Innovation

Tech Week: Can it restore confidence in UK innovation?

London’s Tech Week is a superb showcase for the UK technology industry but initiatives like this will do little to help the UK unless the government stops seeing the sector as a threat.

June 14, 2017

Tech Week kicked off in London on Monday, 12 June. The series of showcase events was designed to place the capital at the epicentre of technology innovation in Europe, featuring everything from drones, AI, VR, and open data in government, to leadership panels and seminars celebrating the technology links between the UK and China.

London alone is home to over 45,000 technology businesses, by some estimates, which contribute nearly a quarter of a million jobs to the British economy. Less well-known is the fact that 80 per cent of technology start-ups in the capital have employed overseas talent within their first five employees, according to research published to coincide with the events.

Ongoing access to that talent pool must now be in doubt, thanks to Brexit and the UK’s recent political turmoil.

Tech Week was launched by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who recognises the importance of setting out an upbeat, inclusive, forward-looking agenda in these challenging times, especially when so much British innovation relies on being part of a global network of talent, skills, and ideas – not to mention of inward investment and support.

Khan said, “Whatever challenges we have to overcome, this city is resolutely open to global talent, global partnerships, and global businesses.”

“As mayor of London, I will do everything in my power to safeguard London’s global competitiveness and our status as a leader in innovation, particularly ensuring we can access the top talent after Brexit.”

“Regardless of the uncertainty caused by the European Union referendum result, I know the London tech sector will continue to prosper.”

Khan pointed to the £1bn of investment into the capital that has occurred since the referendum, from technology behemoths such as Facebook, Google, and Apple, among others.

But it must be acknowledged that while the presence of multibillion-dollar US corporations is a sign of international support and investment, it is not the same thing as sustaining a skilled, ambitious, innovative, and forward-looking domestic technology sector.

Big buyers for British ideas may be welcome for those businesses that want high-profile partners, or to sell out in the long run, but the UK also needs to produce technology giants of its own and to retain them within its shores, where possible.

Khan also announced the opening of a new tech innovation hub for the capital. Plexal is a large facility in East London that aims to be a mini city for technology innovators, supporting 800 tech startups, as well as established corporations.

Initiatives like Tech City/Silicon Roundabout and Silicon Fen are already producing good results – along with some useful programmes around open data, for example – but to really put the UK at the centre of digital innovation demands a lot more action, support, and investment from the government, as well as from the City.

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For example, the government has identified robotics and automated systems (RAS) as one of its key economic sectors for the future. That’s good news, but it is only planning to invest £200 million in RAS by 2020: a pitiful sum when compared with Japan’s investment, which is nearly one thousand times larger over the same timescale, and the nearly £1 trillion that Whitehall pumped into propping up the banking sector after the 2008-09 recession.

Much more needs to be done.

But since re-election, Prime Minister Theresa May has used her political isolation to speak out yet again against the very technology that underpins the digital economy, encryption. Indeed, she even went as far as threatening to shut down businesses that refuse to comply with her aims: a ludicrous and ill-informed position that does her no credit.

Perhaps May is gambling on the UK government’s position as one of the largest technology customers in the world giving it the leverage to bring IT suppliers to heel. It won’t: most major contracts are already in place for the next 20 years, and she will do little more than guarantee Whitehall some multibillion-dollar lawsuits, while trashing the reputation of the UK digital sector on the world stage.

The UK simply can’t afford to suggest to the world – at this or any time – that it is hostile to the technology sector, or that its prevailing culture is one of surveillance, control, intrusive state regulation, technology backdoors, and scrutiny of private communications. There is too much at stake for Whitehall to position Brexit as an opportunity to clamp down on, rather than celebrate, the digital world. But that is precisely what it is doing.

Research published this week by recruitment portal Indeed suggests that over 10 percent of the new jobs that have been created in the UK economy this year have been in technology, with AI and data science being among the dominant areas. So for the government to send out negative messages now is to risk killing off that growth at its roots, undermining public, industry, and investor trust.

The Prime Minister must urgently change her tune and start setting out an inclusive vision for the future, rather than continue to outline a punitive, miserable regime that seems to regard her own citizens and their businesses as naughty children that need to be punished. And it doesn’t help that most government spokespeople seem to have no understanding of the technologies they routinely criticise.

The tech sector certainly hopes for change, according to more new research, which was also published to coincide with Tech Week. Nearly three-quarters of the innovators on the London technology scene believe that current government policies will restrict access to essential talent, and – given the huge majority of startups that are employing overseas skills – threaten the sector’s continued success.

The research by Tech London Advocates (TLA), a group of over 4,500 technology professionals in the capital, found that well over half of respondents believe that current immigration policy is creating a block for world-class talent entering the UK, while nearly 30 per cent believe that London will no longer be the European hotspot for tech investments over the next five years.

That’s not the kind of news that Tech Week ought to be associated with, but it’s the new reality of life in digital UK, despite the best efforts of our many skilled, imaginative, talented, and ambitious innovators.

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The UK needs to stop telling the world that it is jumping into a deep, dark hole of its own making, spurred on by a brace of offshore tabloid billionaires, and start talking – and acting – like the modern economy that it needs to be.

Tech Week is one of the many positive, upbeat initiatives that the industry has created to help position the UK in the vanguard of global technology innovation – and we should celebrate that fact, and support the events. There are others, too, such as Robotics Week, which kicks off on 26 June.

But for these and other programmes to succeed, the government needs to step up and become the industry’s ally, not its adversary.