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Opinion: There’s more to digital innovation in the UK than start-ups

UK policymakers need to consider the whole of the country's technology ecosystem, not just start-ups, when planning a digital-led recovery, writes Edward Qualtrough.

“A golden age for UK tech” lies ahead, wrote Stephen Kelly, former CEO of Sage and now chair of Tech Nation, in the Telegraph last week.

UK companies raised some $14bn in investment during 2020, Kelly observed, almost as much as the rest of Europe combined. With the UK tech sector growing six times faster than the overall British economy pre-pandemic, Kelly lauded an emerging generation of “soonicorns” and lobbied for a regulatory middle ground between the more laissez-faire approach of the US and the more rigid requirements in the EU.

Kelly is right to celebrate the success of the UK’s tech start-ups. And he is fulfilling Tech Nation’s mission to “fuel the growth of game-changing founders, leaders and scaling companies”. But his comments fit into a narrative around ‘UK tech’ that is myopically focused on start-ups and the investment they receive.

uk digital innovation
With a UK government focused on ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, the UK’s Digital Strategy might be better focused on skills, skills, skills. (Photo by Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

This start-up bias was also reflected in comments by Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, in November last year. The government’s (indefinitely postponed) Digital Strategy will “drive a new era of growth for tech start-ups and scale-ups”, Dowden wrote, as well as helping more SMEs get online.

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Kelly’s 136 potential “soonicorns” – companies with valuations of $250–800m – no doubt have huge potential as wealth creators. But when it comes to supporting an inclusive economic recovery through digital innovation, there is much more to the UK than start-ups and the funding they can attract.

Internal technology teams played a vital role helping UK organisations respond to Covid-19.

As Tech Monitor documented at the end of last year, internal technology teams played a vital role in helping UK organisations respond to the disruption brought about by Covid-19 restrictions. And they will be equally crucial to the post-pandemic recovery, which will almost certainly be tech-led. UK policymakers would be well served to make sure technology’s role in the post-pandemic, Brexit-influenced recovery is part of their thinking.

With competing demands on government support, fuelling the UK recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and impacts of Brexit will require a joined-up approach across the UK tech ecosystem of buyers and sellers – and broader than Tech Nation’s focus on regulations and visas.

Kelly touts the new Global Talent Visa as a vehicle to attract global tech talent. But tackling the digital expertise, cyber and tech skills shortage in the UK will fuel more sustainable growth and touch a greater number of people and places positively, creating hubs and ecosystems around the UK than a narrow focus on IPOs, founders and hiring rockstar developers.

Indeed, with a UK government focused on “jobs, jobs, jobs”, the UK’s Digital Strategy might be better focused on skills, skills, skills to create the conditions for a thriving tech industry and ecosystem in the UK. BCS, which represents the IT teams keeping UK organisations running, believes tackling the digital education divide exposed by Covid-19 is the best way to engage people in digital careers and address the shortage of tech skills in the UK.

So let’s celebrate the success and potential for the UK start-ups. But when thinking about technology’s role in the UK’s future, we need to see beyond unicorns, investment, funding rounds and founders – as important as they are – and consider how the whole tech ecosystem will play a role.

Edward Qualtrough

Special projects editor

Edward Qualtrough is special projects editor for Tech Monitor.