Technology was absent from the leaders’ debate – but it is key to the UK’s success

Last night’s election leaders’ debate was notable for the almost complete absence of technology, bar a hesitant reference to “IT” from Ed Miliband. Not one of the seven candidates spoke about technology as an enabler, as a tool that offers us the capability to completely revitalise our economy.

Instead, each debater focused on the small picture, rather than looking outwards to the massive technology-enabled social and economic changes happening globally.

Where was the leadership? Where was the inspiration? Where was the “yes we can” moment? And why was there no talk of the massive digital revolution happening right now, which offers us so many opportunities to solve or alleviate many of our country’s problems?

The UK has a great tradition of creativity, invention and technology from the industrial revolution to the code breakers of Bletchley Park, to ARM, the BBC Micro and the Raspberry Pi.

We are now competing in a global marketplace, in a world that is increasingly driven by technology. The UK should be leading the world with a strong, tech-savvy, tech-enabled workforce, ready to make the most of the huge opportunities a global marketplace opens up. We should be in pole position. Are we? Are we bugger.

Our schools have only just started teaching computer science properly, and the majority of UK adults have almost no practical tech education at all, which harms our future economic success and competitiveness as a nation. Which political party is taking a lead on ensuring that as a country we are ready with 21st century tech skills?

Last night I saw “pale, stale and male” middle-class white men from privileged backgrounds, all focused on either getting into or staying in power. The only candidates to mention cooperation and collaboration were female — the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party. Organisations across the UK, including government, education and the NHS, need to collaborate more effectively in order to solve problems more swiftly, and tech can help to facilitate this.

For too long we have had a political system built around competition and short termism. If we want our country to be successful we need more focus on cooperation and collaboration, both nationally and globally. In these areas technology is a great enabler.

Today’s politicians simply do not seem to grasp the positive impact tech could have to the nation’s economy, if we can educate the workforce to understand it. From virtual assistants to web designers, and executive coaches to Etsy’s knitters, technology enables entrepreneurs to go global.

The World Economic Review for 2014 ranked the UK just ninth in the world for networked readiness, or having a workforce that is able to use technology. This puts us behind the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. At first glance, ninth may not seem all that bad. But things move fast in the tech world and governments that prioritise tech education for adults as well as school children will have the clear advantage.

The candidates last night spoke of the NHS, the economy, jobs, full employment, debts, zero-hours contracts, legislation, public sector contracts and security for working families. These are all important, of course, but what was missing was anything truly inspiring and with a real sense of optimism. One candidate did at least speak of a pride in our nation, and mentioned the global economy. What a shame that was Nigel Farage…

Farage might pay lip service to engaging with the world at large, but stricter immigration policies would do the UK tech industry and the economy in general no good at all.

A recent House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report published in 2014 claims that an “unwelcoming UK” has already led to an “unprecedented fall” in Stem student numbers. Keeping people out of our country means missing opportunities to share skills, to enhance knowledge and develop global networks, all of which are important in the modern workplace.

In the UK we have a rich heritage in technology and engineering that should give us the confidence for leadership at a global level, setting the pace and inspiring other nations to follow our great example – not focusing on how many foreigners there are in the UK. It’s embarrassing. How did we end up here?

Now is the time for a new inspiring vision of the future, from a leader who can not only lead but who is not afraid to connect and collaborate. A leader who understands and can leverage the massive opportunities available, someone that our innovative, inventive and creative population can believe in. We need a leader who understands the capabilities inherent in modern technology and has the ability to use them to solve our problems. We need that leader now.

Where is she?

This article written by me was published in The Guardian on Friday 3 April 2015

Technology was absent from the leaders’ debate – but it is key to the UK’s success

4 comments

  1. Have you looked into a mirror lately? Could you not lead the way in collaboration with existing political people who know the system and are probably as frustrated at lack of knowledge around IT as driver of global economies? Women, minorities, people with disabilities / poor health etc would benefit so much from a Tech Driven economy. Along with everybody else. Chance to raise all of the boats. Not just the super yachts.

  2. Sue, Great post and I agree with everything you say. As a white, middle class man I hope I’m not “pale and stale” and am certainly not from a “privileged background” and yes it does frustrate me hugely the lack of ambition our politicians have in embracing how IT could change this country and society for the better. This especially following the inspirational Richard Dimbleby (another white, middle-class male) lecture from Baroness Martha Lane-Fox. In many ways of course they are running a little bit scared because of the many, very public, government IT project disasters of the last few decades which even Ms Lane-Fox’s inspired Government Digital Services have not been able to entirely avoid. So what to do? Martha Lane-Fox has layed down the gauntlet has she not so it is up to those of us who know a little bit about IT to take the initiative and persuade our sometimes IT illiterate leaders to embrace not ignore IT.

    1. Thanks Peter 😃 I’ve just read Martha’s lecture. Great that she is getting some our ideas high profile attention. Let’s hope it helps everything to start moving along.

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