How to unlock Britain’s tech potential

As innovation transforms the world of work, digital skills are key. 

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In just one generation, the world of work has been completely transformed by tech. That was already the case before the coronavirus pandemic. But this year’s enforced lockdown has put a rocket booster under that trend, turbocharging the digital transformation of almost every part of our lives. Our workplaces, our businesses, but also how we shop, how we stay in touch with family and the way we use public services, all increasingly require digital skills.

The power of technology is celebrated every year at London Tech Week and it is thanks to our innovative firms that it is taking place at all this year. The events, talks and forums bring together some of the finest entrepreneurs, investors and tech workers from around the world to the tech capital of Europe. It is a time to mark this government’s commitment to the sector and the many firms up and down the country who will help us achieve our aim of a tech-led recovery out of the pandemic.

Take Astrum Wine Cellars, based in Surrey. This small business ordinarily takes most of its revenue from the hospitality sector. When the virus struck, they had to adapt quickly to find new sources of income, including selling goods online directly to consumers. Until this point, Astrum had little experience in the digital marketplace. Thankfully they were able to turn to Digital Boost, a government-backed scheme which provides small firms and charities the skills they need to operate online. The support on offer gave them the confidence to build and refine digital ads and attract new customers, which they said was key for remaining open throughout the pandemic.

Statistics from my department suggest more than 80 per cent of jobs today now require some level of digital ability. People who work in marketing need to be proficient in search engine optimisation and HTML. Even in less specialist roles, workers are expected to be comfortable navigating smartphones or tablets now the workplace is increasingly mobile.

If we want everyone to take advantage of this revolution – and of the UK’s booming digital economy – then we need them to have the right skills. The government is working with industry and academia to boost digital skills across the board – from the basics, like booking appointments online or sending emails, to the specialist skills needed to work in data science and other digital sectors that will drive our post-pandemic recovery.

We have worked with educational, business and industry partners to launch The Skills Toolkit, a free platform which gives everyone the opportunity to revamp their digital skills, get ahead in their current jobs and boost their employability. Our Local Digital Skills Partnerships – which bring together public, private and charity organisations to build people’s digital skills – continue to operate in six regions across England serving more than ten million people.

They support fantastic organisations such as Teen Tech which has helped give schoolkids in deprived areas days out to learn digital skills. I am delighted to say that this autumn we will be launching a seventh partnership in West Yorkshire. And as part of our wider commitment, the government will invest £3bn over five years in the National Skills Fund to support the retraining of the adult workforce. These schemes are helping individuals and businesses navigate the challenges of remote working and training, and contributing to regional economic recovery.

The UK is a nation of innovators, entrepreneurs and inventors, so it's no surprise our tech industry is already incredibly strong. We rank third globally for investment in the tech sector, only behind the United States and China, and consistently outperform the rest of Europe.

But I want to build on that strength. To do so we need to make sure our workforce keeps pace with the latest technologies – the kind set to revolutionise the way we live and work, such as artificial intelligence.

British firms are working at the cutting edge of this technology. Benevolent AI in London is harnessing deep learning to help doctors make smarter treatment decisions, while construction firm Kier has been partnering with the University of Cambridge and nPlan to explore how machine learning could help stop projects from overrunning. In Manchester, start-up Upside Energy is using AI to help move our energy system towards net zero by enabling homes and businesses to sell unused power from renewable sources back to the grid.

If we are to continue on our current trajectory, we need to develop and maintain the best AI workforce in the world – one which makes the most of everyone’s potential. That’s why in June we announced 2,500 new places on AI and data science conversion courses to boost the diversity and number of people working in AI.

Statistics from Tech Nation and Royal Society reveal women make up only 19 per cent of the tech workforce. Our programme will mean applicants from underrepresented groups such as women, black and disabled people have access to 1,000 scholarships to support the development of ethical technology, make sure data-driven technologies reflect the needs of society and help mitigate the risk of biased technologies being developed.

I want the benefits of these technologies felt right across society and in the world of work at every level. We have joined the Global Partnership for AI, an international and multi-stakeholder initiative to guide the responsible development and use of this technology. The Global Partnership for AI works with countries including Canada, France, India, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and the United States to investigate how AI can be used to address challenges that require international cooperation. This includes strengthening our response to and recovery from the pandemic, delivering on net zero, and bridging the gap between cutting-edge research and the use of AI to tackle real-world problems.

We must take care that the opportunities it creates are shared fairly across society, and work hard to make sure everyone has access to technology through world-class digital infrastructure such as gigabit-capable broadband speeds. Our new digital strategy is due to be published later this year and will aim to lead the way and form one of the vital building blocks of our recovery – a recovery that will be tech-led, but benefit us all. 

Oliver Dowden is Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

This article is from the latest issue of Spotlight, the New Statesman's policy supplement. To see the rest of the edition, click here.

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