The development of tech must be driven by purpose

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests. I’m delighted to welcome you to our 2019 Annual Dinner.

Tonight I want to talk about purpose. 

We live in interesting times, to say the least. Not just here in the UK, but around the world. We are experiencing change and uncertainty the likes of which we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.  Brexit, Trump, digital disruption, a new Prime Minister, the threats and benefits of automation and the issues of privacy, security, accountability and bias are top of mind for the technology industry. These are the big questions facing our economy and our society.

So how should we respond? Increasingly businesses want to be known for the good they do and not just the profit they make. For many of us, the public perception of how we conduct ourselves, treat our customers and suppliers matters more now than ever. We are accountable not just to MPs and newspapers, but to the public themselves. 

According to a recent survey 40 per cent of millennials believe the goal of businesses should be to ‘improve society.’

And that is why the issue of PURPOSE is high on the agenda for UK tech and for the nation. We have a huge opportunity to harness the power of technology for a stronger economy, a more cohesive society and a healthier planet.

But before I do that a very brief word on Brexit.

Whichever way you voted, it’s important that you know that since the EU Referendum techUK has worked hard to support progress towards an orderly exit from the EU. AND we have also been clear about the implications of no deal. Despite the hard and enduring efforts of the DExEU and across government to mitigate the worst impacts, 70 per cent of our members tell us that No Deal would have a negative impact on their business, with smaller companies which are the backbone of this economy least able to predict or to prepare for its impact.  

Of course, we face some huge and complex challenges, but we also have technologies at our fingertips that are more powerful, more intelligent and more scalable than at any time in human history. 

We have the tools for the job. What matters now is how we use them.

Digital technology is often called a disruptor. But I like to think of tech as an enabler. 

The driver of the modern global economy. And UK tech is thriving. So, as we prepare to leave the EU we must work harder to strengthen our economy. A few gimmicks and giveaways will not be enough. To be globally competitive we have to get the basics right and we must execute at scale. This means investing in education, in life-long skills provision, research and development and digital infrastructure. It means growing and attracting the best global talent. It means having a stable and pragmatic regulatory environment that can be relied upon by innovators, entrepreneurs and investors. It means being on the side of competition and competitive markets. It means pioneering the development and use of new technologies and it means finding ways to share the growth with our great regional cities and towns #NotJustLondon.

All of this is achievable if we are unequivocal about the need for the UK to be at the forefront of technological innovation and work with purpose to make it happen.

But that does not mean we should put technology before people. Innovation alone is not enough. We must innovate with purpose to empower individuals, support families, strengthen communities and promote opportunity for all. Our job is not to design for the ‘average user’ but for the fringes and our job is to leave nobody behind.

We will not succeed by fearing automation. The companies I meet talk far more about augmentation than automation. 

About Doctors with more time and better tools to deliver better outcomes for patients. 

About companies that apply robotics to drive productivity, improve competitiveness and actually increase their workforce. 

Man and machine is an AND conversation not an OR conversation.

Of course, we need to support people through change. We have to do a far better job in preparing our young people of all genders and backgrounds and those already in work for the jobs of tomorrow. I’m not yet convinced we are doing either of these things at the scale and pace required. We need a far more radical approach to lifelong learning and to retraining. 

As Yuval Noah Horari says, it is not the rise of the robots we should worry about but whether we can reskill ourselves every 10 years or less.

Simply put then, a digital economy that works for everybody is an economy that has prepared them for the future and enables them to keep pace with change.  

But places matter too.

Across the country we see the potential of smart cities, but I would rather be talking about smart communities. About how technology can be harnessed to help our towns, high-streets and rural communities. Things like smart rural bus services that are responsive to actual demand and help re-connect isolated communities.

We also have to address the real concerns people have about their lived experience of technology. We share the Government’s ambition to make the UK the safest place to be online but do not underestimate what a complex challenge this is, particularly when considering content that maybe be harmful but not illegal, or harmful to some but not others. For us the recent White Paper still presents more questions than answers, but that just means we have to work harder, together to find an approach that can work against the backdrop of a fast-changing environment.

And we need to work hard too to think through the implications of future technologies. We have made real progress in establishing digital ethics as a central pillar of the discourse on technology in the UK. These ethical frameworks need to be put into practice. There are many immediate questions. Not least how Facial Recognition technology can be safely incorporated into modern policing. These are thorny issues where we must find the right balance of fundamental rights and freedoms.

There is, however, one challenge that eclipses everything else: And that is the Climate Emergency. 

The scale of what we have to achieve is daunting. Which is why I am proud that the UK has led with ambition to be the first major economy to commit to becoming a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. This is our moon-shot challenge and represents a huge opportunity for our sector.

There is real cause for optimism. Experience in the UK demonstrates how quickly change can happen when we work with purpose to provide the right policy framework and incentives.

The UK has transformed its electricity supply in just a decade. We have cleaned our electricity mix faster than any other major economy. Digital technologies have been fundamental to fast tracking this change – creating the UK’s modern, flexible and responsive smart energy system.

Certainly we can do so much more. With the right support and policy framework, we know that our industry can cut emissions across the rest of the UK economy by 24 per cent by 2030 – that is 12 times the carbon footprint of the sector itself. The technologies to achieve this are here. The challenge now is to scale rapidly. techUK is working with government and members to help secure a market for these technologies and equip society with the skills and confidence to invest in them.

As an industry we have an obligation to drive down our own carbon emissions. At techUK, we support data centres in their quest to reduce the energy they consume. 

Just this week it was confirmed that the sector has met its climate change agreement targets two years ahead of target. And this is indeed a reason to be optimistic about the part we can play on climate change.

As a final thought, none of these things can happen unless we apply digital technology with purpose. 

Our nation’s greatest asset is our ability to collaborate and come together as a sector. Working together, we can show true leadership for a stronger economy, a more cohesive and inclusive society living on a healthier planet.

I look forward to more certain times, but I will say that in times of change the tech sector has always managed to thrive, so perhaps this is our moment to come together to build innovative solutions that serve the economy, society and the planet

Thank you


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