Thanks for your time today, Jacqueline. To kick off, can you tell us about your many roles?
I have a number of different roles, but the main one is as president of techUK, a trade body representing 900 member businesses. We create policy and the conditions for UK industry to thrive. That means, for example, recognising that 60% of all jobs are created by small businesses and yet a large percentage of them still do not have a web presence. So lobbying the government to support SMEs by switching tax breaks from CapEx to OpEX, allows SMEs to access new technologies through the cloud and really moves the needle on productivity. These small interventions will make us a digital nation of significance.
Alongside that I am the co-chair of the Institute of Coding, which helps widen access and participation in digital skills, and President of Digital Leaders, a 250,000-strong community committed to digital transformation. I also sit on the boards of plc businesses Rightmove, Costain and AO.com. It’s a varied set of roles and really exciting.
Given your expertise in this area, what stage of technological development is the UK in?
The UK is, and remains, one of Europe’s leading tech centres. We attract twice the amount of tech investment than any other European country and, even in the midst of Brexit, we continue to outperform when it comes to finance and access to talent. We’ve had 13 unicorns born in the UK, all performing very strongly, and have room for more.
There’s no question, however, that Brexit is having an impact. Funding for new companies has taken a hit, with KPMG reporting that VC funding fell 57 per cent in the first quarter. Ultimately, if money is not being made available to innovative startups today, it will have a knock-on effect for the wider economy in the future.
We need a sensible Brexit resolution and our membership is adamant that we avoid a no-deal outcome. We should also consider massive immigration reform to ensure talented tech entrepreneurs and their teams can pursue their ambitions in the UK. Around half of our greatest success stories and innovators were not born in this country. We’re undeniably an innovative nation, but that has been achieved through diversity and inclusion.
With economic headwinds worsening and competition growing from abroad, do you fear for tech adoption or do you see hard times as an opportunity?
Adversity creates the climate for technology to thrive. We need to be careful, however, in ensuring no one is left behind. As we put more of our public services online, we must remember that more than 20 per cent of our population lack basic digital skills. Key to this is having the infrastructure to support every corner of the country in achieving digital transformation. This is seriously lacking at the moment, and until you have that foundation for digitisation it’s impossible to achieve the level of digital adoption needed.
What’s your stance on ethical computing?
If it’s not diverse it isn’t ethical. Consider this: when the seatbelt was invented women and children died in significant numbers. This is because the seatbelt was invented by men for other men of a certain weight and height. It took a long time before that problem was addressed.
Nowadays we are contending with all the challenges and opportunities AI creates, and that means being aware of the unconscious bias hidden in many of our algorithms. Already we’re using AI algorithms to decide whether you get a place at the university or company you want or the loan you need. If the algorithm has been designed by a homogenous team, it could well be a product of groupthink that unwittingly discriminates. That’s a real obstacle if you’re trying to create a fair society that works for everyone.
The difficulty is we’re creating so much AI at such a rapid speed that it’s hard to monitor and optimise them all for fairness. The only real solution is to have everyone’s voice at the table from the beginning – during design, in testing and throughout implementation. When you see feminist chatbots like Feminist Internet’s F’xa – designed by a diverse team of different genders, races and viewpoints – it’s clear that we’re making progress. Formal committees like The Alan Turing Institute have also been set up and will no doubt make some positive interventions in this area.
What do you think will be the most important technologies over the next five years?
I think our members are broadly optimistic about the state of technology in the country. There is clear potential in emerging technologies, such as AI, IoT, 5G, blockchain, AR and VR. The UK has a strong foothold in these technologies, with many centres of excellence that produce good research.
There are challenges though, especially in today’s political environment. The government’s attitude is key here, and while we need to have important debates around data privacy it’s imperative policymakers support the growth of our industry. Many companies will struggle to address shortages of tech talent, which again underlines the importance of immigration reform.
Political stability is crucial but it’s something we’re currently lacking. We need to recognise that the world has moved on over the past two and a half years while the UK has been focused on Brexit. We need to look outwards instead of inwards, and we need to do it fast.
Thomas Friedman talks about thriving in an ‘age of accelerations’, but what do we need to do to ensure technology doesn’t accelerate beyond our control?
