TheÂ UK government is dueÂ to publish its long awaited Digital Strategy later today, about a year later than originally slated. Existing delays having been compounded by the shock ofÂ Brexit.
Drafts of the strategy framework seenÂ by TechCrunch suggest itsÂ scope and ambition vis-a-vis digital technologies has been pared back and repositionedÂ vs earlier formulations of the plan,Â dating fromÂ December 2015 and June 2016, as the government recalibrated to factor in last summerâs referendum voteÂ for the UK to leave the European Union.
Since the earlier drafts were penned there has also of course been a change of leadership (and direction) at the top of government. And Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a new cabinet, including digital minister, Matt Hancock, who replaced Ed Vaizey.
The incoming digital strategy includes whatâs couched as a majorÂ a review of what AI means for the UK economy â which was trailedÂ to the press by the government at the weekend. As the FTÂ reported then, the reviewÂ will be led by computer scientist Dame Wendy Hall and Jerome Pesenti, CEO of AI firmÂ BenevolentAI, and willÂ aim toÂ identify areas of opportunity and commercialization for the UKâsÂ growing AI research sector.
The government will alsoÂ be committing Â£17.3M from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to fund research into robotics and AI at UK universities â so, to be clear, thatâs existing funds being channeledÂ into AI projects (rather than new money being found).
The draft strategy notesÂ that one project, led by the University of Manchester, will develop robotics technologies âcapable of operating autonomously and effectively within hazardous environments such as nuclear facilitiesâ. Another, at Imperial College London, will aimÂ to make âmajor advances in the field of surgical micro-roboticsâ.
But theÂ document dedicates an awful lot of page space to detailing existingÂ digital policies. And while reannouncements are a favorite spin tactic of politicians, the overall result is a Digital Strategy that feels heavy on theÂ strategic filler. And heavily shaped by Brexit â while stillÂ lackingÂ coherence for dealing with the short-term and longer term uncertainty triggered by the vote to the leave the EU.
As one disappointed industry sourceÂ who we showed the draft to put it: âIf youâre going to announce a digital strategy, and youâre taking in public input, why not be bold?â Perhaps because you donât have the ministerial resources to be bold when youâre having to expend most of your governmentâs energy managingÂ Brexit.
Itâs the skills, stupid
Besides the government foregrounding artificial intelligence (via officialÂ press briefing) as a technology it viewsÂ as promising for fueling future growthÂ ofÂ the UKâs digital economy, the strategyÂ putsÂ markedÂ emphasis on tackling digital inclusion in the coming years, via upskilling and reskilling.
Digital skills are the secondÂ of the seven âstrandsâ the strategyÂ focuses on, withÂ digital connectivity being the first â a quite different structure vsÂ the June 2016 version of the document that we reviewedÂ (which bundled skills and connectivity into a singleÂ âdigital foundationsâ section â and expendedÂ more energy elsewhere, such asÂ investigating the public sector potential of technologies like blockchain, andÂ talking upÂ putting the UK âat the heart of the European Digital Single Marketâ; an impossibility now, given Brexit).
A portion of the final strategy details a numberÂ of UK skillsÂ training partnerships, either new or which are being expanded, fromÂ companies such asÂ Google, HP, Cisco, IBM and BT. Google, for example, is pledging to launchÂ a Summer of Skills program in coastal towns across the UK.
And ahead of the strategyâs official publication the government is briefing these partnershipsÂ to pressÂ as âfour million opportunities for learningâ being created to ensure âno one is left behindâ by the digital divide.
On the Google program the draftÂ says: âIt will develop bespoke training programmes and bring Google experts to coach communities, tourist centres and hospitality businesses across the British coasts. This will accelerate digitisation and help boost tourism and growth in UK seaside towns. This new initiative is part of a wider digital skills programme from Google that has already trained over 150,000 people.â
This again isÂ digital strategy and spin drivenÂ by Brexit. The government has made it clear it will beÂ prioritizing âcontrol of Britainâs bordersâ in its negotiations with the EU, and confirmed the UKÂ will be leaving the Single Market, which means ending free movement of people from the EU. So UK businesses are faced with pressing questions aboutÂ how they will sourceÂ enough local talent quickly enoughÂ in future when there areÂ restrictions on freedom of movement. The UK governmentâs answerÂ to those worriesÂ appears toÂ be âupskill for victoryâ â which might be a long-term skills fix, but wonât plug any short term talentÂ cliffs.
