Wednesday 8 July 2020 11:34 am

Five steps to put digital at the heart of Britain's recovery

Felicity Burch, is CBI director of digital and innovation

If, at the start of this year, you’d have told me that I was going to celebrate my brother-in-law’s thirtieth birthday via Zoom, I would probably have asked you what Zoom was. 

I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that I would have ministerial meetings, museum tours and even makeup lessons on the platform. 

But the world has been turned on its head in the last six months, and the use of technology in our day-to-day lives has skyrocketed.

Read more: Boris built a digital London — now he must turbocharge digital Britain

Technology and innovation have proved lifelines for businesses throughout this crisis. A recent Be The Business survey found that more than half a million firms have changed or are altering their operating model, and many are even introducing new services in response to the pandemic. From whisky manufacturers switching to making hand sanitiser to pubs switching to retail, almost every business around the country has tried something new.

Covid-19 has demonstrated the ingenuity of British businesses, but we can’t take that progress for granted. The UK has long underinvested in innovation, and though the crisis may have spurred investment in the short term, it will be much harder to continue that in the future as businesses face reduced cash reserves, squeezed margins and a highly uncertain economic climate.

That’s why we need a new plan to put technology and innovation at the heart of the economic recovery. The CBI’s latest report sets out five big ideas on how to do just that.   

First, let’s go for gigabit, accelerating the roll-out of future-proof broadband so that no matter where you are, you’ll be able to get online. Your postcode shouldn’t determine your ability to start a business from your kitchen table or have remote GP appointments. Prioritising rural investment and modernising the rules to get shovels in the ground quicker must be at the top of government’s list this year.

Second, let’s upskill on digital. We need a world-class skills system that prepares people for jobs in technology and innovation and helps companies hire people with the skills needed to build back better. Our country faces the twin challenge of an expected rise in unemployment and a growing generational skills gap. Around 11 million people in the UK lack basic digital skills, so a step change is urgently needed. Let’s transform Job Centres into Jobs and Skills Hubs to help young people into digital careers, whether it’s data analytics or AI skills.

Third, increase innovation investment. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to see R&D in real-time action, from vaccine development to the ventilator challenge. But the crisis has also depleted the coffers for business innovation and firms have had to press pause on much of their R&D. The government can step in to give businesses and universities the confidence and capability to restart their innovation projects, for example by offering more incentives for business R&D.

Fourth, let’s reset how we think about regulation of technology in the wake of Covid-19. The government must invest in the institutions that will chart our digital future, ensuring that regulation tackles harm online and AI is developed to the benefit of everyone. This means giving regulators proper funding and clearer remits.

Finally, accelerate adoption. There’s now a real opportunity to build on rapid technology adoption to create jobs and level up across the UK. The move to more digital solutions when the outbreak began was a global phenomenon. Microsoft Teams alone saw an increase of 31 million active users in just one month. 

Now the UK needs to close the gap with the world-leading nations on innovations. We shouldn’t spend another decade behind the Danes. The government must take a leading role to join up, scale up and simplify support to drive uptake in new technologies.

I don’t know how we’ll celebrate my brother-in-law’s thirty-first birthday next year. But what I do know is that the pandemic has taught us that, even if we can’t predict what the future will bring, technology and innovation can help us get through it.

Read more: I helped write the manifesto — and now our skills agenda is more important than ever

Main image credit: Getty

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