Is Scotland ready to lead a 21st century industrial revolution?

In the Scottish Parliament we often debate the future of Scotland’s digital economy in terms of national targets for connectivity and digital infrastructure, like broadband roll-out or 4G mobile coverage, but we have to remember that the roll-out of high-speed internet is not the same as achieving access to it.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh pointed out in their 2014 digital participation report that, whilst investment has been forthcoming and roll-out targets are all well and good, they “leave the door open for existing inequalities to go unaddressed”, such as a lack of affordable internet, a lack of household devices to make use of it, or a lack of basic digital skills to use either.

Regardless of whether broadband is available in their area or not, pupils at the 17% of Scottish schools without a specialist computing teacher, for example, are already at a disadvantage when it comes to digital participation. As we increasingly rely on online services to fill out our tax returns, stream entertainment, choose a cheaper energy supplier or order our shopping, the people left behind are limited to slower and often more expensive alternatives.

According to a 2014 Centre for Economics and Business Research report on the consumer costs of no internet access, people without access to the internet miss out on hundreds of pounds in potential savings every year, something which disproportionately affects the elderly. Healthcare is one area where digital inequalities are most prevalent. In one town you might be able to make appointments, access your medical records and order repeat prescriptions from your GP online. In another you need to make a phone call, wait a fortnight for an appointment and then collect the prescription in person. NHS Education for Scotland’s director of digital transformation, Christopher Wroath, recently pointed out that our health services face challenges, in part, down to the lack of ICT skills within the healthcare system itself.

The digital skills shortage is being felt in just about every sector. Three quarters of Scottish firms say that digital technologies are essential or important to their plans for growth, yet 30% of the Scottish population lack basic digital skills. This is not about the ability to use a smartphone or upload something onto social media. What’s needed for the workforce of 2030 is investment in skills such as computer programming, cyber security, data analysis and artificial intelligence.

According to projections by Deloitte, Scotland is set to lose £9 billion in potential gains over the next 15 years if the Scottish Government does not adopt an entirely more visionary digital strategy. The Scottish Government’s high-speed broadband roll-outs and glossy campaigns to recruit Computing teachers are welcome and have their part to play, but meanwhile the rest of the world has moved on to preparing for the 4th industrial revolution (and no this isn’t a Jeremy Corbyn meme, it’s a real thing).

What do I mean by the 4th industrial revolution? The fact that the digital markets, products and services we know today are already on the cusp of merging with cyber-physical systems. Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, characterises the 4th industrial revolution as “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”. For example, the current efforts by Harvard researchers to 3D-print human tissue.

The challenge facing Scotland therefore, is to reach universal digital participation, not only as part of investing in a fairer, more equal society, but so that we remain economically competitive as a country that can respond quickly to innovation in the years ahead. In my view, if the Scottish Government does not adopt a more agile style of governance − in close collaboration with business, academia and civil society – we’ll be unable to benefit from the impact new technologies are expected to have on the global economy and the Scottish labour market in the next 15 years and we’ll have no chance of leading this industrial revolution like we have those of the past.

For policymakers, one of the most exciting things about the digital economy is that advancements in areas like technology, data analysis and computer programming can be used to improve just about every aspect of our lives − from making the world’s great museums and art galleries accessible through virtual reality, to enabling the public to record incidents of hate crime from their phone. But, at the same time, the sheer extent of opportunities for innovation has led to a lethargic kind of policymaking in Scotland that embraces the idea of the digital economy in principle, but provides little in terms of concrete strategic input to develop and position Scotland’s digital economy in the global context.

What’s needed is a practical and ambitious strategy, using research and foresight from Scotland’s world-class research, innovation and entrepreneurial community to identify digital market opportunities in the run up to 2030, so that we can align our education, training, finance, business and public service sectors to take advantage of those opportunities. For example, creating better conditions for women to thrive in STEM careers and in-so-doing increase our STEM workforce; ensuring everyone in Scotland has access to high-speed internet and the means to make use of it; and investing in data protection and cyber security measures that mean we can continually improve digital public services and help people to have better control and access to their personal data when they interact with the NHS or the Scottish justice system.

One thing in particular we must get much better at is monitoring and evaluating our progress. We need to know if public support for digital innovation is leading to increased productivity in Scotland in order to draw conclusions about what’s working and what’s not. Audit Scotland’s recent report highlighted a lack of measurable targets and strategies set by the Scottish government for its economic development agencies, emphasising that it’s not possible to measure how they contribute to delivery of the government’s strategy. Clearly, we can’t be sure we’re making the best use of public money, if we can’t point to tangible, measurable progress in terms of jobs created, GDP increased and investment gained.

In the end, what this all comes down to is asking ourselves what kind of a country we want to be in the years ahead. One with the ambition to shape the global digital economy in the way that Estonia, Israel or Portugal is doing, or one that catches up with the others once the trailblazing is over?

Jamie Greene is a Scottish Conservative MSP and party spokesman on Technology, Connectivity and Digital Economy