Whitehall's patchy record on tech is letting down Britain's innovative spirit

© Provided by City AM

The UK is a hub for innovation, yet the government has a patchy record when it comes to the implementation of technology.

We are living in an increasingly integrated world and, at least in the realm of international trade, it is essential we have a clear strategy for areas such as the digital economy.

The pandemic disrupted global trade, prompting a backlash against globalism, slowing down shipping, and complicating border checks. At the same time countries around the world are tightening regulatory policy, often as a knee-jerk reaction to international tensions. In order to overcome these problems and avoid the temptations of regulation, technology as it relates to international trade must be thought of seriously and separately, not merely lumped in with technology more broadly.

The UK is negotiating and navigating new trade deals at a time where a clear strategy on technology is critical. For example the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the UK has repeatedly expressed the desire to join, has been lauded for containing a landmark agreement on digital trade.

So what does the government need to do to stay competitive in this sphere and make these deals work?

First and perhaps most importantly, there needs to be significant investment in new technologies and digital platforms, and integrating those that already exist. This will help streamline international trade and make supply chains more robust. The technological frontier is shifting continually, and this is as true in trade as anywhere else. Using blockchain in global supply chain operation, advanced X-ray scanning to speed up border checks, and the many uses of artificial intelligence in data analytics and translation are just a few examples of technology’s use in international trade. 

Keeping up with these advances and pioneering new ones should form a cornerstone part of the UK’s “Global Britain” strategy. Trade professionals and policymakers should look to the domestic industries using technology to make businesses more reactive and nimble. One such example is in food delivery where intense competition has prompted technological leaps and bounds, resulting in consumers being able to track orders, and getting them faster. By learning from and using the knowledge of entrepreneurs and businesses who face and tackle these challenges everyday the UK can foster innovation to maintain our place at the forefront of global trade.

Second, we should tackle regulatory challenges with a clear-eyed approach, working with businesses and other governments to balance sensible policy with technological optimism. The UK is planning to diverge from the EU’s GDPR data rules. It is the perfect time to rethink these and tech and data related rules in a way that protects citizens but also encourages industry.

Recent domestic regulatory crackdowns in China have halted the plans of some of their tech firms to expand internationally. While Beijing’s approach is on the extreme end, the UK must be wary of over-regulation. We must design a welcoming regulatory environment for firms both at home and abroad, facilitating the export of technological goods and services.  

Finally, investing in the skills and training of young people and the existing workforce is vital  to ensure the UK is fostering the talent necessary for the future of the tech industry. A record number of students are choosing to study computer science courses at university. This is great news, but there are still vast gaps in digital skills due to a lack of understanding about what these roles entail, what routes are available, and a lack of role models. 

Many young people believe you have to be a straight-A student to pursue a career in tech, which is simply not true. All of these issues could be allayed with clear and targeted education that lets people know what roles are out there and how to get them, particularly when it comes to less obvious positions in areas such as trade.

Trade technology is evolving at a breakneck pace and bringing with it a new set of challenges as well as a host of benefits. As the UK strikes out on its own it must take advantage of these opportunities and put trade tech at the forefront of new plans.

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