I think that’s a sensible fear to have. techUK has a digital ethics whitepaper that lays out a number of useful principles to abide by:
- Make the digital ethics debate relevant and valuable
- Engage with the public across the whole of the UK, not just London
- Demonstrate how ethics is having an impact
- Think digital ethics, not just AI ethics
- Devise a joined-up approach through coordination of initiatives and activities
- Embed ethical decisions in business decision making
- Make sure regulators have the capabilities they need to consider ethics
- Finally, we need to play an international role in the ethics debate
As well as this, we obviously need to improve diversity, ensuring technology is built by and for the people it serves. We also have to be sensitive to privacy concerns. Tech companies, governments and regulators must ensure they’re talking to each other to maintain confidence and trust, without stifling innovation. I think GDPR has been a success in this respect. Now that the hype has settled down, we can see the regulation isn’t really about punishment but is focused on creating an environment where data irresponsibility isn’t socially acceptable.
We’ve been talking about the importance of these emerging and future technologies, but where does a business start and how can techUK help them?
There’s an old adage that goes ‘tech is always the answer, but what was the question?’ I think you need to make sure you’re solving a problem that’s worth solving before you apply any technology. As was the case with tap-and-go technology in the London Underground, you need to spot the friction, the problem, before you provide the solution. Don’t just create tech for tech’s sake, find a problem that’s worth solving.
Here’s an example of progress: Pizza Express is trialing an app called Flyt that lets customers simply enter their table number once they’ve eaten and leave the restaurant, knowing they’ve been charged automatically. I think we’ve all struggled to attract a waiter’s attention when we want to pay the bill, but how many of us realised it was a problem we could solve with technology?
What technologies will have the greatest impact on the UK?
5G and AI are both very exciting. The speed of 5G will make a stunning difference in the proliferation of new technologies and the opening of fresh opportunities. Of course, we need to make sure we get the rollout right and ensure no communities are left in the dust. The rise of the robots will also have a major impact on much of the services industry, with AI and machine learning appearing in our call centres, online retail and marketing.
However, while blockchain has dropped out of the headlines it also has a critical part to play. It’s a great way of securing decision making in an environment where you have multiple distrusted parties. While not everyone needs it, blockchain will have a positive impact on finance and M&A activity. It won’t be a forefront technology, but it will be doing important work behind the scenes.
There’s been a noticeable shift in how technology is affecting working styles and workplaces through things like remote working and smart office buildings. Do you think there is room for more change?
I think there will be further shifts, and that’s because the next generation demands it. Young people entering the workforce don’t want to be pigeonholed with one brand, they want to work in larger communities of industry professionals. Marketers want to work with other marketers, technologists want to work with fellow technologists. Young workers will gravitate towards cool social workplaces, fuelling the rise of co-working and incubation spaces.
Smart companies will develop more open, flexible opportunities to engage these cohorts. However, things like flexible working won’t be equally prevalent everywhere. In some professions, such as law, productivity is still very much measured by time spent in the office. Unfortunately, you lose out on a lot of diverse talent when you do that, so these industries will need to find non-traditional methods of hiring to ensure they don’t miss out.
Are there any common challenges your members are facing?
We’re hearing a lot of concerns about Brexit and how we can prepare for no deal. There’s an important distinction to make here: Larger companies probably have a solution but SMEs, which employ 60 per cent of our workforce, likely do not. We focus a great deal on factory closures by major companies, but it’s with smaller local businesses that Brexit really has the potential to bite.
Another common concern is how we attract and retain talent. They’re worried about finding the right skills and know they need to create more diverse, balanced teams to drive innovation and stay competitive.
Finally, there’s the regulatory landscape. Government proposals on a digital services tax and regulation around digital harms are causing some uncertainty. Our members recognise the need for compliance but there are many question marks around how these proposals will affect them.
Diversity is clearly a major goal for you and your members. What can we do as a country to get this right from the beginning?
All of us, as influencers, need to encourage diversity at a younger age. I’m a big advocate of Girlguiding and am very proud to say that we’ve got 12 new STEM badges where Guides learn about online consent and AI alongside typical activities like how to build a campfire. Encouraging participation and imparting these digital skills at an early age will be really important in building that diverse, highly skilled workforce of the future.
I’d also like to give a shout out to Round Table Books in Brixton, which is a fantastic book shop that promotes diverse books and teaches young people important lessons about inclusivity. It’s bizarre that in a country with such a rich ethnic mix, only 4 per cent of the 9,000 children’s books published in 2017 had BAME characters in them. We need to support small, local initiatives like Round Table Books to get children thinking about diversity and pursuing it in their adult lives.
Making the UK a great digital nation starts with education. We must ensure future generations are exposed to important lessons on diversity and digital skills from an early age. If you need to re-educate them when they’re adults you’ve lost a golden opportunity to influence things for the better.
Discover more of our Q&A series, including interviews with SimilarWeb, Sitecore, Alex DeGroote, and Foresight Factory.