Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founding Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is the second article in a five-piece series on how the Conservatives must seize the opportunities presented by new technologies transforming our economy and society.
A self-driving electric vehicle delivers a just-in-time supply of raw materials to an automated production line, before collecting an outgoing shipment of goods for delivery around the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine or another part of the country. Inside the factory, a sensor detects a faulty piece of equipment by comparing the physical device to its digital history, and the artificial intelligence-powered supercomputer that monitors the building immediately contacts a human engineer to fix the problem.
This scenario sounds like science fiction, but it’s only around a decade away.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the key economic and political issue of our time. And it will be built around stories like this: humans empowered by machines, and businesses harnessing Big Data, automation and AI to create new revenue streams, develop new products, raise productivity, and drive down costs. Our Conservative vision for this dramatic economic transformation must be focused on advocacy for the positives of innovation as a means to greater national prosperity.
However, if we are to master the 4IR and harness its potential to turbo charge our economy as we leave the EU, we must make Britain more competitive. In particular, we must boost productivity, which has for too long lagged behind our competitors. The global race for success in the 4IR is already underway, and other countries are not waiting for us to complete Brexit. They are investing in future technologies now – and so should we. It’s time to move the 4IR from the margins political discourse to the mainstream.
We must put it centre stage in our economic thinking, too. The Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper has already set out strong foundations for a post-Brexit economy fuelled by regional growth, improved productivity, and rising skill levels. However, to secure our prosperity after Brexit Britain needs to lead the 4IR, not just be shaped by it. With the Autumn Budget and Industrial Strategy White Paper launch both taking place in coming months, the Government should focus its efforts in following key areas: investing in key technologies, and changing our regulatory mindset.
Investment in Research & Development and key technologies
A new 4IR Emerging Technologies Investment Fund should be launched to help our entrepreneurs develop and commercialise new inventions. It would use public funds already allocated in the National Productivity Investment Fund and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to attract further private-sector co-investment, creating a growing pool of capital to support our technology businesses.
By supporting the growth of 4IR businesses, the Fund will help entrepreneurs create new jobs. A similar fund created under Boris Johnson as London Mayor has worked successfully with £14 million of City Hall seed funding used to attract an additional £64 million of private co-investment. This model should be replicated nationally.
There is a widely-recognised link between R&D investment and productivity increases – and an emerging consensus amongst business groups like the CBI that Britain needs to invest more this area. In 2015, total UK R&D expenditure was £31.6 billion (or 1.68 per cent of GDP, of which 0.5 per cent came from public sources). In contrast, the OECD average is 2.4 per cent of GDP, with global innovation leaders such as South Korea spending more than three per cent. Most of the UK shortfall is in private sector investment. The Government should work with business to develop a RoadMap for increasing national R&D investment to three per cent of GDP by 2030, and commit to increasing the state’s share to the OECD average of 0.7 per cent by 2027. This would allow us to keep up with our competitors, but on a fiscally responsible timetable. It would allow the Conservatives to demonstrate political leadership on this issue – Labour committed to reaching three per cent by 2030 in June’s election – making clear that Government cannot solve this challenge alone. The private sector needs to step up and play its part.
Establishing a new National Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics would focus the efforts of industry, investors, academia and government on the two most impactful, cross-sector, enabling technologies of the 4IR. They are complementary technologies, and will be prominent in every business and sector in the future, so Britain must lead the world in these two areas. A National Institute will help us achieve this goal.
The National Institute would take the form of a physical innovation cluster focused around a Catapult Centre-style hub for late-stage R&D collaboration and commercialised research, co-locating academia and industry to work on projects in AI and AI-operated robotics. This would provide a focal point for the UK’s AI and robotics ecosystem to attract further investment in the same way that the City of London has for centuries acted as the focal point for finance.
Changing our mindset: a new British Innovation Principle
As we leave the EU, we should establish a new British Innovation Principle in UK law to provide a pro-innovation counter-balance to the EU’s overly risk-averse Precautionary Principle. Enshrined in Lisbon Treaty, the Precautionary Principle can unreasonably burden innovators with having to prove the absence of danger regarding a particular product, service, or procedure. It does not require regulators to weigh potential risks against the potential benefits that society might enjoy from technological development, and often constrains R&D.
This means Britain is currently subject to a lop-sided risk assessment process, which is expected to be replicated into UK law after we leave by our Brexit legislation. We can re-balance this with a new British Innovation Principle sitting alongside – rather than replacing – the Precautionary Principle. This will ensure our competitiveness outside the EU is no longer constrained whilst signalling that Britain is not abandoning health and safety standards.
The Innovation Principle would place a statutory duty on all public-sector bodies to ensure that, whenever policy or regulatory decisions are under consideration, the impact on innovation as a driver for jobs and growth is assessed alongside any potential risks from technological development.
Reviewing our education and training systems so they prepare our workers for the 4IR, and reforming our Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to help our regions adapt to the 4IR, are both also key and will be covered more extensively later in the week.
What’s clear is that embracing and leading the 4IR can make Britain more competitive globally, boost economic growth, and turbo-charge our post-Brexit economy. Doing so is vital politically: Conservatives only win elections when voters believe we have a credible long-term plan for the economy.
Whilst Jeremy Corbyn plots nationalisation and taxing robots, we must plan for productivity. By invest in the 4IR we give Britain the best chance of economic success in the future, harnessing the benefits of technology to create rising living standards, new jobs in new industries, and wealth to pay for public services. All are key to victory in future elections.