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Building a TechNation

A response to this invitation from DCMS and Ed Vaizey.

I share your view that the UK is one of the most developed digital economies in the world. I agree that the UK government has played a critical role in our early success. I share your ambition that we retain our lead.

These are my thoughts on how government can help to do that.

1. Set TechNorth free

TechCity has done an excellent job of raising the global profile of London’s tech scene. I think it has trailed France’s equivalent La French Tech in promoting digital excellence across the country. The creation of TechNorth is a huge step in the right direction but it is unclear how free this subsidiary is from its parent TechCity. A truly Northern institution with a separate funding stream would be more ambitious, risk-taking, and successful.

2. Trust cities and fund them to lead.

Local government does not have the budget to recreate the success of GDS team. It does not have the money to invest in institutions like the Future Cities Catapult, the Digital Catapult, and the Open Data Institute. Achieving faster digital transformation in local government will instead rely on scaling up small local successes to larger regions.

Trafford council’s innovation lab could cover the whole of Greater Manchester. ODILeeds’ experience and expertise could cover much more of the North of England. There are many more examples. Devolution to city regions will help current digital transformations in local government scale more easily and achieve much more at very little additional cost.

Open data is a key part of enabling this collaboration at scale. Open data on transport already lets private companies create travel planning apps that cover the whole country. Open data on bin collections, school dates, planning, and more will enable further such services to be delivered.

This government has led on open data and devolution. To move further you should now devolve significant parts of our national innovation budgets to cities that have signed devolution deals. Do not send GDS to the provinces. Send their money. We will achieve more that way.

3. Back the BBC in Manchester.

The BBC’s move to Manchester has been an enormous success. It fuels confidence in the North of England. It gives us more of a voice within the UK and greater visibility to the whole world. Yet over 50% of the BBC’s money is still spent in London and there are growing rumours that the BBC would like to retrench to the safety of its headquarters.

This would be a disaster for the UK. Not only must Media City remain a hub for the BBC but it must continue to grow. Within a fixed budget we must accept that this will happen at the expense of some operations in London. Government’s role is to push that case.

In your call for this response you mentioned Tech City, SwiftKey, TransferWise, onefinestay, GDS, CityMapper, Zoopla, and the UK government. None are based outside of London.

If you make the changes I suggest then you will help to create a truly independent TechNorth, a powerful BBC in Manchester, and strong city region governments across the UK. These city governments will deliver the innovation in digital services you want. These national institutions in the North of England will hold your ministry to account.

If you succeed your next call for consultation in 2020 will not focus on London. It will not claim, wrongly, that tech fever exploded in 2010 and spread from the centre to the provinces. Instead it will claim that the whole of the UK has led, is leading, and is well set to lead on digital well into the future.

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