Government launches UK Digital Strategy to make Britain 'a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone'


The UK government finally published its Digital Strategy today, outlining its plans for making the country a global capital of the digital economy.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley MP launched the strategy by laying out the government's vision of how to develop the requisite infrastructure, regulations and skills to make the UK the ideal place for digital businesses, new technology and advanced research.

"The Digital Strategy will help to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone," she pledged at the Entrepreneur First startup accelerator. The London incubator is housed in a converted Biscuit Factory, a fitting example of the digital transformation the plans intend to support.

"This strategy will ensure that the benefits of digital are spread throughout the country; that we have the necessary infrastructure; that regulations are agile and benign; and that everyone has the skills they need to be citizens in the digital age and workers in the digital economy."

The strategy is divided into seven strands covering connectivity, skills, digital businesses, data, digital government, cyberspace and the wider economy.

Digital skills

The digital skills gaps is an ongoing concern both in the UK and around the world, and Bradley revealed a number of government schemes aimed at tackling it. More than four million free digital skills training opportunities were promised to develop the country's digital skills base and infrastructure, with industry involvement central to the plans.

The new Digital Skills Partnership was announced to solidify the support of the private sector for developing tech talent at a local level through their regional expertise.

"Let's be clear: the digital economy is not confined to London," said Bradley. "A variety of government programmes are already lending support — and we will build on this to back talent and innovation wherever we find it."

Already confirmed as joining the scheme are Lloyds Banking Group, which will provide digital skills training to 2.5 million people and organisations by 2020, Barclays, which will teach coding to 45,000 children, and Google, which has pledged to help boost skills in seaside towns.

Read next: Civil Service CEO John Manzoni addresses government data skills shortage

Industry feedback on the proposals was mixed.

"Although the government's digital strategy is encouraging, currently the lack of detail is concerning," said Dr Jamie Graves, CEO at cybersecurity specialists ZoneFox. "So far, the initiative fails to pinpoint factors such as how it will be measured to ensure its success. Britain doesn't need any more strategic plans, it needs to start seeing tangible results.

"Rolling out free, basic digital skills is a welcome start, but not all the UK needs. Cybercrime is continuing to cripple companies and over two-thirds of businesses can't find enough talent to defend their company against cyber threats — yet it gets little mention in this new strategy.

"The UK has employer demand exceeding candidate interest by more than three times; surely this is a more pressing issue than Google's coastal town summer school."

International plans

The local plans extended globally into the establishment of a network of UK Tech Hubs in developing countries, to work alongside the key existing hub in Israel and boost both Britain's global presence and domestic opportunities.

"The creation of five new international tech hubs is encouraging – following on from the success of UK Israel Tech Hub," said Ben Brabyn, the head of technology accelerator Level39.

"Meaningful change will be brought about from encouraging overseas firms and investors to look towards the UK as the leading destination for growth – engaging with technology and finance clusters such as Canary Wharf and the City of London."

An investment of £13 million in seed funding for the creation of a private sector-led Productivity Council aims to help British businesses compete internationally and embrace digital ways of working.

"We will also encourage the use of digital technology to help 100,000 more UK businesses export by 2020," said Bradley. "We want the UK to be the place to be for digital and to export our expertise and products."

The government also promised to support greater diversity through further development of the Tech Talent Charter, and revealed a new five-year strategy to tackle cybercrime backed by a £1.9 billion investment.

The next generation of IT professionals would be supported through the addition of coding to the National Curriculum and by following up on the recommendations of the Shadbolt Review into computer science degrees. A national after-school programme, cyber apprenticeships, and adult retraining were also promised.

Read next: Government finally launches digital transformation strategy

IT infrastructure

A "Universal Service Obligation" has been introduced to give every business, public premises, and individual in the country the right to request an affordable high-speed broadband connection, although the practical implications of this remain unclear.

Bradley also repeated the promise that her government first made in last year's Autumn Statement of a £1 billion investment in next generation digital connectivity including full fibre and 5G.

The senior economics advisor of the CLA, the membership organisation for owners of land, property and businesses in rural England and Wales, was sceptical about the plans.

"The government has been talking about creating a world-leading digital infrastructure for some time now, but rural businesses and communities must not be left behind," said Dr Charles Trotman. "It is obvious that the rural-urban digital divide is still very much in existence, and resolving this must be a priority.

"People are increasingly coming to rely on mobile devices and using technology on the go, and the digital divide puts rural areas at an unfair disadvantage. The government has said it will commit to rolling out 5G coverage, but this is of no comfort for those who still have poor mobile coverage or no coverage at all. Without UK-wide infrastructure, the government's vision for their digital strategy will simply not work.

"The CLA has said on many occasions that the Universal Service Obligation will be crucial in providing much-needed connectivity, which has to be the key objective. More must be done to see this completed by the 2020 deadline."

The elephant in the room

Local expertise is at the centre of the strategy, but Europe seems to have been pushed to the outskirts. The vote to leave the European Union contributed to the publication being delayed by more than a year, and Brexit continues to cause major worries to the sector.

Bradley's comments will have done little to allay them. She promised that securing the residential status of EU nationals currently in the UK was a priority, but provided no details on how this would be done.

"Whilst today's Digital Strategy goes some way in offering a platform to develop the UK's digital economy, it stops short of offering a coherent, strategic plan for the tech sector as it navigates the fallout from the decision to leave the European Union," said Tom Adeyoola, the co-founder and CEO of e-commerce startup Metail.

"The strategy fails to address a potential Brexit brain-drain, the reduction in funding for UK research institutions and raises questions about how tech companies will continue to access top international talent. By failing to identify the decision to the leave the European Union as a factor in the creation of a robust Digital Strategy, today's announcement solidified Brexit's position as 'the elephant in the report'."

Artificial intelligence

Bradley's speech placed artificial intelligence at the heart of the government's programme for emerging technologies.

A review on how to make the UK a leading nation for AI to be conducted by Professor Wendy Hall of the University of Southampton and Jerome Pesenti from Benevolent AI was announced, with support from a £17.3 million investment in robotics and AI research at UK universities.

"The digital sector is worth seven percent of our economy," said Bradley. "And grew nearly three times faster than the rest of it in 2015. But that does not mean that we can stand still. And just keeping up should not be the limit of our ambitions."

The launch adds to the Government Transformation Strategy published two weeks ago to provide a fuller picture of the administration's technology plans. Their success will be crucial if the growth cited by Bradley continues as the worried whispers over the country's future as a tech hub grow louder.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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