The last BCS Policy Jam of 2022 asked, 'Can the UK be the next Silicon Valley?' A panel of experts debated whether that was possible and desirable.

It followed this announcement by the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, in his Autumn Statement: "I want to combine our technology and science brilliance with our formidable financial services to turn Britain into the world's next Silicon Valley."

 

Rashik Parmar, BCS CEO, said yes, the UK could become the next Silicon Valley, but there was still a lot to do: "We have done a huge amount of digitisation, but if you look at the last OPEC report, it said 46 per cent of jobs as we know them will go through significant change over the next ten years.

"This aspect of digitisation is going to replace many of the jobs that we have today. The opportunities for us to be the 'digitiser' of those jobs are there, and we have the opportunity to create economic value. We could absolutely do that. We have 1.9 million IT professionals that could do that work.

"Is that enough to do everything throughout the whole world? Absolutely not. But we could do a significant portion, and it would become a growth sector. The issue of funding and levelling up becomes a big part of this.

"I hope we would do that with all the benefits of Silicon Valley, but also address its limitations, foster a more inclusive culture and environment, and tackle the digital divide."

It's all about the messaging

Professor Victoria Baines, a BCS Fellow and former Trust and Safety Manager for Facebook EMEA, said thinking we could become the next Silicon Valley was 'nonsense'. She added: "When politicians like Jeremy Hunt announce that we'll be the world's next Silicon Valley, the rhetoric is far more important than the substance.

"We see this time and time again in tech policy. The main thing is that someone has said it, and it's vote-winning and point-scoring."

She added: "Silicon Valley, for me, is somewhere that when you get off the plane, even the taxi driver is trying to pitch an app to you, and it's a massive concentration of money and talent in a small area.

"The UK is quite dispersed, so should it be the next Silicon Valley – certainly not on the same trajectory. I would have hoped we'd learnt the lessons of 'move fast and break things'. I would hope that the mass lay-offs we are seeing from big tech companies in the US would tell us that there is a journey that Silicon Valley has gone on so far, and we're in the plateaux of disillusionment."

The Brexit Factor

Professor Baines believed that the idea of exponential growth in Silicon Valley had 'fallen at a hurdle' recently. She said there were opportunities, especially for London firms, to take on those people that Meta and Twitter laid off.

But there were already tech hubs popping up in places like Poland, Hamburg, and Paris, Professor Baines said, which because of the impact of Brexit on the UK, were more likely to become the destination of choice for tech talent looking for new jobs.

Roman Borisovich, Executive Director at Sardina Systems and an investment banker, also questioned whether the UK should aspire to become the next Silicon Valley. He believed it wasn't a good role model to aim for, as it had led to a massive concentration of capital in one place, which could lead to volatility.

Britain could, he believed, become a leader in technology and innovation with our close European neighbours, but he described Brexit as a 'huge impediment' to that approach. He also said the government should consider tax incentives for tech start-ups to stay in this country and not move abroad once established and it should also attract established tech firms to set up home here.

Tech watchdog

Gillian Arnold, BCS Deputy President (shortly to become the new BCS President) and the Managing Director of Tectre - Diversity Training and Recruiting, also raised concerns over the UK becoming the next Silicon Valley.

She pointed out the reluctance of big tech to pay taxes and an ethically questionable culture that didn't protect individuals or groups from the consequences of technology. "If we were to do it, we’d have to do it on a different set of principles," she said.

In his Autumn Statement, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt also reiterated the government's commitment to adopting legislation that would give greater powers to the Digital Markets Unit (DMU), currently housed within the Competition and Markets Authority.

The government said this would give the DMU the power to 'oversee a new regulatory regime for the most powerful digital firms, promoting greater competition and innovation in these markets and protecting consumers and businesses from unfair practices.'

Gillian said: "It's an issue that we can have role models like the Silicon Valley companies, and we could just blunder into that without considering the culture we would expect of it, and the regulation we would want around it, along with the professionalism that we expect of the individuals within the tech sector."

Regional Power

One of the points raised was the importance of developing and establishing digital skills, excellence, and professionalism across the UK, not just in London. This idea was popular with panellists and those watching the webinar.

Darren Roberts, MBCS, commented: "Rather than the rhetoric, what does the solution to this ambition look like in 2030, 2040 and beyond? How do we as a country invest in learning and outcomes?"

Rashik said: "Every local enterprise partnership or local authority has been doing their best to leverage digitalisation opportunities. They are all bigging up what they have; the trick here is 'smart specialism', which says, 'don't try and do everything a little bit well, try and focus on one or two things and do them really well' ".

Professor Baines said she liked the idea of 'smart specialism' for the UK as a whole, saying it was a more realistic aspiration: "Of course, we can be the best in the world on health tech, fintech and gaming etc. But if we're talking about becoming a tech superpower, that's probably unrealistic.

"We're a bit-player in the techno-nationalist drama between the US and China. Trying to punch at that weight would be a waste of UK resources."

She felt the next tech superpower would be the country with the largest control of quantum facilities, most likely China or the US.

Cultural change

Another theme of the debate, as Professor Baines put it, was ending the 'tech bro' culture, which also got a big thumbs-up from those watching the debate.

BCS Fellow Durgesh Gaitonde commented on the need to widen the debate to embed elements of ethnicity, neurodiversity, and social mobility in the sector to inspire the next generation into tech.

Which political party is best for tech?

There was a lively discussion between the panellists about a question submitted in advance by a contributor about which politicians understood the needs of the tech sector best.

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It prompted a forthright response in the chat by those watching the debate that the position of all parties should be considered, not just Conservative and Labour.

Gillian said it was important that organisations such as BCS talk to all politicians about tech, informing and enabling them to see why technology is essential and what the issues are.

"Everyone at a leadership level needs to understand the future of technology. We need to help educate all parties because when one party leaves, they trash everything the previous administration did," Gillian said. She wanted to see a continuation of those policies that had been successful.

Rashik added: "We saw that at the party conferences whenever we mentioned tech, then politicians would put their hands up and say – 'ah tech – I need someone to help me here'.

"But we've been doing a lot to drive digital literacy, which everyone needs to have because of digitalisation."

Roman concurred with Rashik's point that neither of the main UK political parties understood technology, adding: "Building up from there, you then think which party is better positioned to drive the process, to create, if not Silicon Valley, then another type of technological leadership in this country.

"It will take regulation, government policy and some investment from the government. Basically, the opposite of the Conservatives. So, from that perspective, it's more of a Labour Party policy."

Professor Baines said: "I think technophobia has become cool in politics, particularly with the introduction of the Online Safety Bill and the Digital Markets Unit. It's all about prohibition and control. The underlying message is that tech is scary and must be controlled. We're not getting that counter-message that tech is brilliant. We've still got individual champions in the parties rather than one party."

Get involved

In conclusion, Rashik said: "As we start to drive the next wave of digitisation, we as professionals should step up and demonstrate how professionalism can drive the kind of societal and business impact we want to make IT good for society.

"We can do that by showcasing positive stories about making society better through digitisation. We should leverage the opportunity the government has made around this Silicon Valley ambition, build this plan, and drive it forward."

Addressing the Policy Jam viewers, he added: "And we need all your help to do - so if you have ideas - please come back to us."

The BCS Policy Jam, from the BCS policy team, is proving a popular regular event, regularly attracting an audience of around 100 people. Join us for the next event and watch previous episodes here.