Scotland as a global tech hub of the future

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 31 December 2017 in Inside Politics

Some of the top minds in Scottish business, government and academia gather in Edinburgh to discuss Scotland’s potential as a tech hub of the future

Image credit: Pixababy

Anyone who watches science-fiction will tell you that technology can be scary but thankfully, most of these movies are fantasy.

However, Scotland is in the grip of its own science-fact nightmare. In 2018, the technological threats are not killer robots, radioactive lizards and half-insect hybrids, but ideological politicians, monopolistic conglomerates, luddite managers, unequipped teachers, and a collective lack of national self-belief.

“We’ve got a real crisis in teaching in schools with 15 per cent fewer computer science teachers now than we did 15 years ago – that’s really scary,” warns tech entrepreneur Ian Ritchie.

Some of the top minds in Scottish business, government and academia gathered in Edinburgh to discuss Scotland’s potential as a tech hub of the future, at a seminar sponsored by Holyrood and tech firm Leidos, and a sobering consensus emerged that they probably don’t have all the answers. 

 

The next generation are streets ahead in cutting-edge science, innovation and ambition.

The best the pioneers of the past can do is nurture them, get out of their way if necessary, and, most importantly, provide them with the best accommodation and facilities to persuade them to stay and lead Scotland’s tech revolution, rather than become a cog in the wheel at Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

Unfortunately, Scotland is failing on most of these counts. Its schools can’t recruit enough science teachers, there are few managerial positions, and while there are some top-class universities, a sizeable proportion of places are taken up by foreign students whose job prospects in Scotland are looking increasingly grim, thanks to Brexit.

But, intriguingly, some experts believe Brexit could also bring opportunities for Scotland’s tech sector if everything goes to plan, although they emphasise that it remains a big ‘if’ while UK ministers remain locked in tense negotiations.

Charlie Smith, director of marketing at Visit Scotland, said: “I am a bit more optimistic about what powers will be repatriated, especially when it comes to migration. I think it will be in a much better place than it is, I think there is a good chance.

“But I guess the necessity now is to make Scotland a more attractive destination for the kind of talent that we are talking about.”

Ritchie also warns of a “threat to skills from immigration” but sounds a cautious note of optimism if the UK Government can deliver its promised improvements.

He said: “Number 10 and BIS are making noises about a much improved visa system so that it should be easy to get really high skilled people into the country. If that happens that will be great but we will have to see.

“We recruit very easily at the moment from places like Barcelona and Prague, where there is great talent but not as good an economy as we have. Obviously, Brexit puts that under threat.

“There used to be a post-study visa in Scotland, so that when we bring in these international students and train them so well in our world-class universities, and we create this fantastic talent, we then tell them to bugger off.

“The post-study visa allowed them to stick around for two years so they could find a job, but that was cancelled summarily by the Cameron coalition government in 2012 and is not being replaced.”

Alan Alexander, general secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, believes immigration curbs will inhibit Scottish tech development.

“The end of the post-study visa is probably the daftest decision that any government has ever made,” he said.

Tommy Laughlin, public sector liaison at digital technology trade association ScotlandIS, said: “We are about to potentially lose a significant source of relatively easy to acquire skills if we end up leaving Europe, and I think that needs to be seriously addressed.

“There is an argument that says you can put a visa system in place that will encourage people, or not discourage people to come in, but actually, people will take the easy decision, and if it's an easy decision to go to Ireland, or Holland, or some other place rather than the UK, or Scotland specifically, that is the one they will take.”

Dr Craig MacDonald, of the Glasgow University School of Computing Science, said: “Around a third of our students are here because they are getting a free education, because they’re from other parts of Europe.

“It’s a huge risk and it keeps our head of school up at night, so we need to look at our local skills base from nursery through to digital pathways.”

He added: “The EU education market has had a dramatic influence on the proportion of our students. In computing science, 34 per cent of our students are from other parts of the EU, compared to 13 per cent in the University of Glasgow as a whole. My impression is that half of those other EU students will stay in Scotland, to be employed in Scotland.

“In the last three leavers’ surveys, 72 per cent of our leavers were employed in Scotland and 19 per cent went to other parts of the UK.”

Science, technology, engineering and maths graduates are the kind of workers the UK Government wants to attract, but they are also in high demand in the tech capitals of the world.

Scotland can’t even keep hold of some of its own home-grown entrepreneurs, with the most promising start-ups assimilated by Silicone Valley.

Ritchie said: “Tech businesses tend to grow and then get bought, which is natural, but unfortunately, they get bought by the five biggest companies in the world: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

“You never hear about it, but there are about four or five companies in Edinburgh in the last year to 18 months that have been bought by Facebook and Apple.

“They keep the companies they buy absolutely secret, and when they do buy them, they’re often buying the skills and the people. That is a big problem as we tend to lose our talented people.”

If Scotland is going to become a tech hub of the future, it’s going to have to retain its home-grown talent by offering a more rewarding life.

