Can technology save a post-Brexit Britain?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain’s choice to leave the EU, whatever the causes and whoever said what to whom, few would disagree that the immediate aftermath has been one of abject disaster. Britain currently lacks leadership and direction, even as the UK’s financial position is significantly undermined. Despite a rallying stock market, the combination of a weak pound and a lowered credit rating have led to a postponement of any recovery predictions. But what’s the way forward? Please bear with me as I set out some context, first on my own position on the issue.

For the record, I voted to stay in the EU. Not because leaving was necessarily a bad idea – I wouldn’t choose it unless every other option had been ruled out, but I was grudgingly open to being convinced otherwise. As it happens, such debates never happened. The arguments used to promote leaving were less to do with creating a more sustainable position for growth based on any kind of structured plan, instead playing more to baser human instincts such as immigration fears and loss of control. While these concerns are founded on real issues, their relentless focus above other topics resulted in a skewed, divisive and sometimes hate-breeding campaign which has pitched the nation against itself.

The country has been torn into two. But perhaps it is only in Britain that a civil war could unfold on quite so civil terms. We have much to be thankful for, not least that, even given the state we are now in, we have not resorted to the kinds of pan-national aggression that have scarred so many other nations. Following the death of MP Jo Cox, UKIP leader Nigel Farage was rightly vilified for claiming the country had won its independence without a bullet being fired. But having recently returned from Croatia, where houses still show damage from bullets and mortar shells, and village shops sell votive candles so locals can keep a light alive on mass graves, I recognise that worse states exist than our current one.

In terms of what the future holds, nobody knows. Some are taking each announced loss of investment or warning message as a sign that the whole thing’s a disaster; others are picking on every positive sign as unmitigated proof that the nation made the right choice. Such “I told you so” posturing is inevitable and needs to be worked through as people come to terms with what they believe they have lost or justify why they made the right choice. What Britain cannot do, however, is wallow, nor snipe. Neither, as the melting pot that it already is, can Britain stand by and allow racial hatred to gain ground. The clue’s in the name: United Kingdom.


Next steps and the role of technology

So, what to do? The first point to note is the bigger picture beyond the UK and Europe. Economic globalisation and its consequences have been referenced by both camps as reasons what we should stay ‘in’ or get ‘out’, both suggesting we will be in a stronger position. Receiving less interest is the impact that technology is already having on how we relate to each other internationally. Like it or not but the stage is both individual and global: to put it bluntly, ‘they’ don’t have to come over ‘here’ to steal anyone’s jobs.

Technology has not finished its relentless progress, and neither will it slow. I have written before that we have not yet seen IT achieve its full potential; far from it, as we are on the brink of the next wave of progress. The Internet of Things, Big Data analytics and machine learning, robotics and 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, mobile devices and giant displays, autonomous vehicles and nanomachines are on a convergence path, the consequences of which will be profound in terms of how we function as individuals, in business and as a society. While I have, again, written elsewhere that this doesn’t mean the end of employment, it does bring a raft of opportunities and threats, in equal measure.

Against this background and in order to progress, we should recognise that nations have rebuilt themselves from far weaker positions, and continue to do so. I have done my share of berating our leaders for a lack of a plan, but I would suggest even this isn’t the most significant need right now. Rather Britain needs a vision, in which we build on our strengths and meet the whole world on terms that we set out. Impossible, I hear some say. Yes, trade agreements are hard (so I understand), but once again, that’s not the starting point. First off, we have to be very clear what we have to offer. The answer is not to try to sell our current portfolio of goods and services at a lower cost than other nations, that way lies a race to the bottom in which we already lag behind.


Value over cost

Rather than setting ourselves up to fight a losing battle on cost, it is value-based goods that hold the keys to the UK’s future success. In practice this means playing to the nation’s core strengths. The reason is simple. Through technology, a large part of the global economy has become platform-based – that is to say, successful companies are built on the basis of shared technology platforms and networked ecosystems of suppliers, rather than trying to do all the hard work themselves. If you want to see the maths, note that 40 years ago 85% of a company’s balance sheet was in ‘tangible’ assets, i.e. stuff the company owned, whereas today this figure is at 15%.

Successful companies, and by extension successful nations, will be those who can make best use of the wealth of technology now available to them. Of course it’s not just about technology by itself – but just as everything is becoming enabled by technology, from people to power plants, so this means understanding what this enablement means, and knowing how to drive benefits. This boils down to three priority areas: ‘data centricity’, resource management, engineering management and user experience.

