Professor Calvin Jones
Deputy Dean, Public Value & External Relations
Cardiff Business School
The last 18 months have seen changes in our day-to-day lives unparalleled outside war. COVID has upended the way we live, work and spend. And this upheaval comes within the context of an economy that was already in the throes of deep structural change, driven by austerity and debt, the fragmentation of work, the climate and nature emergencies, and relevant here, the deep incursion of technology into production, intermediation and consumption.
The businesses of Wales – and perhaps organisations more generally – are not well placed to face this digital revolution. With a handful of exceptions, Wales is home to no large technology companies, meaning in that most ways that matter we are ‘tech takers’ not ‘tech makers’. Our research at Cardiff Business School shows our SMEs are less tech-engaged in rural and poor post-industrial areas, raising the prospect of increased economic inequality across space. Meanwhile, we have limited local levers of regulation or prospects of deep government intervention, with employment policy, R&D investment, and more general infrastructure development (increasingly) directed from London. Yet we somehow need to do better in the current industrial revolution than we have done in the past.
The question then is what can Welsh businesses and other organisations do to prepare themselves for uncertain times? This is a question that I asked in 2019 alongside the Future Generations Commissioner and (perhaps somewhat unusually for me) the analysis seems to have stood the test of time. The recommendations are there for the reading: enabling flexible and decentralised working, becoming a ‘learning’ organisation that values and fosters staff development, and understanding the needs of an increasingly digital but also increasingly digitally diverse set of consumers and stakeholders are among the more obvious.
There is however something more fundamental going on here: the evidence from the literature for example suggests that it is firms that are more generally competent, strategic and well-resourced that benefit from broadband exploitation. Over my thirty years studying the economy of Wales and talking to its businesses, you can feel the same factors at play; ‘good’ businesses turn up to business events, talk to Welsh Government, engage in understanding investment opportunities, join representative organisations and (probably) have a similarly proactive approach to internal structures and organisational change. These are indeed, run by the sort of business owners reading this piece (if any are!). Other businesses are… less visible. Perhaps too busy (even before the pandemic) to look up from the coalface at the changing business environment and consider how they need to respond. It is these businesses – concentrated at the smaller end of the scale, in specific sectors (Retail? Tourism? Agriculture?) and perhaps in poorer places that will be most challenged.
We need to remember this as we face a digitised world and digitised Wales. It is the solid, longstanding, quiet businesses up and down the country – some would call them foundational – that will make or break the future economy, along with a range of ideas and start-ups that can be identified, nurtured and embedded, rather than big investments or cool new services actually in tech sectors. Policies of support must reflect their lack of engagement in the digital sphere, building not just the supply of (for example) broadband, but also stimulating demand amongst businesses for new understandings, capabilities and skills – all of which they will need to survive in an increasingly challenging world where the rules are made on the West Coast of the USA.
Work on the Journey to a prosperous future Wales can be found here.
The Digital Maturity Survey for Wales, 2020 can be found here.