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Is the UK Losing Out in the Technology Race?


We talk a lot about how to fix The Skills Gap, that is, the ever growing area between emerging technologies and those people with the skills to make them happen (like Front End Developers or UX Designers).

Which is why we were excited to attend the Tech vs. Brains event in London a few weeks ago. Innotech Summit brought together 100 leaders from tech, business, and politics to debate the changing role of technology in work and the new skills that people need as computers increasingly take on human roles.

Right up our alley, right?

Our friends over at TechCityInsider were kind enough to share this coverage from the event. (Check out their blog for accompanying video interviews.)

Technology businesses will create millions of new jobs in the UK and beyond – but at the same time technological advance is driving the loss of white-collar jobs across the economy, a top-level summit at the House of Commons heard this week. Julian Blake reports.

Tech vs Brains, organised by Jennifer Arcuri’s Innotech Summit, brought together 100 leaders from the worlds of technology, business and politics to discuss this great dilemma of our times – and debate the changing role of technology in work and the new skills that people need as computers increasingly take on human roles.

The debate, on the Commons terrace by the Thames, was prompted by a film made by former Cameron policy advisor and Tech City creator Rohan Silva for BBC Newsnight last September, in which he warned that technology was driving the loss of middle-class jobs in areas like law, medicine and accounting.

Silva told TechCityInsider: “Technology is evolving incredibly rapidly and is having an interesting impact on the labour market. That is leading to distributional changes in terms of income, but it’s also creating great opportunities for people to get better high-paid jobs and start companies more cheaply than ever before. The debate here is about how we can update our skills system to take advantage of this technological change instead of as a country losing out from those new technologies.”

Silva, now co-founder of the new Second Home events space, led the debate, with senior investor Sherry Coutu, MP George Freeman and NCC Group director Ollie Whitehouse alongside.

Coutu said rapid-growth tech firms were responsible for driving major job growth in the economy. All new net jobs across Europe were being created by companies that were less than five years old, she said. The number of jobs created by app companies alone would reach 5m by 2018, with stem cell research creating a further million, she added.

Coutu said that fast-growing companies urgently needed to be connected with the talent they needed – yet there were too few people coming out of the education system with the tech skills they needed.

Coutu told TechCityInsider: “Fast-growing companies have created 100% of the net new jobs in the last five years and that’s really important as it allows us to focus on them so that it helps kids to understand the skills that they need to acquire to work at the jobs that will be as opposed to the ones that won’t be there any longer.”

Silva said the UK economy could benefit from the structural changes brought about by technology. He said that the cost of entry into entrepreneurship was low cost, but it concentrated wealth among high earners.

Former schools minister Lord Jim Knight said it was vital that the benefits of the new tech economy should be felt not just in the south east, but across the country where deindustrialisation had destroyed local economies.

Freeman said that the public sector needed to change, by injecting entrepreneurialism into its culture and cutting out inefficiency. He said government needed to realise that the old top-down approach of government was over. Today’s citizens demanded to be empowered, he said.

Freeman told TechCityInsider that the UK needed to “embrace private, public and social enterprise, so that technology isn’t just something the private sector has fun with, while the public sector languishes with an analogue approach to problem solving and how do we break down those barriers.

“We’ve got to get the public sector in Britain better at opening up and working with the private and voluntary sector using big data to create new markets for technology. The government sits on vast amounts of data that it doesn’t use. By making it available in an anonymised way, we can create whole new industries and huge new business opportunities.”

Silva said that the deregulation of the sharing economy in the UK, seen in areas like property rental, was the opposite of what was happening in US cities, where large lobby groups carried greater political sway.

Silva called for a radical overhaul of the way that UK universities connected with industry and the wider economy, describing the existing system as “broken”.

He told TCi: “Almost all our cities across the country have a great university, but the way in which innovation and research in our universities is translating into our economy isn’t working as well as it should. Compare Britain to America, or Israel, we’re really poor at this commercialisation.

“I see that as an opportunity for us,” he said. “It could be creating huge amounts of new jobs, particularly in cities like Newcastle and Glasgow and Birmingham, which have fantastic universities, but really ought to have more high-paid tech and innovation jobs created by their university. As a country there’s a lot of work to do.”

Silva said there was a major role for technology in inspiring creativity rather than just learning – and he said the UK should continue to play to its strengths in creative technology.

Technology was also having a profound impact on both the way children learn and teachers teach, the summit heard. The connections being made between the technology industry and schools – including through Coutu’s Founders4Schools initiative, was proving “hugely energising” for students.

Coutu told TCi: “Schools need to reach out to fast-growing companies and help them to put together meaningful work experience. They should also help them to come in as role models for their schools, so the people that have started up these companies can talk to the kids about the companies that they might want to work for or indeed create, but where the jobs will be rather than where they were, to help bridge what is quite a wide gap.

“There’s a lot that we need to do but we need to get started now.”

The summit also heard about the economic and social value of big data, particularly in health. Silva, who in government drove the controversial government policy of opening up patients’ NHS data, said a “21st century social contract” gave citizens responsibility to contribute to the NHS not just with tax money but with their data. He said the NHS datasets offered doctors the world’s greatest health database.

He said patient privacy could be preserved as anonymised data offered such potential for the greater good.

Coutu said the UK government’s decision to open up its data was pivotal to innovation in other areas such as transport and property. The recent flotation of property site Zoopla would not have happened without the opening up of this data, she said.

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