Tuesday 2 July 2019 3:57 am

We need a Prime Minister who can channel the potential of Digital Britain

Kulveer Ranger is board member and deputy president for economy & productivity at techUK, senior vice president at Atos UK&I, and former digital adviser to London mayor Boris Johnson.

Are we in danger of having a leadership contest about the future of our party, while completely missing the point about the future of our country? 

The two finalists in the Conservative leadership race are being quizzed endlessly about Brexit, tax and spend, public services, and their private lives. 

All these have some importance, of course, but our next Prime Minister needs to also have a vision for public policy in a very different era from the one in which either of the candidates was born. 

The next few decades will be dominated by digital developments – more information, processed and distributed at ever higher speeds, than ever before. 

How can a new Prime Minister harness this to improve the responsiveness of our public services and the competitiveness of our businesses? How will he balance spectacular new capabilities to enhance our lives with the pressing need to preserve security for all of us, both as individuals and as a nation? 

Britain is on the brink of a new digital era, with technology as a connector and enabler in all aspects of our lives and a driving force for our economy and country. 

As much time and effort needs to be spent in this contest discussing the growth sectors of the coming century – upon which millions of jobs and lives will depend – as we as a nation have spent in recent weeks talking about the steel or automobile sectors, industries that defined the previous two centuries. 

The scale of the change, even over the last several years, is remarkable: 87 per cent of respondents to research by Deloitte in 2018 claim to own a smartphone, with 95 per cent using it every day, while 90 per cent of people had internet access at home last year. 

Meanwhile, 22m people now manage their current account on their phone – and it is predicted that this number will increase to 35m by as near as 2023 – 72 per cent of the UK adult population. 

Specifically, we need our next Prime Minister to take advantage of emerging technologies and appreciate how they can open doors for innovative and creative policy-making within the government, including through empowering workers across the public sector. 

They won’t be starting from scratch. A decade ago, I was extolling the virtues of tech and advising Boris Johnson on where the industry, especially startups, could take London. 

To be honest, he was probably not fully convinced. At the time, there was a lot of talk but not much action. Regardless, he trusted me to use his political capital wisely, to work with Number 10, to shape the agenda for big tech firms to come to London and startups to flourish. 

Eight years later, his instincts to trust people paid off: he was able to boast last month about how tech had created half a million new jobs in London.

More recently, the current government’s digital strategy has set out an approach to ensuring that organisations and citizens can participate fully in the digital economy and prepare for an era of “total transformation” of services. 

Building on this, the Digital Skills Innovation Fund shows how public sector bodies, employers and training providers can work together to address local or regional digital challenges while supporting people from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged backgrounds into digital roles. 

However, there is much more that can be done. We need a better understanding of how people interact with digital in their day-to-day lives. 

While there is a tendency for politicians to opine on the blue-chip, game-changing innovations such as automation, artificial intelligence and blockchain, for most people these technologies will operate in the background. 

It is vital that the next government works to facilitate the ever-increasing cluster of devices and data that will help to deliver everyday services, interactions and experiences. This will help those on the frontline of service delivery, particularly in the public sector, to focus on the most important parts of their jobs – be it nurses in the NHS or teachers in our schools.

This will, of course, require close collaboration between those who design and deliver this innovation and those that regulate and deliver the associated services. Atos’ latest report, Digital Vision for Digital Britain, discusses how total transformation across industry and the public sector will not only ensure that organisations have adaptable, future-fit digital operations, but also cultures of shared purpose.

As we approach the 2020s, the pace of technological change will only continue to increase. 

While the next Prime Minister’s first challenge will be to deliver Brexit, he also has the challenge of ensuring that Britain is well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities which digital will offer in the decade ahead.

Atos’ latest report can be downloaded here.

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