If, at the start of this year, you’d have told me that I was going to be celebrating family birthdays via Zoom, I would probably have asked you what Zoom was. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that I would have ministerial meetings, museum tours and have even seen hairdressing lessons on the platform. But the world has been turned on its head in the last six months, and the use of technology in our day-to-day lives has skyrocketed.
Technology and innovation have proven a lifeline for Welsh businesses throughout this crisis. A recent survey by Be the Business survey found that more than half a million firms across the UK have changed or are altering their operating models, and many are even introducing new services in response to the pandemic. From whisky manufacturers switching to making hand sanitiser to pubs switching to retail, almost every business around the country has tried something new.
Covid-19 has demonstrated the ingenuity of British businesses, but we can’t take the progress for granted. The UK has long underinvested in innovation, and though the crisis may have spurred investment in the short term, it will much harder to continue that in the future as businesses face reduced cash reserves, squeezed margins and a highly uncertain economic climate.
That’s why we need a new plan to put technology and innovation at the heart of the economic recovery. The CBI’s latest report sets out five big ideas on how to do just that.
Firstly, let’s go for gigabit, accelerating the roll out of future proof broadband so that no matter where you are, you’ll be able to get online. Your postcode shouldn’t determine your ability to start a business from your kitchen table or have remote GP appointments. Prioritising rural investment and modernising the rules to get shovels in the ground quicker must be at the top of government’s list this year.
Second, let’s upskill on digital. We need a world-class skills system that prepares people for jobs in technology and innovation and helps companies hire people with the skills needed to build back better. Our country faces the twin challenge of an expected rise in unemployment and a growing generational skills gap. Around eleven million people in the UK lack basic digital skills, so a step change is urgently needed. Let’s transform Job Centres into Jobs and Skills Hubs to help young people into digital careers, whether it’s data analytics or AI skills.
Third, increase innovation investment. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to see Research & Development in real time action, from vaccine development to the ventilator challenge. But the crisis has also depleted the coffers for business innovation and firms have had to press pause on much of their Research & Development. Government can step in to give businesses and universities the confidence and capability to restart their innovation projects, for example by offering generous incentives for business Research & Development. We already have a great model to follow in the Compound Semiconductor Catapult in Newport.
Fourth, let’s reset how we think about regulation of technology in the wake of Covid. Government must invest in the institutions that will chart our digital future – ensuring regulation tackles harm online and that AI is developed to the benefit of everyone. This means giving regulators proper funding and clearer remits.
Finally, accelerate adoption. There’s now a real opportunity to build on rapid technology adoption to create jobs and level up across the UK. The move to more digital solutions when the outbreak began was a global phenomenon. Microsoft Teams alone saw an increase of 31 million active users in just one month. Now the UK needs to close the gap with the world leading nations on innovations. We might love their flare for design and TV dramas but shouldn’t spend another decade behind the Danes. The Government must take a leading role to join-up, scale-up and simplify support to drive uptake in new technologies.
Even as the local economy slowly starts to re-open, and we move into the new normal phase, its still difficult to know whether family gatherings will be in person or online in the coming weeks and months. What I do know is that the pandemic has taught us that even if we can’t predict what’s round the corner, technology and innovation can be a massive help in getting us through whatever comes next.