I could hear some sucking through teeth when a questioner at last week’s Brands2Life UK: A Leading Digital Nation? event implied that the majority of the tech industry was opposed to Brexit. Perhaps that’s because I was sitting behind Viscount Ridley. The issue of Brexit could easily have dominated the discussion at Portcullis House. But, then, so could so many other topics.
One panellist fixated on the ‘sharing economy’ as the route to a digital nation. Another touched on broadband speeds. Another hopped over a host of digital topics: innovation, skills, regulation.
It was, of course, impossible to reach any conclusion. The room was packed at Portcullis House with people with very different digital and political perspectives. The panel, that included Matt Warman MP, did its best to cover several of the issues. The people in the room – including Viscount Ridley – were itching for their say. The report, produced to coincide with the event, includes lots of important sounding calls to action by important sounding people.
The challenge, in making the UK a leading digital nation, is that nobody really agrees how to achieve it. To an extent it will happen (or not happen) by default. It is, indeed, questionable what role government will play. And there is an argument, of course, that the government should simply keep its nose out as much as possible and let the tech sector get on with it with minimal regulation and minimal intervention. After all, it’s the private sector that gave us the concept of single-click identity management, the sharing economy, and superlative on-line customer experience (not the government).
Also, the problem with events like this (and this is not the fault of Brands2Life who are to be applauded for organising it) is that they tend to focus on the known and the incremental. We all know now about the “sharing economy”. It’s in the public domain. We’ve all had a ride on Uber. But rarely do such events challenge convention or lob in a black swan scenario to discuss.
The United Kingdom is changing and none of us really has any idea how digital will be our salvation or our downfall. All we can do is look at the best bits and try to adopt them to the best of our ability, hoping we’re doing the right thing.
The trouble with government IT is that it’s much too slow at adopting the best bits and using technology to make government smaller and more efficient at the same time. Government is glacially slow to change and the Government Digital Service (GDS) is not the answer. There is never a simple causal fix to an incredibly complex problem.
GDS may help. It can’t do any harm to have a nimble, tech-savvy team at the heart of government (unless it gets too big). But it’s not a solution. Similarly, the “sharing economy” is not, of itself, any panacea or delivery merchant for the UK becoming a digital nation.
But discussion is good. It encourages ideas to germinate and it helps identify new markets for technology companies to serve. Because it’s the technology companies – especially the nimble and innovative ones – that will ultimately deliver the component parts of the UK’s success as a digital nation.