Accelerating the nation’s digital revolution

Baroness Lane-Fox is an internet pioneer and a campaigner for increased and more entrenched adoption of online technology. Here she explains the UK’s opportunity to deliver societal and economic improvements by placing a greater emphasis on digital.

I’m passionate about technology and it’s my firm view that, when structured correctly, digital services are enormously empowering and a force for good.

This is being demonstrated time and again as the UK adopts ever more sophisticated communications infrastructure, but we should be doing more if we are to realise the full benefits of what the web can do.

Nowhere is this truer than in the way we create and deliver public services. Innovation is definitely happening in this area and there are many good examples of non-commercial organisations upgrading how they connect with and serve users.

A good example is Croydon Council’s collaboration with the Diocese of Southwark to turn St Philip’s Church Hall, Norbury, into a place where people can go to gain or improve digital skills, or even just get access to the Internet.

But it is perhaps also true that compared to the commercial sector, public organisations have fallen behind and require strong digital leadership to set them back on the right path.

These groups could benefit in a huge number of ways by adopting agile principles and borrowing ideas from businesses whose foundations are built on technology.

Consider, for example, how large online communities have sprouted up around the big retail websites such as eBay, Etsy and Notonthehighstreet.com. They have cultivated audiences and collaborated with users to become bigger than the sum of their parts.

The building blocks of a fully digital UK

Online communities is just one of the ways the private sector tackles challenges. Public sector groups such as the NHS and local councils often take a more linear approach to their work – partly because they are answerable to taxpayers rather than customers and have rigid management structures. They are also not encouraged enough to experiment – despite the fact that we live in the makings of a highly-connected country. Technology clusters within the private sector in the form of web businesses are flourishing and by learning from these, we could drive up engagement with online in the public sector too.

A starting point is to provide universal access to the Internet, but not only by delivering universal broadband connections (the UK is 95% connected so far), but making the services accessible and appropriate for all.

The digital skills charity Go On UK, which I helped to establish in 2012, estimates that creating this would cost roughly £500 million to train those without basic digital skills. But it also calculates that this investment would deliver some £76 billion in economic and societal benefit in return.

These plus points would come in the form of better connections between people and services, less waste and would empower people to complete everyday tasks in shorter periods of time. It’s one reason why Go On UK is working with local businesses in places like Croydon to help everyone gain basic digital skills.

As a comparatively small country, Britain is doing well online, but negatives like a lack of universality of Internet access and a comparative dearth of digital skills versus the leading countries, hold our growth in check.

Keeping up in a global race

We have good infrastructure but it needs to be upgraded constantly, and probably at an accelerated rate, to keep up with global standards. There is already evidence Britain is falling behind. For example, South Korea has infrastructure today that won’t hit the UK before 2020.

Above and beyond infrastructure, we must work to change attitudes and create digital mavens at the top of government. This applies at the local, regional and national level. It’s not that these people don’t understand the benefits of the Internet, more that they need to be shown the full spectrum of what it can achieve, from cost savings to greater inclusivity.

Joined-up thinking needs to happen across the public sector and geographically across the country, so that policy is consistent and has a single, clear direction.

There are, for example, many projects going on to create smart future cities. The innovations these programmes create need to work unbroken between cities, so that the experience of digital services in Birmingham, for example, is the same as in London.

Another area that would accelerate the UK’s digital upgrade is greater gender equality in the technology sector. Apart from the innate public problem of there not being enough women in tech, this would also address a skills gap that has left some 600,000 job vacancies without appropriate candidates to fill them.

In short we need a kind of cultural revolution in which leaders are exposed to the benefits of digital and education institutions promote the value of technology to all.

With a comparatively small amount of investment and a little extra impetus in upgrading Britain’s digital environment we could change the future for the better. Digital permeates every part of life and by optimising technology we can improve our access to healthcare, boost the economy, create better educational opportunities, speed up transport and create unified communications networks across the country.

This technology is the gateway to a universe of positive outcomes that will progress the UK’s interests greatly, why wouldn’t we try to forge ahead?