over the last five years the UK attracted over £28bn of tech investment, compared to £11bn in France and £9.3bn in Germany. In 2016 alone the UK secured £6.8bn, over 50 per cent more than any other European country.
Safeguarding this digital goose is not just about catering to a small number of firms around London’s Silicon Roundabout, but about a nation-wide economy which is producing jobs from Leeds and Loughborough to Bristol and Poole.
Finally, political parties should focus on the vagaries of the digital economy because of how much its workers will transform government services in the future. The convergence of four advances – artificial intelligence, data science, predictive analytics and blockchain – will allow for very different public services.
Imagine what A&E looks like when you can predict how many patients will come at any given time. Or if you can more cleverly allocate prisoner places depending on which cell mates decrease recidivism. The opportunities abound but so do the challenges, whether ethical or to do with concentration of commercial power.
So what should the political parties do to show that they understand the challenges and want to embrace the opportunities?
First, they must show how to continue to allow high-skilled talent to come to the UK: Romanian is the second most spoken language at Google Campus in California and parties would do well to show they understand the value of not cutting the UK off from an international, and especially European, pool of engineers, coders and developers.
Second, parties must show how they will ensure unfettered access to capital and markets, especially if EU institutions like the European Investment Bank – which backs a large portion of startup funders in the UK – will withdraw their financial support.
Parties must also show how they intend to make the most out of Brexit, ensuring that, as the UK rethinks the nature of the state, it upgrades its machinery. Bold ideas are needed here – like making the UK economy cashless, making government paperless, or digitising all patient files.
The post-Silicon Valley era is near. The UK can lead the development of technology for government and become a beneficiary by seeing cheaper, better public services, while becoming a global home for this new generation of mission-driven technologists. But it requires an act of nurturing.
Success does not emerge from neglect or conflict. Tech is neither inherently good nor bad. It’s a tool. But one that needs to be handled, for which rules and ethical standards need to be established, and whose inventors and backers can achieve extraordinary things.
Political parties should show that they understand not just the challenge of technology but also the opportunities for growth and better public services by giving digital issues a prominent place in the electoral debate.