Why technology is now part of the political mainstream

Aside from the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “straight-talking, honest politics”, and Prime Minister David Cameron’s aggressive pitch for the political centre ground, this year’s party conferences included significant discussion of technology related issues.

1) Tech is about progress, and politics should be too (or so says Chi Onwurah, Shadow Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy)

Government and opposition realise tech could bring huge growth. But the pace of innovation makes it difficult for them to predict how, where and when this will happen, and whether the net impact will be positive or negative. Because of this, it’s important that politics and technology work together to be, in Chi’s words, “twin engines of positive change”.

Boom or bust?

Take the sharing economy. Debbie Wosskow, Love Home Swap Founder and author of the Government’s Sharing Economy review, thinks the wider positive social impact of this sector needs to be better communicated at an industry-wide level. For example, sharing makes assets more productive but this isn’t recognised in macro-economic forecasting.  It’s turned out to be a huge boost to women in the workplace too. Flexible working has created opportunities for female entrepreneurship: 65% of participants are women. The Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock argued this represents “the changing relationship between the citizen and the workplace”.

Or take fintech, one of the hottest UK growth sectors, but at the same time a potential threat to the future of the big banks. Nick Hungerford from the investment company Nutmeg and Taavet Hinrikus from Transferwise talked about how technology was revolutionising both charging structures and also the wider culture and language of the banking sector, making both more meaningful to the wider public. Others, notably the Government’s fintech ambassador Eileen Burbridge predicted that the majority of fintech investment would come from the major banks, for anti-fraud, cyber security and better IT systems.

There was much discussion about how to balance regulation to build trust without stifling innovation and protecting vested interests. But arguably the biggest barrier could be educating consumers to use multiple, new providers and turn to little known brands to invest their life savings – a task for government and consumer groups.

A shared responsibility on skills

With the digital skills deficit at the top of the business agenda, companies are looking to government to adapt the curriculum for a more tech-savvy generation. At the same time, the Government is looking for business to do more to help upskill the workforce. Matt Hancock spoke about corralling companies into investing for the future, while Rachel Neaman, Chair of Go On UK spoke about the need for a coherent national strategy for lifelong learning.

Enhancing cross-border trade

Many of the key tech debates are being driven by organisations and stakeholders outside the UK. At European level, the Digital Single Market (DSM) review covers a host of areas including intermediary liability, payments, transparency of charges and infrastructure.

Vicky Ford MEP, chair of the European Parliament’s internal market committee, talked about the positive opportunities for the UK within the DSM, and the need to dispel the myth that the EU does ‘not do tech’.  But she warned of a “different mentality” among some MEPs. Not all share our enthusiasm for tech, and fears about job insecurity and loss of privacy rights abound.

2) Tech impacts our personal privacy and safety, and creates a new class of ‘excluded’ citizens

The Internet of Things and big data are seen as fundamental to a second tech revolution. But to realise the potential, privacy concerns need to be addressed in order to enable data to be mined and shared.

A common theme was that government was putting the tech and ideological framework in place to shift responsibility and power from the state to the individual. Hetan Shah of the Royal Statistical Society stressed the need to educate people about how their data is being used, while Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey pushed the popular view that “data is ours as individuals and we should have control”.

On the question of exclusion Neaman warned we couldn’t assume that Generation Y were tech savvy.  The OECD reports that UK young adults seem to be falling behind their EU counterparts, and that 43% of the digitally excluded were of working age. VC Sherry Coutu talked about the STEM turn off, especially for the 95% of women who drop physics after GCSE.

3) Digital government is needed to improve public services

This was Matt Hancock’s unequivocal message. While warning digital exclusion should not be exaggerated, he emphasised the need for optimism to ensure people engaged with e-government.  He acknowledged departments still had a long way to go, with pockets of excellence such as the DVLA’s digital programme, being too few and far between.

But a constant dilemma for government is whether innovation must be centrally or locally driven. There was a cautious optimism that the government’s new city devolution model could create a more integrated approach to public health and dealing with data. But others worried whether this will actually happen, and about how to handle non-urban areas.

Hancock and Matt Warman MP both agreed that data sharing in the public sector was necessary. But they said this should happen but in a diffuse, disaggregated way, and that government’s role was to ensure interoperability and the availability of APIs. The rest would follow, providing the privacy fears can be overcome.

So where does this leave politicians?

Warman, the former tech editor of The Telegraph, said government and businesses have a communications challenge on their hands, to demonstrate how technology can improve productivity rather than cost jobs.  In his words, in the future politicians would have to be ‘brave’ when it comes to tech.

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