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.


5 thoughts on “Are we stuck in a digital cul de sac?

  1. Hi Martha ..You are quite right about the educational system…I taught creative subjects for 30 years in both state & private schools

    The problem is they are formulated by the academics …It is no co incidence that both Brin & Page had a Montessori education /

    I now offer you the biggest challenge in your life …We can build a billion dollar digital ….Its not just the idea but the team & the Marketing ..more …..

    I invite you to the launch of http://www.Yobrain ( being coded ) a internet startup at the Riz Hotel London, on 25th October 2014 ..

    My first challenge to you think of who you can invite ……?

    Plus the team you would recruit …..If you agree in Principle i would like to meet you in London in October 2013 to discuss possible free equity to you as a founder or adviser .

    Hope you reply Ian amor

  2. “In the UK we are not especially ambitious entrepreneurs and this is true in the digital world”
    the problem is that britain has a once bitten twice shy attitude to starting companies. If you fail first time, that attitude that meets you is “you don’t know what your doing” rather than the silicon valley perspective of “well done – what have you learn’t – what are you going to start now”
    I met exactly that when back in the 80’s I started a games company – it failed, it cost me all my savings and nobody would touch me again.

    Ok I also realised that the signifcant failure was me and I’ve been spending the subsquent years working out why I didn’t function well and fixing it (still in proress – but making signicant headway – turns out i got a lot of signicant disabilities). Ok I’ve run a few things along the way in that time a well but not building world changing businesss…

    best wishes

    Big Kate

    PS I’m not surprised that you ended up in the Lords i just always thought it would be via the front ranks of the conservative party – shows how much i know!
    I knew you btw when you were running the Oxford Union 🙂

  3. There is still a significant issue with engagement. I’m leading a community web site project in Northamptonshire that is helping local (rural) communities to develop their web presence. The technology is there (we’re using WordPress) and our valiant band of volunteers are doing a great job of putting together some informative and what should be engaging content however there is very little feedback from the community. Perhaps we’re doing something wrong but if that’s the case I cannot see a silver bullet as a solution. Perhaps it’s just hard work and patience.
    At the moment we’re looking for a high profile keynote speaker to come to the first Northamptonshire community web site competition but it’s a bit like looking for hen’s teeth – anyone want to volunteer?

  4. Hi Martha, I work for a new start company called Individual IT. Our core aim is to improve the skills of our present, & future workforce, to make the UK a global leader in tomorrow’s digital age. Our services provide an ALL INCLUSIVE package, providing heavily discounted devices to all students, regardless of social standing & age, the only requirement is that the end user must be in full time education. I would welcome the opportunity to engage with you, and open dialogue around the benefits of our services and improving the educational outcome of UK students.

  5. In some respects the dominance of the BBC in the broadcast media sector of the UK mirrors the old dominance of the coal,steel and ship building industries in areas like the North East. They are gone now of course but that notion of a paternalistic employer – one which will provide for whole communities – retains a powerful grip on policy makers across the region. Much effort seems to be directed at providing as secure and safe an environment as possible for large corporations (“Too big to fail” anyone?) Yet when we talk about small businesses and start-ups so much of the talk is of the need to embrace risk and being unafraid of failure? Perhaps our language needs to change? Maybe we need to tell people more about the failures and what were the practical consequences of those failures to offer reassurance that not succeeding is not the end of the world. People who grow up in families which have a history of entrepreurialism will, more often than not, have witnessed failure for themselves and are perhaps less fearful. If you don’t have that and if you live somewhere where most people have always worked for the same business how much more daunting must it be to strike out in your own?

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