Ritchie said: “By and large, a lot of graduates go to London, and after 10 years they’re living somewhere like High Wycombe, commuting every day and it’s not a pleasant life. But they’ve got great management experience and they would love to come back to Scotland, and we desperately need the managers.”

Alexander Holt, head of CivTech at the Scottish Government, said: “A report from Stack Overflow found Edinburgh is a far nicer place for developers to move here, largely to do with the cost of living and the opportunities.

“That is something that people like Business Scotland or Scottish Enterprise should be putting out, it’s a very powerful message.”

Alex Salmond was fond of describing Scotland as a nimble speedboat with the ability to outmanoeuvre the supertankers of America, India and China. Scotland’s finance secretaries boast that at a time of crisis, they can have everyone they need in one room within 12 hours – a feat large economies cannot match. 

Scotland’s technology sector also has these strengths, as a delegation from South Korea discovered in December when the Scottish Cities Alliance took them on a tour of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee.

Ritchie Somerville, innovation advisor at Edinburgh University, said: “They were blown away by the collaborative intent between the public sector, industry and the academic sector.

“The ability to get leading industry, academic and public-sector people in the room to have a conversation would be almost impossible, they said.

“We clearly have opportunities, but we probably are a bit less gallus about it than we should be.”

There was unanimous agreement that Scotland isn’t “gallus” enough about its own achievements.

Smith said: “We need to think: what is the Scottish way of doing this? 

“We always think small but we have the most phenomenal people, their talent is nuts, so we need to put ourselves on a pedestal and say: ‘We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years and we’re still doing it.’

“With the right people on the right platform saying that, you will sound different.

“When we’re in New York, or wherever, we need to say: ‘Not only do we have better places to live – we innovate for the benefit of humanity and not to detract from it.’”

He added: “We need to behave like New Zealand, we need to behave like the small economies that have similar structural challenges, come together, strip out the bureaucracy and go out there and turn people’s heads. There’s a lot of smaller nations doing things that we can learn from.”

Trish Quinn, Ireland-born head of digital business models at the Scottish Government, said: “Irish people have no problem telling you how great Ireland is – even when it’s not. There is a sort of attitude of apology here, and I don’t get it.”

Charles Keegan, innovation director at Registers of Scotland, said: “Some of the real problems in the society that I grew up in was the lack of confidence, people saying: ‘You’re thinking above yourself.’

“We just have to get rid of all of that language and think more like our Celtic cousins.”

Scotland does have much to boast about, says Ritchie.

“Edinburgh University informatics is the biggest in Europe. The next biggest are Manchester, Cambridge, and Southampton, and Edinburgh is bigger than all three of them combined so that gives you the idea of its scale, with well over 500 researchers.”

He added: “The camera in most mobile phones is almost certainly a derivative CMOS chip invented at Edinburgh University, and the audio chip is almost certainly a derivative of the Wolfson Microelectronics audio chip.

“So the eyes and ears of these phones were developed at Edinburgh University very recently, but unfortunately, we sold those companies.”

David Smith, director of technology & engineering at Scottish Enterprise, said: “We are the number one region in the UK, outside of London, for foreign direct investment.

“A recent Open Data Institute digital capital survey identified Edinburgh as the number one tech innovation city outside of London, and Glasgow was just a few places behind. Edinburgh University has just had its biggest ever private donation of £10 million.”

However, there aren’t enough aspiring young minds coming through to sustain and grow the sector.

Brendan Turley, general counsel at Leidos UK & Europe, offered a personal insight to the issue when he said: “My daughter is in her first year and Edinburgh University doing maths, and interestingly every teacher said to her: ‘So, are you going to be a maths teacher?’

“But there’s computer science, while everything we touch and use have maths in it. It’s actually the teachers you have to talk to. Maths and physics open up the future.”

Ritchie agreed and said: “ScotlandIS estimates that we need about 10-12,000 new people a year in the digital sector in Scotland, but if you look at the number of kids graduating with a degree in computer sciences, it’s actually around 3,000 a year.

“Of course, a lot of those students are international students and they’ve got to go back, so the gap is enormous…we’re well, well short.

“Half the schools in Dumfries and Galloway can’t present for computer science, 35 per cent in Glasgow can’t present for computer science.

“That is very, very worrying. You need to get kids excited in school.”

Ian Ritchie called for a sea change in teacher training to employ more experienced industry experts.

“The reason that there is 15 per cent fewer computer science teachers is because headmasters can’t hire them,” he said.

“One of the problems here is that teaching requires you to have an appropriate degree. I know a woman who has spent the last 15 years at Oracle and she decided to become a teacher.

“But in order for her to teach, she had to get a computer science qualification and then do teacher training, so that is three years out of your life and when you’re in your 50s, you’re not going to do that.”

Turley, added that some modern apprentices are better than university graduates.

“There is an enthusiasm there,” he said. “They’re very young, but they’ve been working for a few years and they’ve decided this is what they want.

“A lot of the young people we’ve brought in on the Modern Apprenticeship scheme see computing almost like an engineering skill – when they’re programming, they’re ‘on the tools’.”

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