19 June 2019

Marcus Shepheard runs through the strategies, visions and funding pledges which were announced at London Tech Week.

1. Two new strategies help us understand how the Government is thinking about tech

The Government has announced a new Technology Innovation Strategy and an open call for evidence for its National Data Strategy. The former clearly articulates what has been learned so far from the process of digital transformation, calls for a joined-up approach and underlines the importance of certain skills. However, a lack of political clarity – especially relating to funding in the upcoming Spending Review – and the uncertainty caused by the sheer pace of technological innovation means that the overall strategy inevitably lacks clear objectives.

The Institute called for a National Data Strategy last year, in order to better understand what data government holds, what data it needs to run the country and how to use data securely and ethically to better serve citizens. After the heavy Brexit-focused workload at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) delayed the launch of this consultation, the Government must now make sure that it contributes towards a strategy which ensures that data can be used to benefit the whole country.

2. New guidance on Artificial Intelligence will support its safe and ethical use in government

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a technology with significant potential to transform government, and new guidance for officials on AI has now been prepared by the Government Digital Service, the Office for AI, and the Turing Institute. Officials need support to understand how AI will have an impact on their work, and how that impact will cut across traditional departmental structures. The guidance should help.

It also establishes a set of ethical principles and safety checks that officials can use when integrating AI into their work. This ranges from automating routine tasks such as diary management to making decisions that affects peoples’ lives – such as whether they are eligible for welfare benefits. Implementing safeguards now, with the role of AI across governnent set to increase, is a sensible move.

3. The Government has bet big on quantum technology

The National Quantum Technologies Programme – the Government’s flagship scheme to accelerate the development of quantum tech – received a substantial boost in the form of an extra £153million from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and a further £205 million from industry. This new money brings the total funding allocation for research and development in this area to more than £1 billion since 2014.

But funding alone won’t be enough. The Government needs to support research collaboration and commit to institutions which are insulated from the political cycle and can guide fledgling industries. Encouragingly, the Government has announced special grants to help foster international research collaboration, while the programme is being run through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). This should give it some independence and permanence, and combined with the funding it amounts to a big bet by the Government that new UK firms will establish themselves as world-leaders in quantum tech.

4. There’s going to be a Digital Identity Unit and a Digital Markets Unit

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden announced that the Government would be establishing a new Digital Identity Unit. This joint effort between DCMS and the Cabinet Office is designed to address the problems which have plagued Verify, the Government’s flagship digital identity service, since its launch.

In a separate speech, Theresa May pledged to implement one of the major proposals made in a recent report by the Digital Competition Expert Panel and establish a Digital Markets Unit. A more external-facing body than the Digital Identity Unit, the Digital Markets Unit will “support greater competition and consumer choice in digital markets” and reflects the need to help society and the wider economy adapt to future technologies.  

5. The new London Office of Technology Innovation offers a model for sharing best practice in public service transformation

The establishment of the London Office of Technology Innovation (LOTI) – by the Greater London Authority, London Councils and London boroughs – continues a trend of serious and enthusiastic digital transformation in local authorities across the UK. For example, the Leeds Bins app provides information on when different types of waste and recycling are due to be collected, while the Everyday Telford app makes it quicker and easier for people to report local issues to the council.

The purpose of LOTI is to make it easier for the participating boroughs to share information, ideas, and best practices for digital innovation as they respond to smaller budgets and rising demand for public services.

Commitments are good, but now hard work must follow

In addition to the headline news, ministers also talked about the importance of technology to the UK's future trade policy and how the immigration system needs to support the right skills for the tech sector. However, visions, promises and strategies are one thing; actually translating these into results is entirely another – as we have pointed out in our previous responses to the new Tech Innovation Strategy and digital transformation in general.

The world of future technology is inherently an uncertain one and needs careful stewardship, and it won’t be helped by political uncertainty and a reluctance to make tough decisions. The Government must not waste this opportunity.