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Russ Shaw

Founder, Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates

Is society at large benefiting from the tech sector’s growth?

Today, London Tech Week returned to the capital. For the sixth time tech leaders joined in celebrating the central role that the sector plays in the British economy, championing the successes that have been enjoyed to date and taking on the challenges that prevail.

This year, the launch event took place at Plexal, in the heart of the Here East campus, where the gauntlet was laid down for the week ahead, and the sector’s biggest names shared their support for the industry industry.

The theme for the day was “inclusive innovation”. Without question Britain has shown an unprecedented capacity to attract investment capital, accelerate innovation and take start-ups through to the scale-up phase – today Tech Nation revealed that the UK has created more tech unicorns in the last 12 months than San Francisco. Yet, the launch of London Tech Week raised the issue to everyone in the room – to what extent is the pace of growth and transformation taking all members of society with it?

Perhaps there is no one better to set the tone for LTW than the person that has resided over the tech sector for the last three years – prime minister Theresa May delivered a powerful speech, committing the government to backing UK tech and placing the digital economy at the heart of the nation’s industrial strategy. While it may be one of her final official acts while holding office, the prime minister’s address today was a welcome acknowledgement that, in the immediate future, the tech community will be at the fore of Britain’s approach to post-Brexit business.

As did many of the tech leaders that took to the stage, the prime minister placed particular emphasis on the relationship that the tech sector has with the rest of society and what the continued expanse of the digital economy means for talent and the future of work. UK industry is welcoming of change and has, for the most part, been open to the ways that technology is going to transform lives, create new means of employment, new jobs and entirely new sectors. Britain can seize these opportunities, but both the private and public sectors must be active in spreading the benefits of growth to every corner of the country and ensure that the changing nature of work represents progress and not just profit.

Alongside the announcements that the prime minister made today to invest more in quantum computing and commission a study to analyse the UK’s global competitiveness, she also asked an important question of those present: “How do we build a country that works for everyone?”

The UK is currently facing a digital skills shortage – while this morning, we praised the innovation that is driving growth, if Britain is to truly become the best place in the world to seed and scale a tech business, to break new ground, to harness the power of technology to meet the needs of our contemporary population – we have to ensure that the digital economy reflects the diversity we find in society. The prime minister was right to caution the continued transformation of our economy if we fail to make progress in building a more inclusive future. Beyond the social and ethical implications, these are untapped pools of exceptional talent that can underpin growth.

The panel discussion I hosted at CogX today – the AI festival spanning 11 stages around King’s Cross – examined the social impact of technology not through the lens of talent, but of environmental impact. The impressive scale of CogX demonstrates the extent to which artificial intelligence could become the dominant technology of the next decade, and could find answers to the major challenges we face around the world. I was inspired to hear representatives from the likes of AXA and PwC talking passionately about their commitment to solving environmental challenges through emerging technologies.

‘Inclusive innovation’ is going to play a big part of London Tech Week – but it must play an even bigger part in London tech’s future and the tenure of the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. As the series of events and announcements build over the next five days, I look forward to the phenomenal showcase of Britain’s best that is LTW but also to the tech ecosystem in helping to answer these questions.

Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates