The current change we’re experiencing is as fundamental as the Industrial Revolution. In the parlance of 2010 this is Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Given our propensity to shorten things, maybe it’s IR4.0. In 2019 marketing language we’re in the middle of the Digital Revolution.
But whatever we call it, the shift is huge and will determine how economies rise and fall in the next 30 to 50 years. The US government is on board. The Trump administration is so committed that the President is not even satisfied with 5G; he wants all the Gs.
“I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible. It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind. There is no reason that we should be lagging behind”… Donald Trump, US President
He might very well have been lampooned and sneered at for his over-enthusiasm, given that we haven’t got a clue what 6G is yet – although Omnisperience guarantees it involves more speed, more bandwidth and some new smancy service (my bet is 3D holographic imaging) – but the point is he’s interested and committed.
In the UK, our government pays lip service to technology but never seems to fully mine its potential to transform our outcomes. Occasionally, it says it’s sad that the peasants in the countryside don’t have fibre and mobile signals like they enjoy in London, and then it throws a bit of guilt money into the pot, because peasants should enjoy Netflix too, and it’s also quite handy for business, or at least BT and Vodafone have assured them it is.
But don’t expect any joined-up government policy, or Wilson-esque speeches as to the importance of technology to the overall economy. In fact it’s a symbol of the ignorance of today’s argumentative but rudderless politicians that a 19th-century technology such as trains gets far more attention, and government cash, than digital technology. (compare £56-86 billion for a slightly faster trainline from London to Birmingham that no-one wants, compared to £5 billion for connecting 20% of the UK to fibre.)
Policies continue to support moving people from A to B (such as subsidising travel and investing in railways), rather than initiatives such as distributed working – particularly homeworking. This despite the fact that increased working from home could help the government improve the morale of voters, their health and their wealth, while reducing the carbon they produce from needlessly moving around the country.
Each home worker has been calculated to save an average of 44 trees of carbon in the UK per year. Homeworking effectively reverses the clock to the 1970s when people tended to work closer to home, or live close to work, and then walk or cycle (thereby improving their health), spending less of their time and disposable income on meaningless travel. As commuting volumes have increased, government does not seem capable of saying ‘Why?’ and ‘is this a good thing?’ and ‘what could we do to encourage more businesses to enable homeworking and flexible working?’ (see Flexible working still a huge opportunity for B2B telcos)
The so-called school run makes up a quarter of London’s traffic. Research by Unicef UK and Queen Mary University of London has found that children are exposed to more than 60% of their daily air pollution intake during their journey to school, and while at it, with pollution exposure lowest while they’re at home. Kids are striking because they want to reduce their carbon footprint, but are then being chauffeured to school by their parents. The way we teach children is, like the trains, a product of the Nineteenth Century. Maybe this digital generation could aspire to have a more digital, home-based education, with digital classrooms and more emphasis on self-autonomy?
“Britain’s economy was built on the white heat of our furnaces, but its future will be built on the white light of our fibre.” Teresa Cottam, Chief Analyst, Omnisperience
What the government did say at its annual party conference was wishy-washy. Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated that she wants less red tape and lower taxes to incentivise business; but there’s no concrete commitment, no vision. Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer, tossed £5 billion into the pot almost casually, but little else. It was all about ensuring the “digital divide” didn’t widen; not about accelerating UK leadership in technology and empowering our businesses with digital kerpow. Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said very little. The Prime Minister did seem a little more excited about the potential of technology, but rather traditionally likened it to pasta and didn’t appear to have the faintest idea how it worked.
“To increase connectivity and liveability, we are putting in gigabit broadband – spreading across the country like tendrils of superinformative vermicelli, because that is the way to unite the country, to spread opportunity, to bring the country together.” Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister, Conservative Party Conference, 2019
The problem is that government investment in telecoms is not optimal, because it is poorly targeted. It means perfectly viable towns are fibred up under these schemes and then a victory is declared, when they would have been connected anyway by private investment. Government subsidy can encourage network duplication and overbuilding, and the wrong technologies to be used. And because it’s focused on premises, it doesn’t solve black spots that people encounter when they’re on the move.
So here’s a hint, government people. Why doesn’t technology, or digital, or whatever you want to call it, have it’s own secretary of state? Why is it divided between the portfolios of various ministers and bundled with completely unrelated things? The DCMS has always been a Frankenstein of a portfolio. What we need is a MinTech, as Harold Wilson’s Minister of Technology was called. We also need a regulator that focuses on technology and is not bundled up with, and often overpowered by, media. Despite technology being the engine of our economy, it doesn’t have its own portfolio and few MPs have any real knowledge of it, meaning that there is little technology leadership within government.
In contrast, over 55 years ago, the Labour politician Harold Wilson made one of his most memorable speeches on the importance of technology in reshaping the country after the Second World War.
“In all our plans for the future, we are re-defining and we are re-stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution. But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society. The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry.” Harold Wilson, 1963, speech at Labour Party conference
We need a technology vision within UK government that goes beyond lip service to ensure we meet the needs of our industry, businesses and consumers. Only then will we see joined-up and forward-looking policies that create a more effective Digital Britain – whether we leave the EU or not. Britain’s economy was built on the white heat of our forges but its future will be built on the white light of our fibre.
- The UK government subsidises the rail industry by about three times the amount it spent on British Rail in the 1980s (in real terms). In the last five years it spent £5 billion a year, on average, subsidising rail, compared to the equivalent of £1.6 billion per year in 1985-1990. In 2016-17 the public purse pumped £15 billion into railways – with the government loaning money to Network Rail in addition to direct spending.
- The government has now committed to giving £5 billion to ensure FTTP to rural areas in the UK (the last 20%). Roughly the equivalent of one year’s direct subsidy to the rail industry.