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Minister targets support for most vulnerable to close digital divide
Business minister Ivan McKee/Picture by Greg Macvean
Digital Transformation

Minister targets support for most vulnerable to close digital divide 

Distributing a further 40,000 devices to the people who “most need them” is the top digital priority in the first 100 days of the new government, according to ministers.

The nationwide Connecting Scotland programme – which has sought to get digital and data to the most vulnerable – will continue to be rolled out at pace over the summer. Nicola Sturgeon personally committed to ensuring closing the digital divide was among her “priorities” for government in a speech to parliament last month.

The First Minister also pledged to reopen the Digital Boost programme with an additional £25m to support businesses’ digital transformation efforts as an ongoing response to Covid. The scheme, run via the Business Gateway advisory service – has helped companies through the pandemic to harness technology as many pivoted to new operating models.

Business minister Ivan McKee said: “Digital technology has played a key role during the coronavirus pandemic and will continue to do so as we cautiously emerge from Covid-19 restrictions and re-ener-gise businesses.

“We published an updated national digital strategy to help deliver economic recovery, meet climate change targets and ensure everyone in Scotland has the skills, connectivity and devices required to fully participate in our digital nation.

“If people have access to devices and the skills and confidence to use them, it will have significant benefits in economic growth and ensuing public services work for us all. This is why Connecting Scot-land is important. It has delivered funding aimed at helping more people access the internet, include those who were at high risk from Covid-19, care home residents, disadvantaged families with children and young people leaving care.”

The new 5G innovation centre in Dundee and affirmation of support for all 34 recommendations in the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review – produced last year by former Skyscanner chief operating officer Mark Logan – underscores how central digital has become to the government’s agenda.

Also, since Kate Forbes joined the Scottish government as a junior minister, digital has steadily crept up the agenda to the point where it has become central to national policy delivery. Forbes, still a relative newcomer, now holds the vastly bigger portfolio of finance and the economy and has the top seat alongside Nicola Sturgeon in cabinet. She has retained a responsibility for digital in her portfolio and appeared at the tech investor conference EIE on 10 June.

The recently revamped national digital strategy, and last September’s programme for government also illustrates the enabling aspects of digital to “national performance framework” policy goals. Logan himself has taken charge of the implementation of his review, published in August last year, which is being backed by £7m of government funding. He is leading a five-strong programme executive – working with senior civil servants – to turn the recommendations in his 89-page report into “concrete” proposals and also sits on the programme’s advisory board.

Logan stressed to Futurescot that the executive has not been set up as a “talks about talks” committee but very much an “action-oriented” group that will move quickly and get things done. The advisory group comprises a number of public sector bodies but crucially will feature a “significant representation” of start-up and scale-up founders and international expertise towards building a successful tech economy that the review set out to achieve. It includes Lesley Eccles, the founder of FanDuel, Roan Lavery, co-founder of online accounting firm FreeAgent, Sarah Ronald, founder of Nile HQ service design agency and Stephen Ingledew, exec-utive chair of FinTech Scotland.

In terms of how the programme will be delivered, Logan revealed that the recommendations have been divided into ten workstreams including education and skills, investment and the tech scalers initiative – a nationwide network of five scalers in different parts of Scotland by 2022, with the aim of supporting around 300 start-ups over the next five years. That latter piece of work, trailed before May’s elections, is in the process of being tendered out, and international bidders are being encouraged to apply. Logan has previously stated that he is a fan of the Silicon Valley “playbook”, which provides “world-class education” to founders. Another tangible outcome will be the establishment of an “ecosystem fund” that will help strengthen the “market square” concept out-lined in the review, which points to a need to create opportunities for founders, technologists and entrepreneurs to make the necessary business connections: whether that be through regular meet-ups, conferences and – in a Covid world – virtual events.

The operating model for the fund is likely to be based on public-private partnership. One of the criticisms Logan outlined of the investor market in Scotland is its lack of scale-up capital to help tech companies grow to a significant size. Whilst he credits the investment community at being good at start-up and early stage financial support, the review focuses on the need to solve that problem as well as a “pretty awful” under-representation of minority ethnic groups and women in terms of where investment flows. Solving the issues in education has also been a major concern for Logan.

“Computing science is in a relative crisis in Scotland,” he says. “We have declining teacher numbers and declining pupil numbers and recognising that that becomes a strategic crisis for the tech industry, because potentially those schools are feeders for all those start-ups of the future – in terms of engineers and leaders – is of critical importance.”

Logan submitted an education addendum to his initial review and again the approach is based on what he calls a “large series of interventions” to improve the situation on the ground. The review calls for computing science to be taught from the first year of secondary school, “with the same focus as maths or physics”, unlike currently where it is an optional subject in year three. Although accepted by govern-ment, any radical reshaping of education on the ground in Scotland would likely require primary legislation, and the political buy-in from teachers and union bodies. Despite that, Logan insists what’s been submitted so far has “significant industry support” and is not “earth shattering” in terms of it being something that hasn’t been called for previously.

It is also of note that two of the authors of the education addendum to the original review are teachers – Toni Scullion and Brendan McCart – who Logan believes are assured that fellow teachers will welcome the recommendations. He adds: “From what I can see, teachers on the frontline of computing science are very clear that the subject’s in crisis. And I don’t think anyone wants to work in that environment for very long. So I think we ought to be working with teachers to see how we can make that situation better.”In the longer term there are other ideas that may help support the tech economy. Making Scotland’s university campuses more “entrepreneurial” and providing tech workers from overseas better incentives – for example, by helping them find a mortgage as they do in Finland – could pave the way for further academic reform and policy levers to be applied.

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