Originally published in Sunday Telegraph 03 Aug 2013.
At long last the economic tide is turning. Businesses are ever more upbeat, and the latest GDP figures show, for the first time since 2011, two consecutive quarters of economic growth. For me, what’s even more encouraging is that we now have an unrivalled opportunity to drive forward sustained recovery. The mass-market arrival of 4G in the UK gives us a unique opportunity to catalyse our recovery.
Further cause for optimism comes from the fact that our digital economy is already showing signs of rapid growth. With NEISR suggesting last week that it is 40 per cent larger than previously believed, and with a 22% increase in the number of tech jobs in the last year alone, it’s no wonder the Boston Consulting Group forecasts that the digital sector will contribute £225bn, or 8.3 per cent of GDP, by 2016.
While our global counterparts are not exempt from experiencing similar digital revolution and recovery, the internet contributes a larger share to UK GDP than in any of the other Group of 20 nations. At the same time, British consumers spend on average £1,083 per year each on online shopping, well ahead of European counterparts, such as France (£487).
The opportunity for digital to drive true economic recovery is undoubtedly bigger for us than our international peers – and with our 4G network launching this month and now set to become a nationwide reality, this will only be accelerated.
This is the first time technology has outstripped demand, not the other way round. The telecoms industry has made a huge investment in developing the new super-fast technology. It will bring huge possibilities to our everyday lives, businesses and economy and is a real reason for optimism – as implied through our recent advertising campaign Be More Dog. Whilst the animal analogy might seem unusual, at its core is the need to for us, as a nation, to grab the opportunities presented by new technologies.
If we don’t, we are in danger of missing this once in a decade opportunity. At the moment I see pockets of excellence, but this must become a minimum standard and adopted across sectors. Growth from digital should not be limited to the tech sector – it must be widespread – driven through the adoption of digital practices in mainstream business.
To propel Digital Britain forward and sustain our recovery, now is the time to become a nation of digitally confident businesses. To do so, we must focus on three key areas: digital infrastructure, digital transparency and digital literacy.
Firstly, all businesses big and small need to realise the potential of the new digital infrastructure and become ‘4G ready’. The technology can help all businesses serve their customers better and deliver faster, richer experiences. In the public sector, it can mean that ongoing budget cuts do not come at the cost of quality services. Instead 4G has the potential to drive efficiency: whether that’s by powering the best digital equipment for police; enabling staff to work more flexibly or making it easier for local authorities to engage with their communities. For an SMB this could be truly mobilising a workforce through the ability to download and send large files on the move and join video conferencing almost anywhere.
However, without urgent commitment from the public and private sector, the true value of our digital infrastructure won’t be realised. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the possibilities the technology creates and 4G will be a catalyst for significant corporate and social change.
Developing and delivering these new digital services will depend on the creation, collection and analysis of data. Yet we know that people are currently fearful of sharing their personal information online. Our own research shows nearly three quarters of consumers don’t do so because they don’t understand the benefits.
If we are to make the most of the big data opportunity, business and government need to take collective responsibility for helping the public to better understand the value exchange. We need to give them the confidence to share their personal information with us for benefit, whether that’s to get better value in their everyday shopping and purchases, or helping build the digital services that will make all our lives easier. Now is the time to take committed action to give consumers the education and control, and therefore the confidence to engage with the value exchange.
But infrastructure and transparency are just two parts of the puzzle and alone will not sustain growth. To truly harness the potential of the digital opportunity, we need to build a workforce fit for the future – and this starts with the next generation. As the generation to have grown up with the internet, our young people have in abundance the digital skills that can add huge value to businesses across all sectors, from manufacturing to music and marketing.
Encouragingly, UK plc is better placed than its global counterparts to access young tech talent. Recent research from Telefónica shows UK millennials are more digitally-savvy than any others, with nearly 50% of UK 18 to 30 year olds believing they have an excellent knowledge of technology compared to just 30% worldwide.
It is therefore ironic that, at a time when our growth depends on the digital economy, young people – our most digitally literate citizens – are more likely to be excluded from the workforce than any other group. In fact, while over three-quarters (77 per cent) of businesses told us that young people have the digital skills they need, fewer than one quarter (24 per cent) were planning to offer a first time job or an on-the-job training role to a young person in the coming months.
What’s clear is that today’s youth community has an important role to play in making Britain truly digital. They are the future fuel of our economy and can set us apart from our competitors, but at the moment not enough is being done to harness this potential. This must change.
We desperately need to shake up the way we inspire young people about digital career opportunities and help our best in class talent into work. Given the wealth of talent on offer in the UK, it’s no surprise that that the world’s biggest technology festival, Campus Party, is coming to The O2 in London this September. The event’s Digital Skills Market place will give smart businesses an unconventional hunting ground to attract the best tech talent.
That is just one of the ways we need to revolutionise our recruitment processes for the digital world. As a business community we should be giving young people the opportunity to grow their confidence and capitalise on their skills and knowledge. Only then will we see young people, business and the British economy thrive as it should.
Digital confidence in all three of areas: infrastructure, transparency and literacy, can be achieved by embracing a new digital behaviour that will improve national wellbeing and our economic output. If we get these three things right, Britain will be faithfully confident in its digital abilities and prosper more quickly from the opportunities the digital revolution brings.