Digital Britain: the Cameron edition

The Digital Economy Bill would have been an ideal way for the Tories to differ from Labour; instead, Conservative peers have helped make a bad bill even worse.

Understanding the Conservative technology manifesto means picking your way through the document using it as a companion piece to James Dyson’s report “Ingenious Britain: Making the UK the leading high tech exporter in Europe”. Dyson’s report echoes themes that he has discussed in public for a number of years, notably his Richard Dimbleby lecture in 2004, when he said:

Education, investment and research & development are key to the UK’s long-term success;

• The UK needs to develop a culture more friendly to engineers and scientists; and

Innovation and investors need to be encouraged.

The Conservative manifesto takes this standpoint, alongside movements like The Guardian’s “Free Our Data” campaign as its starting point.

So, What are the good points?

• The Conservatives have borrowed heavily from the Obama administration’s ideas of open government which should ensure better transparency and more opportunities for medium-sized enterprises;

• A commitment to science in education including the use of academies to promote high-quality vocational education; and

• A commitment to smart meter technology and alternative energy sources to help provide the UK’s energy security

However, after years in formulation of its thinking around a technology strategy the manifesto seems to miss out in a number of areas:

• The Digital Economy Bill would have been an ideal way for the Conservative party to clearly differentiate itself from the current Labour government; instead, Conservative peers have helped make a bad bill even worse. The transparent nature of lobbying listed in their manifesto would have highlighted the powerful role that vested organisations like the BPI have had in developing the legislation.

• Whilst the document talks about consumers rights to their credit card information, they have not said anything about their position on consumer privacy and data protection.

More clarity is needed on the claims:

• The Conservative manifesto claims that it will roll out 100mbps broadband 50 times faster than Labour and will be the first country in Europe to do so. Given the advanced plans in countries like Scandinavia that is a bold claim, the document doesn’t cover in detail how this will be achieved.

• The manifesto talks about being committed to open standards in IT, but it would be good to get a better understanding of what this means as it can be a broad church. Ideally, this would include a commitment to open source software, creative commons licences and the support of platforms beyond Microsoft software.

Finally, what additional items should the manifesto have drawn on?

Fostering a culture of innovation like that in Silicon Valley requires a number of different elements. Research by leading thinkers in the area like Richard Florida, who show that innovation clusters are due to a complex series of factors including low crime rates, a cosmopolitan and liberal social environment, good research education establishments, opportunties to collaborate and share knowledge, strong regional banks and financial institutions and a culture accepting of failure – all of which are much wider than the current document.

Contrast this with the experience of entrepreneurs like James Dyson and Ewan McLeod who have struggled to secure adequate financing in Britain because of the risk-averse profile of the UK venture capital industry in comparison with their Asian and US counterparts.

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