TechMunch: Can the British government lead the next industrial revolution? The tech community must make it happen

In the 18th and 19th centuries, British factories, businesses and politicians chose to embrace technological innovation in radical new ways. Through ingenious applications of modern technology, Britain placed itself at the helm of the industrial revolution.

Today, talk of the 4th Industrial revolution is still limited to the tech community, but by embracing Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation, Britain could redefine industry as we know it. Whoever is elected must take an active interest or the opportunity will pass them by. The onus is on tech leaders to make their voices heard once a new government takes office on the 9th of June.

As things stand, no political party has a serious approach to the 4th industrial revolution, if any whatsoever. The Labour manifesto mentions the words ‘digital’ and ‘technology’ a total of 13 times and the Liberal Democrats 18 times. The Conservatives are the only party to have broken ground. Whilst in government this year, they published an industrial strategy green paper and a standalone white paper on digital strategy. Their manifesto also includes a chapter on digital strategy but it is tentative at best. Their efforts so far have focused on either increasing or decreasing regulation as well as taking on measures to attract foreign investment. New funds are being made available to researchers and there are ambitions for a nationwide 5G infrastructure. However, none of these tackle the societal impacts we expect the 4th industrial revolution to have, nor are they at the cutting edge of the technological discoveries we’re seeing today.

Other European political parties embroiled in election campaigns this year have shown a similar reticence to engage with the topic in a serious manner. The subject garnered more interest in France when socialist candidate Benoit Hamon floated the idea of a basic income to combat job losses but it was condemned as idealistic and naïve.

Of course it’s easy to see why the 4th industrial revolution hasn’t featured in the campaign. It hasn’t yet captured the public’s imagination and there is no appetite for a discussion. Security, the economy, the NHS and Brexit have overshadowed nearly every other topic. Not only is it incredibly difficult to design policy solutions for it, but the public currently associates it with at best crippling job losses and at worst a robot uprising.

This is a mistake for a number of reasons. Britain continues to lag behind G7 countries when it comes to productivity, for instance. Last year’s figures released by the Office for National Statistics revealed the UK’s biggest gap with other leading Western economies since modern records began in the early 1990s. Successive governments have struggled to reverse this trend since the financial crisis but according to Accenture’s “Why artificial intelligence is the future of growth” report, AI alone could add £654 billion to the UK economy by 2035 and increase growth rates from 2.5 percent to 3.9 percent by 2035. In-depth application of AI technology across the board would not only benefit the UK, observers believe it could trigger a global economic boom – much like the cotton mills of Northern England did in the 18th century.

A combination of AI, the IoT and automation could also radically reduce the cost of delivering public services. Although the UK’s public spending is already less than most Western countries, the strain on its services grows more and more obvious every day. Earlier this year the British Red Cross described some NHS emergency departments as being in a “humanitarian crisis”. The use of AI to perform administrative tasks, or automation in public transport alone could free up huge amounts of government spending. These technologies could render debates over spending and cuts all but redundant in future election campaigns. Imagine that.

By driving policy that is favourable to industrial innovation, the UK will both attract increased foreign interest and encourage local companies to flourish. Both of these phenomena would provide a means to upskill the workforce, something that the UK is increasingly in need of. Lloyds, Google and HP, among others, already take part in a major government partnership to offer four million free digital skills training schemes. The feared post-Brexit “talent drain” has propelled upskilling into the national agenda but only by investing in long-term policy will the UK be able to retain these invaluable opportunities.

Underlying all these reasons is the simple fact that London, and more generally the UK, is already a world leader in technological innovation. Securing 33 places in this year’s Fintech 50, London-based companies have cemented themselves as European leaders. Google’s bet on British AI firm Deepmind back in 2014 has demonstrated the quality of research that is already being performed in the UK. Pioneering autonomous vehicles are being designed and tested here too. There is a huge opportunity for the UK to capitalise on these market leads.

It’s worrying that the 4th industrial revolution isn’t being discussed more at the top levels of government. It’s not just about missing a chance, it’s also about preparing for the future. It’s hard to tell whether the current attitude in Westminster is due lack of understanding or reluctance, but it is the missing link that the industry needs. Responsibility lies with leading tech companies to show the government the incredible things the 4th industrial revolution can accomplish. Much like the cotton mills of Birmingham in the late 18th century, businesses big and small today have an opportunity to be the pioneers of an industrial revolution.

Benjy Hollis, Account Executive, Technology