âAs we leave the European Union, it will be even more important to ensure that we continue to develop our home-grown talent, up-skill our workforce and develop the specialist digital skills needed to maintain our world leading digital sector,â is all it has to say on that.
The focus on digital inclusion also looks to beÂ a response to a widerÂ framing ofÂ the Brexit vote as fueled by angerÂ within certain segmentsÂ of the population feeling left behind by globalization. (A sentiment that implicates technology as a contributing factor for aÂ sense ofÂ exclusion caused by rapid change.) Tellingly,Â the strategy document is subtitled âa world-leading digital economy for everyoneâ (emphasis mine).
âWe must also enable people in every part of society â irrespective of age, gender, physical ability, ethnicity, health conditions, or socio-economic status â to access the opportunities of the internet,â it further notes. âIf we donât do this, our citizens, businesses and public services cannot take full advantage of the transformational benefits of the digital revolution. And if we manage it, it will benefit society too.â
In terms of specific skills measures, the strategy pledges free âbasic digital skills trainingâ for adults (actuallyÂ a reannouncement)Â â with the government saying it intends to mirrorÂ the approach taken for adult literacy and numeracy training.
It also says it intends toÂ establish a ânewÂ Digital Skills Partnershipâ to bring together industry players and local stakeholders with a focus on plugging digitalÂ skills gaps locally, which sounds equallyÂ likeÂ a measure to tackle regional unemployment.
Another aimÂ is to âdevelop the role of libraries in improving digital inclusion to make them the âgo-toâ provider of digital access, training and support for local communitiesâ.
To boostÂ STEM skills â to help the UK workforce gainÂ what the governmentÂ dubs âspecialist skillsâ â it says it will implement Nigel Shadboltâs recommendations â following his 2016 report which called for universities to do more to teach skills employers need. (A need that will clearly be all the more pressing with tighter restrictions on UK borders.)
Interestingly, aÂ 2015Â draft of the strategy whichÂ we saw shows the government was kicking aroundÂ variousÂ ideas forÂ encouraging more digital talent to come intoÂ the country at that time â including creating new types of tech visas.
Among the ideas on theÂ long-list then, i.e. under PM David Cameron and minister Vaizey, were to:
- Offer e-residency for entrepreneurs â offer some form of limited residency in the UK but require IP of business is vested in UK
- Offer Digital Corporate Citizenship â to encourage companies to vest IP in UK
- Create a new class of exceptional talent visa for those with experience of scaling up tech companies
- Create a post-study Tech Visa for applicants with degrees in computing, ICT and management who set up a tech business
Later versions of the framework drop these ideas â with the government now onlyÂ saying it has asked the UKâs Migration Advisory Committee to review whether the Tier 1 visa is âappropriate to deliver significant economic benefits for the UKâ.
âWe recognise the importance which the technology sector attaches to being able to recruit highly skilled staff from the EU and around the world. As one part of this, we have asked the Migration Advisory Committee to consider whether the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route is appropriate to deliver significant economic benefits for the UK, and will say more about our response to their recommendations soon,â it writes, noting that digitalÂ sector companies employ around 80,000 people from other European Union countries, out of the total 1.4 million people working in the UKâsÂ digital sectors.
A further section of the document references ongoing concern about the future status of EU workers currently employed in the UK, without offering businesses any certainty on that front â just reiterating a hope for early clarity during Brexit negotiations. But again, no certainty.
The two-year Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU areÂ due to start by the end of next month, so for the foreseeable future governmentÂ ministers will be bound up with process ofÂ delivering Brexit. Which in turn means less time to devote toÂ digital experiments to âstay at the forefront of digital changeâ, as one of the earlier digital strategy drafts putÂ it.
âWe also recognise that digital businesses are concerned about the future status of their current staff who are EU nationals. Securing the status of, and providing certainty to, EU nationals already in the UK and to UK nationals in the EU is one of this Governmentâs early priorities for the forthcoming negotiations,â the government writesÂ now.
