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Why Politicians Need to Get Tech-Savvy, or Get Left Behind

July 4, 2014 8:36 PM
By Tim Farron MP - President of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Huffington Post
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Tim FarronIdeas have legs, and the internet makes them walk. But government needs to help them run.

I'm not fussy about where good ideas come from - if it's a good idea, it's a good idea - and letting political dogma, fear or ignorance blind you to fresh thought is a particularly frustrating kind of politics which risks leaving Britain behind.

So while catching up with the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, my ears pricked up during a talk by Joanna Shields, Digital Advisor to the Prime Minister. We live in a world where a three year old can be more comfortable with an iPad than a fifty year old. Technology is improving in leaps and bounds but policy makers rarely keep up with it. Legislation is sluggish, policy passes its sell by date and governments can be slow to engage with new success stories.

And as Joanna outlined, the technology sector here, in London and the South East, is growing faster than in San Francisco and Silicon Valley! The statistics are amazing. Over the past three years tech and digital businesses have contributed 27% of all the new jobs in London.

To many people, especially in the North, London is just seen as service jobs and The City. Yet it's the small tech start-ups that are fuelling our economy - bright graduates starting out on their own and taking a chance. So a government that doesn't support their entrepreneurship is an anachronism - living in the past, ignoring lifeline of today's innovation and dulling Britain's competitive edge in the process.

There is a very real risk that policymakers ignore the tech sector because they don't understand it or because they are scared of not looking like an expert. I think this blind spot is also linked to overly managerial politic: politics that responds more to polls than to fresh opportunities, that listens to focus groups in order to invent new ways of saying the same thing, rather than engaging dynamically with the new innovations emerging.

According to Policy Exchange's Technology Manifesto, the internet economy will account for more than 12% of UK GDP by 2016. Britain already has an online retail trade surplus of $1 billion - more than the USA and Germany combined. At the same time, we face an aging society, unprecedented population growth, a shifting and insecure geo-political landscape and the aftermath of the biggest financial shock since the Great Depression. If we are to defy Malthusian propositions of doom, we must take this sector seriously.

That's why over the last 18 months I have paid particular attention to the opportunities that technology and the tech sector could offer the economy, and its transformative power to change how we deliver public services for the better. The challenge, I see, is for policy makers to keep up with this fast changing market and technology. The web crosses borders and changes quicker than legislative frameworks and regulations can cope. I have always believed that the internet is a force for good and liberty. Technology like twitter, facebook, ebay and email are not peripheral to our lives - technology now is a key component. With the internet mainstreamed into our lives, it seems bizarre that we shouldn't mainstream it into our policy thinking.

We need to nurture the Tech Sector and build it for the future - embedding IT skills within the curriculum even more, helping people feel happier using the web by creating a Digital Bill of Rights, stabilising and protecting the internet as a force for good and for liberty and making sure no one gets left out of the digital leap. If we want a stronger economy and a fairer society, we must get tech savvy.

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