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Sarah Longlands: local industrial strategies must harness tech

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How are our emerging local industrial strategies thinking about tech in their plans for the future of place? This was a recurring question for me recently whilst leading on a report examining the experiences of entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of our technical revolution.

The threat of Brexit and the many unknowns this presents in terms of access to markets, finance and talent loomed large. What was revealing was the extent of the emotional impact of Brexit, particularly on perceptions of the UK as a welcoming place in which to do business.

The range and diversity of tech start-ups provided us with insight into the many ways in which tech can change our perceptions of the world. For example, the company which is experimenting with new types of personal data to confirm our identity in interactions with the banking industry. Or the AI pioneer attempting to perfect the art of voice-to-page transcription. Or the fintech company developing types of software to enable investors to understand their vulnerability in the market place.

It was also clear that the public sector, can play a role in helping to catalyse start-ups, including the partnership between Camden LBC and Zinc, a tech ‘for-good’ investor. Housed in Camden’s former town hall, Zinc supports 55 participants to come together to devise tech ideas to tackle mental health challenges. Ultimately, the project hopes to create between five and 10 early stage companies. This is a great way of using the opportunities of tech to engage with and challenge public policy issues whilst at the same time, a clever use of ‘meanwhile’ space.

For me, there are three messages from our research for local industrial strategies. Firstly, tech isn’t a ‘sector’ but an enabler of economic development. In terms of revolutionising our economy, it’s got more in common with the invention of electricity than the PC. Industrial strategies should consider how to use its potential to ‘pollinate’ existing industries to unlock productivity and innovation.

Secondly, the tech sector is driven by complex and comprehensive datasets. The public sector has data in abundance and can collaborate with tech to harness its powers of analysis to bring new insights to local priorities. It’s an approach being used in Portugal with ‘city hack’ – a 24-hour technological marathon designed to devise solutions to challenges.

Thirdly, the debate on skills and tech in the UK has focused predominantly on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). While tech is desperately short of skilled coders and engineers we cannot rely on the traditional ‘pipeline’ approach to generate the technical expertise our economy needs. Instead we need an approach to adult skills which allows people to upskill and reskill throughout their careers, enabling them to change and adapt in a rapidly evolving economy.

Sarah Longlands, director, IPPR North

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