Of all the tumultuous occurrences that happened in 2016, Britain’s exit from the European Union was one of the biggest, and since then, British citizens (along with the rest of the world) have been wondering what comes next – for the economy, for immigration and travel, for foreign relations…for everything, really. We’ve already seen some Brexit-related fallout in the tech and design sectors, and the upheaval also contributed to a yearlong delay in the release of the UK Digital Strategy, a long-awaited plan laying out how the British government intends to make the UK a leader in digital technology.
This week, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport finally released the plan, which details the seven “strands” on which they plan to focus.
Digital connectivity is crucial to business, and thus the government intends to ensure that no one is without quality, reliable and speedy Internet and mobile connectivity. The continuation of the effort to roll out 4G and high-speed broadband across the nation by 2020 is a large part of the plan, but the strategy also includes the implementation of a Universal Service Obligation, which will give everyone the right to request an affordable high-speed broadband connection. Furthermore, the government plans to invest more than £1 billion in what it calls “next generation digital infrastructure,” which includes full fiber and 5G.
The Universal Service Obligation will be part of the Digital Economy Bill, which is currently before Parliament and also gives the Office of Communications (Ofcom) the ability to fine mobile network operators that don’t reach at least 90% of landmass with basic mobile talk, text and data services. In addition, free Wi-Fi is in the process of being rolled out on trains and in other public places. The Department for Culture, Media & Sport is establishing a new Business Connectivity Forum, which will involve businesses, local authorities and communications providers working together to develop solutions to connectivity issues facing businesses. You can read more detail here.
Digital Skills and Inclusion
This strand is all about making sure that everyone in the UK has at least basic digital skills, and ensuring that there is a sufficiently trained workforce to meet the growing demand for specialist skills in the digital sector. According to the report, there are four major barriers to universal digital literacy: lack of accessibility, as outlined above; insufficient training opportunities; lack of confidence; and lack of motivation or understanding of the necessity of digital technology.
Highlights of the plan to address these shortcomings include more support for libraries and an increased effort to expand makerspaces and FabLabs within public libraries, as well as increased support for early digital education. A partnership between the National Citizen Service (NCS) and the Raspberry Pi Foundation will implement a pilot program that will test new ways to implement digital skills and careers in NCS programs, and a “lifelong learning” plan will offer free training to adults who lack basic digital skills.
September 2016 saw the opening of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, which will train 5,000 students for digital careers over the next five years. The government will fund Ada’s creation of an online learning platform by this summer, and will also work with partners including Merrill Lynch, Deloitte, IBM and Google to support the school. Further plans include efforts to increase digital workforce diversity and cyber security training, as well as the establishment of a Digital Skills Partnership involving several private companies that have committed to increasing digital training both within and outside their workforces. You can read more about Digital Skills and Inclusion here.
“Our industrial strategy involves identifying our strengths and building on them. The digital economy is a vital part of that: as we build a great, global trading nation, we will remain a world leader in innovation, building and using the most advanced technology that delivers incredible content and services,” the report states. “We have some of the most exciting start-ups in the world, and some of the strongest technology clusters. We want to build on that: we want the UK to be the best place to start and grow a digital business.”
Plans to boost the digital sector include tax incentives for supporting digital startups, and the prioritization of attracting and maintaining international talent despite leaving the EU. The government will work with individual regulators to ensure what they call “an innovation-friendly regulatory environment,” and will conduct research into issues such as 3D printing and intellectual property protection.
A significant amount of funding will be allocated to organizations working on artificial intelligence and robotics development, and an Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will be developed to support technological innovation in areas including AI, the Internet of Things, virtual reality and autonomous vehicles. In addition, the government will be establishing a network of UK Tech Hubs, modeled on and working alongside the UK Israel Tech Hub, which will partner British businesses with startups in five developing countries. Read more details here.
The Wider Economy
In addition to supporting the growth of new digital businesses, the government intends to help existing businesses adopt digital technology to stay competitive. At a minimum, they want every business to do four key things: maintain a web presence, sell online, use the cloud, and digitize back-office functions like payroll. £13 million will be invested in a Productivity Council.
“It will be established to drive engagement with business and improve productivity across the economy, including through appropriate use of digital technologies. It will connect, encourage and amplify the impact of existing initiatives to improve productivity, acting as the UK’s productivity ‘centre of excellence,'” the report states.
Again, a lot of it comes down to training, and several corporations and other organizations have already implemented training initiatives across the UK, including Google Garage, the Digital Business Academy, and Do it Digital. A flagging construction sector is being addressed through Digital Built Britain, established in 2015 to transform construction through digital technology like the IoT, sensors and telemetry. Read more here.
A Safe and Secure Cyberspace
A digital world comes with new security threats, and the UK wants to become “the safest place in the world to live and work online.” The recently introduced National Cyber Security Strategy will focus on protecting against cyber threats, and still more training will be implemented in order to develop a workforce with the skills to protect the country against cyber attacks. Measures to protect children from online threats will also be taken.
Meanwhile, the report emphasizes that a free and open Internet will be a priority, and that they will continue to work with the UN and other international organizations to ensure that the web remains secure yet open. Read more here.
The UK wants to see a digital makeover in not just business but government as well. In February, a new Government Transformation Strategy was published detailing how the government intends to use digital technology to better serve citizens. Priorities include improving online services so that people like using them and building on the “Government as a Platform” concept. Utilization of three services in particular will be encouraged:
- GOV.UK Verify, an online identity verification service
- GOV.UK Pay, which allows people to securely pay for government service online
- GOV.UK Notify, which allows people to better communicate with the government online
“We will also continue to move towards common technology, ensuring that where it is right we are consuming commodity hardware or cloud-based software instead of building something that is needlessly government specific,” the report explains. “Common components and platforms will cover both citizen-facing services and internal public sector technology.”
A Digital Government Partnership will also be established for the purpose of increasing collaboration with partners from business, academia and the social sector to help accelerate the adoption of digital technology within the government. Read more about digital government here.
This section focuses on improving the UK’s data infrastructure.
“From easing travel congestion to enabling cheaper insurance, and from speeding up the development of new medicines to helping prevent crime, data has the potential to significantly improve people’s lives,” the report says. “This infrastructure is also integral to the successful development of technologies such as connected and autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and the Internet of Things.”
The government will work with organizations such as the Open Data Institute to safely open up customers’ data across more sectors through APIs such as the Open Banking API. By May 2018, the government plans to establish the General Data Protection Regulation, which will create safeguards for the transfer of data across international borders. Training is once again a priority to fill data specialist shortages, as are measures to increase public trust in the government handling of data – as well as trust in the use of AI in data handling. A Chief Data Officer will be appointed to manage government data use, and plans are also in the works to further open up government data. You can read more here. Discuss in the UK Digital Strategy forum at 3DPB.com.