The Digital Strategy: Reactions from the UK tech community

UK tech reaction Digital Strategy

The UK government has announced its long awaited Digital Strategy, sparking a reaction from technology entrepreneurs across the country.

As expected, the Strategy includes plans to boost the UK’s artificial intelligence and robotics industry, while also highlighting the upcoming launch of a new FinTech competition to stimulate the production of homegrown financial technology products.

Ben Brabyn, head of Level39, a London-based accelerator focused on FinTech, cybersecurity, retail and smart cities technologies, said the government’s Digital Strategy signified a small step toward realigning the country’s position in a rapidly-changing global economy.

Brabyn commented on the announced private sector initiatives, which will see the likes of Lloyds and Google offer free digital training to people across the country, highlighting these as moves in the right direction, but said the government should encourage more incumbents to drive digital innovation.

“Whitehall should continue to focus on initiatives which foster collaboration between big and small, between corporate and startup, between international and domestic,” Brabyn added.

Additionally, he praised the government’s plans to create five new international tech hubs in a bid to boost collaboration between UK companies and their foreign counterparts.

“Meaningful change will be brought about from encouraging overseas firms and investors to look towards the UK as the leading destination for growth – engaging with technology and finance clusters such as Canary Wharf and the City of London,” concluded Brabyn.

Real action

Although the government’s plan of action may look good on paper, Dr Jamie Graves, CEO of Edinburgh-based cybersecurity firm ZoneFox – which today announced the closure of a £3.6m Series A – said he was concerned by the lack of detail.

“So far, the initiative fails to pinpoint factors such as how it [the Digital Strategy] will be measured to ensure its success. Britain doesn’t need any more strategic plans, it needs to start seeing tangible results,” Graves added.

It’s estimated more than 12 million people in the UK lack the skills to succeed in the digital era and despite welcoming the government’s proposals to offer free basic training, Graves doesn’t believe this is sufficient.

“Cybercrime is continuing to cripple companies and over two-thirds of businesses can’t find enough talent to defend their company against cyber threats – yet it gets little mention in this new strategy,” he added.

Graves called for greater investment in STEM subjects and noted the need to encourage more women to partake in the study of computer sciences and cybersecurity, as participation in these areas by women is currently “woefully low”.

“Fundamentally, if the UK is falling behind when it comes to digital skills, this leaves a worrying gap in the security ‘fence’ around the country,” the CEO concluded.

A key issue

With the UK’s impending divorce from the European Union heavily on his mind, Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, said the government’s strategy had delivered a clear plan to equip the country’s tech industry for the challenges of Brexit, geopolitical turbulence and market uncertainty, but had failed to pay attention to a fundamental issue.

Russ Shaw
Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates.

“It is alarming to see the government sidestepping responsibility for immigration policy, which is the backbone of London’s tech strength and a metric that will play a crucial role in the success of our technology sector,” he added.

Tom Adeyoola, co-founder and CEO of fashion tech firm Metail, agreed: “The strategy fails to address a potential Brexit brain-drain, the reduction in funding for UK research institutions and raises questions about how tech companies will continue to access top international talent.”

“By failing to identify the decision to leave the European Union as a factor in the creation of a robust Digital Strategy, today’s announcement solidified Brexit’s position as “the elephant in the report”, Adeyoola continued.

Short-term outlook

Karen McCormick, chief investment officer at Beringea, agreed with Shaw and Adeyoola.

“Access to skills post-Brexit is a huge concern for the majority of the scaleups within our portfolio: though it’s great to see a focus on this in the government’s digital strategy release this morning, it seems to lack long-term thinking,” she said.

Similarly to Graves, McCormick argued it was necessary to invest in digital skills education for young children, while spurring them on to pursue it at higher education levels.

“Digital is a pivotal part of the UK economy,” McCormick added before alluding to the fact companies such as Google and Twitter had acquired various UK companies in the past.

In order to maintain this prominence, the investor said nurturing talent within the UK had to be a top priority. “Particularly in post-Brexit Britain,” she added.

It’s hardly surprising the government’s plans have been met with varying degrees of optimism by UK technology entrepreneurs, who are still undoubtedly trying to come to terms with Brexit and how departing from the EU will impact a sector so heavily reliant on international tech talent and to an extent, the potential to find business opportunities abroad.