Wednesday 9 December 2020 5:25 am

Unleash the power of digital across our nation

Margot James is executive chair of WMG at the University of Warwick, and is a former digital minister

Digital capital has transformed every role I’ve held.

As a business leader, the emergence of digital markets and communication transformed my industry. As an MP and minister, I wrestled with how access to digital information shaped opportunities.

I worked to widen access to digital skills for women (only 19 per cent of workers in tech roles and a mere 12 per cent of computer science A-Level students are female) through initiatives such as the Tech Talent Charter. 

Today, as executive chair at WMG, part of the University of Warwick, we work with small businesses across the Midlands to assist them in adopting digital technologies, help young people gain digital degrees, and innovate in exciting new fields like connected vehicles. 

It has been clear from our work for some time that businesses desperately need increased access to digital capital. The Covid-19 pandemic has sharply underlined that view. Digital capital has been at the heart of how we have got through the last year, as our whole world has gone online and businesses have shifted to online ordering and delivery at incredible speed. 

However, while that innovation to be admired, we cannot ignore the damage the pandemic has done to the entire economy. Here in the Midlands, for example, our economy has shrunk by 10 per cent, and over a quarter of companies report their sales are down by more than half as a result of Covid.

If we are to recover from this sharp economic shock, expanding digital adoption, inclusion, infrastructure, skills, research and investment across the whole of society will be crucial. 

And it’s not just about moving on from the pandemic. This week, TechUK published a new report entitled “Building the future we need”, which I was proud to launch. The report argues that, for the government to succeed in its levelling up agenda, we must improve “digital capital” across all our nations and regions.

When the government and businesses work together and commit whole-heartedly to adopting advances in digital technology, the results are transformative. I have seen first-hand the impact when, for example, manufacturers digitise their quality control, improving their productivity and deploying digital prototyping to secure new contracts. Think of the economic gains we could achieve if our public sector, manufacturing and services companies all adopted such advances.

We must also ensure that digital infrastructure and skills training are accessible to everyone. At WMG, we’ve seen tremendous demand from employers to provide digital skills courses for their staff, but the current funding system limits their options. Reforming the apprenticeship levy to allow employers to flexibly offer their staff digital skills training should be a priority.

And we need to trust the nations and regions to deliver. In the West Midlands, the adult education budget has been devolved, but the running of apprenticeships and training for 16–18 year olds and past offenders remains in Whitehall. Local areas understand their residents and businesses best, and should have more powers to deliver for them.

When it comes to the brave new post-EU world, the government must ensure it supports businesses recruiting talented people from overseas. Under the Single Market, this was relatively straightforward, but the new system is complex and puts barriers in the way of recruiting those we need for domestic growth, especially outside London. We cannot allow Brexit to get in the way of attracting the best and brightest to boost the UK’s digital capital.

Finally, we need to showcase the transformative power of technological advances in improving our lives. Digital innovation can benefit everyone — it should not be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity for all of us.

Building our digital capital should be the cornerstone of the UK’s innovation strategy. Together, we can ensure that the latest technological advances drive prosperity, opportunity and growth across the whole of the UK.

Main image credit: Getty

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