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Interview

Julian David, techUK

27 April 2016

The UK's tech sector is valuable to the economy, but more collaboration and focus is needed for it to be a true world leader

How significant is the tech sector in the UK?

The sector in itself is hugely significant, with various estimates putting its value at 11-12 per cent of GDP. But what’s more important is that digital technology is the basis for the UK’s future competitiveness, cutting right across different sectors, from farming to fintech. Our strength in high-skilled, high-value manufacturing is enabled by technology, as is the rapid growth of smaller businesses in the UK.

Is the importance of tech as recognised as it should be in the UK?

Policy makers get it at the exciting, shiny and new level and they have done well to encourage start-ups. It becomes more difficult when you look at longer term, more costly policy areas, such as skills, infrastructure and support for companies scaling up. Of course, technology also has a bearing on the issue of productivity and there are sectors and groups of companies that don’t understand or use technology as well as they could.

What do you see as the main barriers in the way of growth – and how should they be tackled?

Last summer we came out with an 11-point plan to address the skills gap, which highlights the scale of what is needed in both education and in industry. It’s a perennial issue for a global industry and we have to be able to tap into global resources, as well as a more diverse talent pool.

Infrastructure is another major challenge. The way the industry is set up means there is more focus on consumer needs than those of businesses and small firms in particular can struggle to get the connectivity they require. It can quickly become unaffordable or unresponsive.

And there is no room for complacency. Globally, the UK was the leader in 2G and 3G technology, but we’re a laggard in 4G. We can’t afford to be a laggard in 5G – it’s what will enable the Internet of Things, which in turn will affect so many businesses.

The last thing you’ve got to get right is the regulatory regime. Again, we’ve not done too badly on copyright and intellectual property, and on our competition regime. But around data, we’ve got to keep championing the ability to exploit and take advantage of data, while preserving privacy and the rights of individuals and businesses.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity?

In a survey of our members, 93 per cent of respondents said they were confident about growth and about hiring, in 2016 and onwards. The tech sector is growing faster than the average of all other sectors in the UK. It’s creating new jobs and new job opportunities. And where it’s changing jobs, in the context of a global economy, the ability for the UK to excel at digital technology and its implementation will secure high value, quality jobs in the UK.

The UK has great capability in mobile in everything from design, through the supply chain, to the operators. It’s something the UK can excel in if it implements it in its own infrastructure. It has also got a great track record in data science. Equally, in cyber security technologies, we’re world class – and we can export our capabilities in that, as well as attract investment and jobs.

Looking at other sectors, fintech – and financial services more broadly – clearly demonstrate what’s possible. And I think the UK’s professional services, creative industries and life sciences are benefitting – and stand to benefit – from the digital revolution. Put all those together and that's an awful lot of global opportunity.

Are you confident we will make the most of those opportunities?

We need to get the right focus at every level of our society – not just on the skills but the interest in these areas. We need to put the infrastructure in place that allows businesses to become digital, and, having become digital, to become global.

We need to put the focus on how businesses grow. We're arguably the best start-ups scene in Europe and that can form the basis of a new wave of significant tech companies here in the UK. But we've got to tie it all together with a long-term vision and purpose if we are to continue to succeed.

Do you think we’ve wasted some of the UK’s tech potential?

Undoubtedly we have in the past. If you look at our patents record, our science base, our universities profile, and the number of British innovations that have subsequently been used elsewhere.

So what’s the one thing you would ask of government to improve the environment for tech growth?

Continuity of purpose – understanding that you can’t just snap your fingers to make it happen; and not getting carried away by the shiny and new. Just as David Brailsford in cycling has said: it’s all about incremental improvements on a long-term basis; and its focusing on the fundamentals that makes you a leader, not a follower.

Too many times we’ve launched individual initiatives in different areas, around different things. We should collaborate more, focus more, and do that at scale and pace.