This is a piece i wrote for The Times on the day of the spending review. I am speaking at Liverpool’s festival of business on 27th june and hope to pick up some of these themes.
With a smartphone now sitting in the pockets of more than 70 per cent of the UK’s adult population, it’s all too easy to assume that we’re a nation at ease with the demands of the digital age.
But the tidal wave of mobile devices cannot conceal the underlying issues that we face when it comes to meeting the challenges and maximising the economic opportunities offered by superfast broadband.
The internet may have been the spark that lit the UK’s entrepreneurial flame, but a lack of fundamental digital skills continues to hold back the growth of small businesses — only 30 per cent of which make effective use of the internet for marketing and sales. The European Union has just released its third annual Digital Scorecard, which shows that fewer than one in five British small and medium-sized enterprises sells online. That is despite the UK being home to the highest percentage of online shoppers in Europe.
Looked at as a whole, the UK presents something of a digital paradox, while the internet accounts for roughly 8 per cent of GDP — the highest of the G20 countries — 16 million of the UK’s population lack basic digital skills, and seven million have never been online.
The infrastructure of business in the 21st century will be digital, and the UK must recognise the risks posed by falling behind in a rapidly developing international market. Up to a quarter of future economic growth is expected to come from the internet sector, and the UK must capitalise on this trend to ensure it remains competitive in the global race.
We need a dual approach, whereby the digital mindset becomes an essential part of education, and opportunities to learn are also provided to those in work who feel that they are being held back by a lack of advanced digital capability. A recent survey of 2,000 British workers, for the Digital Domination Summit, suggested that just a fifth feel adequately equipped to meet the digital requirements of their jobs, and almost half wanted to improve their knowledge and skills.
Education is essential but what is often most effective is the sharing of knowledge — among colleagues, between businesses, even across cities. Go-On UK, the charity I co-founded to make the UK the world’s most digitally-skilled country, took this approach in Liverpool in a pilot programme last year, and the city’s offline population reduced by 50 per cent in just six months. That’s 58,000 people who came online for the first time.
Liverpool has led the way for the UK in showing what is possible when a city comes together with the focused intention of going digital. I’m delighted to be returning to the city for Accelerate 2013, a festival celebrating the UK’s fast-growth, high-potential businesses.
I’ll be speaking about the need for an effective digital strategy — from creating a compelling digital brand through to online marketing and interacting with customers over social media — and how this is the common factor in the UK’s most exciting young businesses today.
In 2000, if you wanted funding for a business, you would make an appointment at a high street bank. Online peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding now allows entrepreneurs to access finance from across the world, from their kitchen table. Similarly, dialing a London cab from a distant depot has become a thing of the past, with taxis across the city available at the touch of a button.
The trend of digital innovation changing the way we live and do business will be clear to see in the Accelerate 250, a group of the UK’s fastest growing businesses being brought together for the first time at the festival, with pioneers in sectors ranging from alternative finance to alternative drinks mixers — all winning British brands that have proved the viability of a compelling digital story.
These are the flagbearers that show that Britain has the capacity to lead the world as a digital innovator. Improving digital skills across the board, within both business and education, is what will ensure that the UK delivers on its potential as a truly digital nation and unlocks as much as £18 billion of unrealised economic potential.