The UK finds itself at a pivotal moment, awash with competing ideas for what our new global role should be and which direction we should tilt towards.
Leaving the European Union has changed our trading relationships while the pandemic has accelerated the decline of globalisation, prompting a more regional approach that makes countries less vulnerable to global disruption.
But this is no time for us to be Little Britain. We have an opportunity to consolidate old and new relationships around the world and reimagine our international role by leveraging one of our country’s biggest success stories – our tech sector.
UK tech has been maturing for years, and we have relied on it more than ever in the last 12 months to connect communities, power remote work, move lessons online and enable the healthcare sector to collaborate more deeply than ever, just to name a few examples.
UK tech attracted record investment of almost $8bn in the first three months of 2021 and, according to Tech Nation’s latest report, a new tech firm launched every 30 minutes in 2020.
The investors have got it right: tech will lead us out of the pandemic and is becoming ever more central to our lives. Underpinning this is a booming UK cyber security industry that is enabling businesses to undergo digital transformation while mitigating online threats.
And the world is noticing. The UK is already the world’s fifth-largest exporter of digital services, with our tech trade surplus increasing by 68% over the last four years. More than that, our tech sector is already acting as a stimulus for deepening our ties globally. Countries such as Oman, New Zealand, Australia, India and many more are developing their own tech ecosystems and they want to collaborate with the UK.
This desire transcends trade wars or political retreats from globalisation. These countries are more concerned with scooping up the best ideas and technologies, wherever they come from. Meanwhile, British entrepreneurs are hungry to tap into new markets to access investors, talent and buyers.
Business models disrupted
Rows over Huawei and predictions of a splinternet aside, the fact is that governments and organisations across borders are all facing similar challenges: their business models are being disrupted by digital trends and they are trying to understand what emerging technologies such as 5G, quantum computing and far more advanced automation will mean for them.
They are being forced into operating within ecosystems rather than cut across verticals and borders.
At Plexal, we have seen this first-hand through our work with the UK-Oman Digital Hub and the British Embassy in Muscat. We have just wrapped up a cross-border accelerator that paired UK and Omani tech entrepreneurs with startups in Oman to help them use technology to address Covid-19-related challenges.
From digital marketplaces to manage the sale of livestock to online real estate platforms, these Omani companies are open to accessing expertise that they can use to support local needs. This is the opportunity for the UK.
It is also an opportunity for the tech sector, which continues to attract scrutiny and criticism. Medium and Big Tech is emerging from the pandemic financially stronger and in a prime position to benefit from the mass digitisation that has taken place. It must do so responsibly and ethically as we grapple with huge challenges, from climate change and disinformation to inequality.
Tech could even improve the flow of physical goods around the world through smart ports that use data analytics and distributed ledger technology.
The UK doesn’t have all the answers, but with our strong cyber security foundations, initiatives such as the Data Ethics Framework and a booming tech sector, we should be confident about our role on the global stage.