In the UK we have a problem. The big digital movers and shakers – Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon and many others – were founded in America. We are stuck in a cultural cul-de-sac. There are no easy answers as to why the UK does not have the digital confidence of the US, but we must do our best to tackle our low digital self esteem. One reason is location. The UK is a test-bed for American companies before they go into other markets in Europe. Innovation from US companies is tried out in the UK at the earliest stage. When Google tests a game here before it goes international, it stamps out home grown innovation. My second observation would be about the dominance of the BBC. I believe it is a phenomenal organisation but a great deal of digital innovation in the UK has happened inside the corporation. It is impressive that the BBC develops something as good as the iPlayer so I would argue that this national institution is perhaps our best scale tech business – this presents interesting challenges as well as opportunities.
There are basic structural difficulties with digital development. In the UK we are not especially ambitious entrepreneurs and this is true in the digital world. While the number of start ups indexes well with other countries, growing them into global billion pound companies is rare. Cultures have characteristics and we are naturally a scathing, and somewhat cynical, country. This can be useful, but unlike the US we haven’t had a go-get-it attitude – we haven’t had to go and get anything because we’ve been here! In our education system we haven’t put risk-taking at the heart of what we teach people. We’re very structured, with a hugely impressive, long legacy of Victorian-led syllabuses, so at every point our risk-averse culture is reinforced rather than broken.
Context is fundamental to change. There are people who are lucky enough to be presented with different ways of working. I came from a family that would have been more shocked if I had gone into banking or accounting rather than been an entrepreneur. My entire family backdrop was chaotic and extraordinary. I think that made me more likely to take risks. My father, Robin Lane Fox, is an academic and a gardening writer. He wrote a weekly column in the Financial Times and decided to self-publish a book. So we, as children, would spend most Saturdays sending out books that were piled high in our sitting room. Any small business would understand working on a small budget in a slightly unusual way – two small children were jam-packing Jiffy bags with gardening books.
That is not to say there are no new cutting-edge digital businesses in the UK. The revolution around manufacturing and 3D printing is astonishingly. If only it had been developed earlier! When I had my car accident I could have been 3D-printed, because they print out bits of bone and jaw and nerve tissue now. The UK is beginning to put digital technology at the heart of how we think about health, both learning from data and using it to enable better decisions in hospitals. NHS Unlocked already runs patient groups online. If you’re a diabetes sufferer you can talk to others like you and the analysis of the log-in data provides an overall picture of diabetes sufferers in the UK. Analysing the ‘big data’ that comes out of the group helps provide excellent patient-centric care.
When technology is at the heart of how we make decisions, a revolution begins. Television is changing in this new digital age. People love content (actual viewing figures remain constant) but distribution has changed with compression technologies. Television is now a business in retail and data collection as much as broadcasting. It’s about platforms, access to audiences and relationships with the audiences, as opposed to the actual need or want for people to consume. Great quality content still flies, because people want to have incredible visual experiences. But the economics of television have changed with the way that programmes are consumed. The terrestrial television stations know that they have to approach the audience in a different way but need to keep making great content and to keep their brand relevant. I’m on the board of Marks & Spencer’s, which has a TV channel on its website. There is convergence in the market place – you can’t just be a retailer; you’ve got to have a media business. All businesses need to be interested in content and understand how it can push their brand out more deeply.
The digital world offers us a phenomenal revolution. Health, education, television and retail are on the cusp of convergence and change but we need to grab all the possibilities to make sure the UK is a world leader.