10. October 2011 · Comments Off on Who Will Build the UK’s Future Digital Economy? …who ?…WHO ? · Categories: Technology

Imperial CollegeEric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman, visited the UK in August and told us in his MacTaggart lecture that we’re rubbish in the UK. We don’t nurture young talent in technology and we’ve lost our reputation as a nation of innovators.

So a lot of people in the UK seemed to have agreed with what he said and a lot of people (who should know better) seemed to have just ignored it. Going by tonights’s Guardian Tech Weekly talk at Imperial College London, Mr Schmidt seems to be spot on in his assessment.
The talk was chaired by the Guardian’s Aleks Krotoski and featured a discussion with a panel comprising David Willets (Minister of State for Universities and Science),Jeff Magee (Principle of the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College),Dan Crow (CTO of Songkick) and Emma Mulqueeny (Founder of Rewired State and Young Rewired State). It’s the first of a series of talks on the first anniversary of “Tech City” looking at some of the “bigger issues behind the headlines”. Tech City being an inevitably London-thing to create a UK Silicon Valley – be nice if it was a Plymouth-thing,a Glasgow-thing a Middlesborough-thing or, even better, a East Midland Development Agency-thing – ah well. The Panel
So what is the problem ? David Willets summarised it quite neatly by saying that we have “thrown away our great computer heritage”. He went on to add that the ICT curriculum has “drifted to a consumer rather than a creator model”, but he thinks we can turn it around and it’s not a permanent loss, (lets hope he’s right). Aleks Krotoski later followed up with some depressing statistics reflecting the decline in the number of students studying IT-related subjects at all levels.
And what are the consequences ? Pretty alarming according to Dan Crow and Emma Mulqueeny. Dan told us how hard it is to recruit in the UK. Emma told us that it was hard to find to kids who can code because they’re not being taught how to code in schools (which David Willets found shocking) but are teaching themselves. When this young self-taught talent is found, the UK industry isn’t engaging with them, instead they are being snapped up by Silicon Valley.
Dan also went on to point out the difference in attitude in coders from Silicon Valley and the UK; it’s not just about knowing a programming language – it’s about having a entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to change the world. He went on to say that in the UK mediocrity is valued over failure, whereas in Silicon Valley failure is respected as a mark of someone who has actually tried to do something. David Willets added that this is because Silicon valley creates a “low risk environment to do high risk activities”.
There was some discussion on Eric Schmidt’s comments “luvvies and boffins” not mixing. Yeah – there’s probably some truth in this but I reckon this has come on leaps and bounds since I did Computer Studies at Sheffield City Polytechnic.
The talk finished with a Q&A session with the audience. Most of the questions were asked by academics which I couldn’t really follow. Then a guy form a start-up asked “what age should we start teaching kids to code” – good question. Jeff Magee responded with thoughts around when children were able to understand abstraction. Emma Mulqueeny responded with “aged 9″ – good answer.
It was an enjoyable and thought provoking evening. It seemed to be a clear statement of what the problem is and a call-to-action rather than a laying out of what the solution might be – but it’s inspiring to see that there is a growing movement of committed and energetic people who want to take this on. As someone who works in technology, is a school governor and a parent of two ┬áprimary school aged children I left with a slight sense of panic over what we should be doing. Part of the solution seems to be in waiting for the ICT curriculum to sort itself out but in the meantime perhaps we should do what those Silicon Valley dudes do – try some stuff out and not be afraid to fail.

Podcast now available here

Comments closed.