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UK government invokes Thatcher to push new digital strategy

The UK government has published its latest Digital Strategy which, as usual, is more about ambition and buzzwords than it is action.

Tech Minister Chris Philp cited former Prime Minister and perennial opinion-divider Margaret Thatcher as inspiration as he presented the strategy at London Tech Week on Monday.

“Developed economies face long-term challenges around growth, productivity and real wages,” Philp said at the event, according to a statement published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). “Just as Thatcher unleashed the power of the market to transform our economy in the 1980s, unleashing the power of the tech sector will transform our economy today.”

While that statement doubtless resonated with some in the audience, there were surely a few eyebrows raised too.

“In the last five years the UK has raced ahead of Europe to become a global tech leader and now we’re setting the course for the future,” Philp said. “The Digital Strategy is the roadmap we will follow to strengthen our global position as a science and technology superpower. Our future prosperity and place in the world depends on it.”

The government is naturally keen to promote the idea of tech supremacy – as are governments the world over – and this time DCMS is using tech start-ups to prove its point.

The government has new figures that show UK tech start-ups and scale-ups have secured over £12 billion in venture capital funding so far this year, which is more than the sum they brought in for the whole of last year. That figure puts the UK just behind the US and ahead of China, it insists. Meanwhile, the UK doubled its number of tech unicorns – private companies valued at $1 billion – between 201 and 2021, the government says. And the UK tech sector raised more private capital and saw more public listings than the same sector in any EU country last year.

But although the government is talking up UK leadership in certain areas, a big part of the Digital Strategy is basically about tackling weaknesses. Digital skills, and the lack thereof, are a key area for concern.

According to DCMS, more than 80 percent of all jobs advertised in the UK require digital skills, but employers cite the lack of available talent as the biggest barrier to growth. The digital skills gap costs the UK economy as much as £63 billion per year in GDP, it estimates. Therefore, the new digital strategy will include the creation of a Digital Skills Council which will, amongst other things, “encourage investment in employer-led training to upskill workforces.”

The government is also launching what it calls a Compute Review, which is being pitched as a way to ensure that the UK has the computing capacity it needs to support emerging technologies like AI, IoT and quantum computing.

The UK says it has four requirements for its digital strategy: a robust digital infrastructure; unlocking the power of data; a light-touch pro-innovation regulatory framework; and a secure digital environment.

It’s hard to argue with any of those, but as with any state-led initiative, the launch of this digital strategy features many more words – many of them very carefully chosen – than it does action points. The measure of this strategy will be in its outcomes.

 

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