Lord Holmes: Government 'will fail and fast' without an innovative approach towards UK's digital future

Posted On: 
15th November 2017

Conservative peer Lord Holmes writes for PoliticsHome ahead his PQ warning that if the Government approaches the fourth industrial revolution from a siloed, departmental specific perspective we will fail and fast.

Today I am asking the government what cross-Whitehall work they are undertaking to maximize opportunities from the fourth industrial revolution; particularly in terms of digital skills, artificial intelligence, machine learning and distributed ledger technology. 

The question is drafted with deliberate breadth and including a range of technologies.  Though, obviously, a Minister from a particular department, it so happens to be BEIS, is answering, what I want to convey is the cross Whitehall nature of the challenge.  If the Government approaches the opportunities afforded by the fourth industrial revolution from a siloed, departmental specific perspective we will fail and fast.

The 4IR is already well underway and it will make the first industrial revolution sound a mild murmur by comparison. Everyone must grasp, particularly Government, the ‘everythingness’ of this new technology. There is no separate world of digital. It won’t be possible to focus on, for example, health, education or defence and leave others to “do the digital”.  Crucially, the 4IR is inevitable, not optional and whilst I welcome the inclusion of digital in DCMS I seek reassurance that the scale of the challenge and the necessity for a cross-governmental approach is understood and acted upon.

The technology may be complex - who really knows what goes on inside the black box at Deep Mind or appreciates the finer details of the cryptograph hash function of Bitcoin. But this is not about the tech per se it is about the potential, the solutions which can be realized and what will be required from Government, from all of us, for such realization to become reality.

There is understandable anxiety around the pace and scale of change and how it will impact jobs and society. It’s widely reported that, in the UK, 35% of jobs are in danger of automation, with two million new jobs required in ‘digital’ by the end of the decade.  Jobs we barely know the title of yet; “conversation designers”: Hello! What will this mean for social mobility if many of the white collar roles which have traditionally delivered that mobility cease to exist?

What we know is that we don’t know. We don’t know everything that we would like to and this uncertainty leads to much prediction. But we must not be distracted by looking to or making predictions. Government and organizations must move forward, yes, with imperfect knowledge, but making choices, making decisions and taking action.

Digital skills will be critical and our select committee report Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future (2015) made several key recommendations. Skills, particularly all those digital become super significant. For any organization, look farther and look harder for that talent and reimagine what talent is and the beautifully diverse forms it comes in and through this, take the opportunity of the 4IR, to finally break free of our bias, boundaries and beliefs. 

The opportunity is immense, the moment is now; for Government, Parliament, public, private and third sector, let’s collaborate and connect, innovate and empower, include and enable. Everything must be shot through with transparency and trust and through this we can take all the opportunities of the 4IR and bring forth a new renaissance in a brighter Britain of all the talents.