The original intention for the digital strategy was to look aheadÂ five years toÂ guide the parliamentary agenda on the digital economy. Formulating the strategyÂ took longer than billed, and even before the Brexit vote in June 2016 itsÂ release had been delayed six-months after Vaizey opted to runÂ a public consultation to widen the poolÂ of ideas being considered.
âChallenge us â push us to do more,â he wrote at the time.
Itâs unclear exactly why the strategy did notÂ appear in âearly 2016â (a parliamentary committee was still wonderingÂ that inÂ July). And perhaps if it had Mayâs government would have felt compelled toÂ retain more of those challengingÂ ideas â or be accused of seeking to U-turnÂ on theÂ digital economy.
But, as things turned out, VaizeyâsÂ delay overranÂ into the looming prospect of the Brexit vote â at which pointÂ the government decidedÂ it would wait until afterwards to publish. Clearly not expecting all its best laid plans toÂ be entirely derailed.
Since June, theÂ wait for the strategy has stretched a further eight months â- unsurprisingly, at this point, given the shock of Brexit and the change of leadership triggered by Cameronâs resignation.
And while the process of formulating any strategic policyÂ document isÂ likely to involveÂ plenty of âblue-sky thinkingâ â thinking that never, ultimately, makes the cutÂ as a bona fide policy pledge â itâs nonetheless interesting to see how a veryÂ long-list of digital ideas has beenÂ whittled down and reshuffled into this set ofÂ âseven strandsâ.
Hereâs a condensed overviewÂ of May/HancockâsÂ digital priority areas:
- Digital connectivityÂ â on this the government mainlyÂ appears to be touting existing policies, such as aÂ universal service obligation for broadbandÂ (with a floor of 10Mbps connection);Â free wi-fi on trains; andÂ Â£1BN for fiber and 5G.Â The government also says it intends to âensure adverts for broadband accurately reflect the speeds and technology actually on offer for the majority of customersâ â somethingÂ Vaizey had criticizedÂ when in post
- Digital skillsÂ â another section padded out with a lot of policyÂ reannouncements, butÂ which generally puts a lot ofÂ emphasis on longer term digital upskilling of the local population, as noted above, includingÂ flagging up corporate training partnerships
- Making the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a digital business â this sectionÂ reiterates theÂ previously announced extra Â£4.7BN in R&D fundingÂ from the Autumn Statement; on top of that thereâsÂ the AI review; and a commitment to put expert teams in UK embassiesÂ in five developing countriesÂ âtasked with driving UK economic growth by partnering British companies with innovative local start-upsâ. (This will be based on an existing âUK Tech Hubâ in Israel, with the focus being on driving collaboration on R&D, skills, innovation and tech and âforging a deeper, more strategic commercial and research relationshipâ between countries â yetÂ doing so remotely, on their soil.) Also here the government talks about wanting to balance regulation so itâs friendly to âdisruptive digital innovationsâ yet also âcontinues to protect the publicâ. So thereâs noÂ clarity on that. It also says it wants a âflexible and dynamicâ IP regime. When it comes to commercializing research, it says itâs askingÂ BEISâs Chief Entrepreneurial Advisor, Professor Tim Dafforn, to lead a review to âtake stock of the support currently available to entrepreneursâ. Â âThe review will examine the entire entrepreneurial journey, focusing on the motivations and opportunities for those embarking on business ventures, from education to business development and growth.â
- Helping all British businesses to embrace digital â this section includes another reannouncement from the Autumn Statement of Â£13M to create a private-sector led productivity council to encourageÂ âappropriate use of digital technologiesâ. Otherwise the government says that it will âwork to focus existing initiatives, and plug gaps where there are specific challengesâ. And, for the manufacturing sector, Juergen Maier, CEO of Siemens UK, will lead a review of industrial digitalisation, dueÂ to report findings in the summer. The report also touches on the concept of a common identity framework, with the government saying it willÂ work with industry/relevant stakeholders/interest groups on adopting open standards, especially for validating identity