The first, data centricity. We are in the digital age, which translates as splashing around in lakes and oceans of data generated by everything we do. Harnessing the power of this data is a challenge and requires substantial changes from how we have traditionally worked. But organisations and our society as a whole can get ahead of international competition by simply being better at it. The answer is to invest in data science and the technologies that support it. As an aside, there was little evidence of either Remain or Leave camps making strategic use of data in their campaigns, either through inexperience or because the timescales were too short to do much about it. 

Resource management is about applying that data to make processes both efficient (cheaper) and effective (deliver more). Its application is broad – from retail supply chains and engineering spares management, to allocation of people to jobs and reducing travel times, and indeed the sharing economy characterised by Airbnb and Uber. Algorithmically, resource management is not without its challenges but with the Internet of Things incorporating sensors in the mix, we have a lot more data to play with. There’s even a place for manufacturing, as an automated decision could be made as to the relative costs of manufacturing (to become 3D printing) an item in one country, versus the transit times and other costs of creating the item locally.

The third area is user experience. Web designers consider this to be about navigation around a site but it is becoming increasingly important due to the recognition that if a person can’t immediately engage with a technology interface, the result is inefficiency, cost and risk (consider the user experience aspects of a surgeon undertaking a remote operation, for example).


Playing to strengths

So, what’s all this got to do with the UK? Of course, any nation could respond to some of these needs, and indeed, many nations are doing so. While we can indeed benefit from an increased focus on technology, the answer is not to simply “do more of that stuff” but to look at Great Britain’s strengths and see what it can bring to the party as an independent nation in a technology-oriented world.

Of primary importance is its creativity. The UK is recognised as one of the most creative countries in the world, leading in terms of marketing and design, music and the arts, and indeed, science and technology. Such skills generate some of our finest exports, not least the financial sector which is, essentially a hub for smart people doing clever things with software. Other nations may be as creative in certain aspects, but few have had such a broad creative impact. Now is the time to invest in new companies, to educate people in the skills they need to be creative in the platform economy.

Next, we have a diligent and determined workforce, which has in the past 50 years been largely ignored or treated as an annoyance. When the pits were closed, thousands of people were left without a future; when companies moved call centres offshore, the lack of future planning was sustained (and is doubtless a factor in the nothing-to-lose attitude driving the waves of anti-immigration feeling we are currently experiencing). The fact that foreign firms are able to run manufacturing plants in the UK suggests that the problem lies in a failure of local management, not staff. As the next wave of technology-enabled manufacturing arrives at the shore, let us create organisations that put the interests of our island front and centre, working with international partners to the benefit of all.

While saying anything about ‘putting British interests first’ may have been tarnished by the bad apples in Granny Smith’s barrel, let’s be clear. Innovation requires diversity of people, of classes, of genders and of cultures. I have never understood why diversity is seen as something to be avoided, or forced onto an unwilling environment. In the new national order, we need every kind of brain working to a collective vision. Yes, we need debate and we need disagreement, because innovation and progress is never a tidy business. Yes, people may feel threatened and their fears need to be addressed. But above all we need to embrace the diverse portfolio of people and skills we have amassed. Doing so makes the many stronger, not weaker.

Finally, we should also consider our strengths as an independent sovereign nation, particularly in terms of how it could offer a safe haven for data, not for the less salubrious elements of our global society but to protect the privacy of its, and other citizens. I have written before about how the new European data protection law was already behind the curve in terms of where data is going. Keeping up with such changes requires a faster legal system than European regulatory speed enables.

So, there we have it. In summary, our island nation may feel like it’s been cast adrift in the Atlantic, and in many ways it has, but we are far from a position of abject collapse. Perhaps the biggest risk we now face is recession, which is driven by uncertainty and a loss of confidence, so even if we have already shot ourselves in one foot, let’s not do the same in the other one. Keep in mind that the media will continue to make hay out of pointing out the bad, as this is what sells papers, but by joining in we damaging nobody but ourselves. Of course, we can choose to bicker and crow about how right we are, or how wrong everyone else is. But consider, every breath we take doing so is starving energy from the nation’s future.

So let’s get out of the blame game for the past and present, and start taking shared responsibility. Britain will only become stronger if the nation rallies around a shared vision for economic and societal success. Of course, the above is only a partial view, coming from the standpoint of technology. Of course it will not be correct in every detail; that will take time to hammer out. But in summary we need to focus on where we add value in the digitally enabled world, we need to educate all of our people to deliver on that vision, and we need to invest in, and strive towards making it happen. As a diverse, multi-faceted and highly capable nation. Together.  



Also read:

E-voting might have saved UK from Brexit

Brexit vote is a blow to the UK’s tech brains

Data expert: Brexit referendum is on a razor’s edge

InfoSec 2016: GDPR hangs heavy over Europe


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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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