Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founding Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This is the fifth and final article in a series on how the Conservatives must seize the opportunities presented by new technologies transforming our economy and society.
“As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures,” wrote Chinese Emperor Qianlong in a personal letter to King George III in 1793.
Under the Qing Dynasty, China was the world’s largest economy, and had been for much of the past millennia. However, new technologies were emerging in Western Europe that would soon break the link between the productive capacity of an economy and the size of its population.
As an expansionist Britain was looking for new trading partners to fuel her rapid industrial growth, China started to turn in on itself, becoming isolationist and stagnant, unaware that an economic and technological revolution was taking place in Britain. This First Industrial Revolution, as would become known, would radically shift the balance of global power for the next 200 years, at the expense of a once-innovative nation that had invented everything from paper and fireworks to the compass and porcelain.
Now, as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), China has recovered in dramatic style, and is determined not to be left behind. The “Made in China 2025” programme is designed to comprehensively upgrade Chinese industry to harness new technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and 3D printing, whilst President Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” Initiative looks to place China at the centre of a new global trading network.
China views the race for success in the 4IR in global terms, and in Britain we must do the same.
As the 4IR accelerates, we must remember the lessons of the past – early adopters and fast-moving nations will be rewarded, while countries that fall behind will feel the consequences for centuries to come. If you don’t embrace and develop new technologies, somebody else will.
Britain stands at a historic crossroads as it leaves the EU, and now has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-establish itself as a global trading nation. A national effort to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the answer.
When the Prime Minister set out her vision for a “truly Global Britain” at Lancaster House, she was right to identify the importance of strengthening our partnerships around the world. This emphasis on ensuring we remain one of the best places in the world for science and innovation will be crucial if we are to master the 4IR. As the Prime Minister said, “a Global Britain must be a country that looks to the future.” Nothing is more important to Britain’s economic fortunes than leading the 4IR.
We should be proud that Britain is the number one destination in Europe for foreign direct investment (FDI), with £197 billion flowing into the UK in 2016, according to the OECD. This includes important investments from major firms like Apple, planning to build its largest campus outside America in Battersea, and Boeing, building high-tech components for its next generation aircraft in Sheffield.
Global Britain will need to foster more of these relationships. A Brexit deal that gives us maximum freedom to trade with the EU is certainly important, but we must also look outwards to rapidly growing economies around the world. If we are to make a success of Global Britain, and master the Fourth Industrial Revolution, then we must prepare the country to be more competitive and productive – and that means every region, not just London and the South East. That means showing the world that alongside Brexit, we are also laying the groundwork for a Global Britain empowered by optimism, open to talent, and driven by innovation. Alongside its existing work, new Government policies could include:
1. Reforming Local Enterprise Partnerships to help deliver the 4IR in our regions. Only by rapidly adopting 4IR technologies and embedding them into everyday life and across every community and region, will the UK lead the 4IR. LEPs have a key role to play in helping our regions adapt to the 4IR by adopting the 4IR. This could include every LEP being required to come up with a regional Industrial Strategy that sets out how that region will embrace the 4IR at home and promote itself abroad.
The Liverpool City Region 4.0 programme operated by the Liverpool LEP is an example for others to follow. The LCR 4.0 project provides mostly non-financial assistance to manufacturing SMEs wishing to adopt new and emerging technologies to improve their productivity and develop new products and services using 4IR technologies, whilst promoting themselves to overseas investors.
2. Introducing a fast-tracked visa system for high-skilled 4IR workers. Regardless of the particular approach the Government takes to immigration after Britain leaves the EU, we should continue to prioritise science and technology skills for both academia and 4IR start-ups. The Entrepreneur Visa and Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa demonstrate that the need to welcome skilled workers and ambitious businesspeople is well understood in Government. If the 4IR is to be a success for Britain, then we must retain this outward-looking, pro-business approach
3. Incorporating the 4IR into the Government’s hugely successful “Britain is Great” and “Exporting is Great” campaigns. We must ensure that the UK remains a top destination for FDI by promoting Britain as a pro-innovation, pro-enterprise, free market economy with all of the right characteristics to turn futuristic technologies into profitable businesses.
As I’ve argued in each article this week, the Conservative Party must act with urgency to place the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the heart of our economic policy. We must demonstrate that Britain is the best place to invest in new technologies, and make it clear we are serious about leading this Revolution.
We need an optimistic and pro-active response to the challenges and opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Whether by upskilling workers to face the threat of automation, or by encouraging more research and development to foster innovation, the Conservative Party can and should play a leadership role in helping Britain prepare for the changes ahead.
It is impossible to resist the rise of the machines, so we must let them lift us towards a Global Britain that uses the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a springboard to a more productive, outward-looking economy. This will mean new trading opportunities, more jobs, rising living standards, and more money for our public services.
As Emperor Qianlong discovered, the lessons from history are stark. No matter the size of the economy, or the early advantages a country might enjoy, the consequences of inaction or an anti-innovation policy platform are disastrous.
That is the path Jeremy Corbyn will lead us down.
For us Conservatives, we can only be the compelling alternative by leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and harnessing its benefits for the whole country.