The new Mayoral Tech Manifesto 2016 outlines the bold steps the next mayor must take to maintain London’s position as the digital capital of Europe, and make it a truly digital city for businesses and citizens. But can it be done?
In theory, it can. If the infrastructure, investment and government decision-making aligns, the opportunity is there for London to become the digital destination for businesses and citizens.
However, there is one crucial factor getting in the way. It's an issue that sits like the Thames barrier holding back that flood of digital opportunity – and that’s technical skills.
No-one can deny that technology – and in particular apps – is fundamentally changing the way we work, communicate and socialise. But London can only become the digital capital of the world if its citizens have the right skills to innovate new products and services that will drive this so-called ‘"app economy".
Attracting and recruiting top talent has to take top priority. Too few students are choosing to enter the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) career paths, for example, a trend that has been accelerating since the 1980s.
Moreover, there is an imbalance in the number of women actively seeking technology roles. European Commission research forecasts there could be up to 825,000 unfilled vacancies for ICT (information and communications technology) professionals by 2020.
Action is needed now too if London is to stay ahead of rival cities on the other side of the world. In Asian countries, for instance, STEM students can account for up to 20% per cent of the student population, whereas in Europe, this percentage is only around two per cent. And a staggering 41 per cent of all degrees awarded by Chinese institutions in 2011 were in a STEM subject, almost twice the proportion of STEM degrees awarded in the UK.
These skills are needed to innovate the next generation of education services, telecommunications solutions or government services, and even tomorrow’s media channels and gaming solutions. Healthcare, learning, banking, entertainment—they are all being shaped by STEM skills.
It’s time to address the digital skills gap
So how can London build a tech talent pipeline? The answer is revealed in the Mayoral Tech Manifesto: organisations and the government need to address the lack of talent coming into technology, scale existing initiatives and identify skills gaps.
In the same way digital business is global, skills development needs to be borderless. We need a common sense approach to visas – such as lifting restrictions on the Tier 2 skilled worker visa – to ensure companies can tap into the digital skills they need to grow.
I myself am Dutch and have had the opportunity to work all over the world for technology companies, helping customers capitalise on the app economy. And others should too.
Skills development does not come about as fast as technological development. London needs to take action now to tackle the STEM skills gap and balance gender inequality in technology roles in order for the city to fulfil its digital potential.