- Making the UK the safest place in the world to be online â a section that feels like a repackaging of the prior governmentâs prioritizingÂ of cyber security, with the strategyÂ flagging up the role of the already establishedÂ National Cyber Security Centre, along withÂ a reiteration of certain sections of the Digital Economy Bill (specifically those aimingÂ to useÂ age verification checksÂ online to tryÂ to ensure children do not access adult content). Though a pledge to establishÂ a national after-school program âfor the most talented students, cyber apprenticeships, and adult retrainingâ mayÂ be a newÂ measure
- Maintaining the UK Government as the worldâs leader in serving its citizens online âÂ this references the Government Transformation Strategy, which was published on February 9, and says the plan is to continue to develop single cross-government platform services â working towards 25M GOV.UK Verify users by 2020 (plus some new services on other gov.uk platforms). Thereâs also a stated intent for government to consume âcommodity hardware or cloud based softwareâ instead of building something it dubs as âneedlessly government specificâ. So probably good news for Amazon, Google et al
- Unlocking the power of data and improving public confidence in its use âÂ here the governmentÂ reconfirms the UK will be implementing the incoming new EU data protection regulation, the GDPR, by May 2018. AndÂ talks generally about wanting to encourage âinnovative uses of dataâ while also providing ârobust protection for peopleâs privacy rightsâ and the ability for usersÂ toÂ access their data. So again, itâs rather cake-and-eat it (apt givenÂ Brexit).Â ItÂ says it will work with organisations such as the Open Data Institute to encourage use of APIs, flagging upÂ work having alreadyÂ startedÂ on developing an Open Banking API forÂ UK consumers using banking services. It also underscores a âshortage of data talentâ as having âdirect and serious economic implicationsâ â so says addressing that shortfall is a strategic priority. (And on that it says it will work to implement âkey elementsâ of the Analytic Britain report produced by Nesta and Universities UK.) On government data, it says it will appoint a new chief data officer to lead efforts to streamline data infrastructure. It also reiterates its intent, again via the Digital Economy Bill,Â to âshare data across organizationalÂ boundaries within the public sectorâÂ to powerÂ âbetter targeted servicesâ and to tackle fraud. But thereâs no mention of the privacy controversy raging over these proposalsÂ â with the only check onÂ what could be very wide-ranging powers for the public sector to more closely track citizens via joined up data-sharing being the caveat: âwhere appropriateâ
We asked UK entrepreneur, Tom Adeyoola, co-founder and CEO of London-based startup Metail to review the strategy draft, and hereâsÂ his first-takeÂ response: âI donât really see a strategy. Itâs very disappointing that it doesnât explicitly talk about the shock that is coming [i.e. Brexit] and how the government intends to counteract it. Thatâs what I want from a strategy: Here is what we are going to do to prevent brain drain. Here is what we are going to do to fill the gap from European money and here is how we are going to keep our research institutions great and prevent against the likes of Oxford thinking about setting up campuses abroad to enable and prevent lots of potential talent for research.â
He dubbed Brexit the âelephant in the reportâ.
Some ofÂ the more blue-sky-y tech ideas that were being entertained on the strategy long-list in 2015, back when Brexit was but a twinkle in Cameronâs eye,Â which never made the cutÂ and/or fell down the political cracks include: encouraging as much as a third of public transport to be on-demand by 2020 and driveless cars to make up 10 per cent of traffic; reducing peak hour congestion by use of smarter, sensor-based urban traffic control systems; launching a couple ofÂ universal smart grids in UK towns; establishing a fully digitized courts system toÂ support out-of-court settlements; building the first drone air traffic control system; and establishing a âclear ethical framework or regulatory bodyâ for AI and synthetic biology.
And while the final strategyÂ draft does mention the societal implications of AIÂ as an area in need of âcareful considerationâ, there are â yet again â no concrete policy proposal at this point. Despite calls for the government to be exact that: proactive. But apparently itâs hard to be politically proactive on too many emerging technologies with the vast task of Brexit standing in your way.
LastÂ word: a note on âdiplomacyâ in the 2015 strategy draft suggests the government âadvocate for free movement of data inside EUâ. UK-EU diplomacy in 2017 is clearly going to cut from very different cloth.