Comment: Adapting to digital technology is one of the policy challenges of our age

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Lenin, of course, was speaking about the Russian revolution, but it might be equally applicable to the rapid adoption of digital technology that has occurred in Scotland over the last few months as a bulwark against the pandemic.

Scotland's technological revolution has finally begun. Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Scotland's technological revolution has finally begun. Picture: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Our technological revolution has, finally, begun. And at this year’s Digital Scotland Conference, held for the first time in its four years online, this sense of urgency was everywhere. Attendee numbers more than tripled from 400 in 2019 to, according to EICC stats, 1,359 this year.

Kate Forbes, now elevated to Cabinet Secretary for Finance in addition to her responsibilities for digital, put it succinctly. “It’s widely agreed that we’ve seen digital technology progress in the public sector at a pace that previously would have taken years. And that acceleration in digitisation is absolute key to our economic recovery.”

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And Colin Cook who delivered the Government keynote which opened the conference warned against the dangers of a return to collective apathy in the future and, “that we learn the lessons of the past and in particular the lessons of the last few months. And together we identify and commit ourselves to a programme of change equal and commensurate to the level of social and economic shock that we are all experiencing”. And that we don’t, “miss an historic opportunity to transform the way in which we serve the people and businesses of Scotland”.

Front and centre at this year’s conference were two reports. Blue prints for our recovery and transformation over the next decade: green, tech-led and inclusive. A consultation document on the updated Digital Strategy from 2017. As Cook stated, “the context in which the digital strategy is delivered has changed”. Not just Covid but the added pressure point of Brexit uncertainty.

And Mark Logan’s transformative Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review, which has had unanimous support across the public and private sector. The Government will be adopting all the recommendations in the report. And, it seems, putting their money where their mouth is. Investing £4 million in a Nationwide Tech Scaler Network with the aim to support 300-500 companies by the end of 2021/22.

An ecosystem fund and increased funding for Scotland’s Data Lab to the tune of £1m. Investment in a transitional training fund to help those most affected by the pandemic with the digital skills needed to move them into employment in a digital role. Added to this, there is £10m to help an additional 2,000 small and medium sized enterprises “reap the benefits of investment in digital” And £2 billion over ten years to Scotland’s newly minted Investment Bank, to make investments in the critical infrastructure required for this change.

The elephant in the “digital” room is, of course, Scotland’s limited devolved powers and the constraints on borrowing. Forbes has been making the case for increasing this cap, alluded to, tongue in cheek, by Kim McAllister, the conference chair, when she conveyed an apology for Forbes’ keynote speech having been pre-recorded. As “apparently someone called Rishi Sunak wanted to speak to her!”

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