Does the word 'digital' have real meaning anymore? Is there a transformation or strategy worth its salt today that doesn't depend on digital tools and skills in some form? This became an emergent, perhaps unintended, theme for the Digital Scotland event on Thursday 21st June 2018 in Glasgow - a sign of a maturing conversation and a sense that there is no change without digital capability.
Hosted in the fantastic Technology & Innovation centre at Strathclyde University, a packed audience were treated to a mixture of big picture vision and pragmatic commercial approaches to enabling change in the public realm. FutureScot's Digital Scotland 2018 followed on from the earlier series of city based Digital Cities events and brought together a national and international perspective on Scotland's digital development.
If the word Digital was raising some questions, the word 'innovation' was also under semantic duress. By creating departments or job titles with the 'I' word we signal it's otherness and seperation from business as usual; whereas innovation is an essential part of business as usual - everyone should be doing it.
It's a seductive but superficial idea - you absolutely have to give innovation space from the day to day to break new ground, otherwise you're locked into a cycle of diminishing incremental improvements. Improvements are good, but innovation it isn't. Which begs the question, what exactly is innovation anyway? This is a dialectic blackhole from which no light ever escapes, so back to Digital Scotland...
The day began with an appeal to make technology that benefits the whole of society. Juxtaposed with recent examples where the internet economy seems to be acting against us, Chris Yiu from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, sought to spell out a new model of how technology could flourish, without leading to winner takes all monopolies and some of the dis-benefits we've seen recently. It was heartening also to see a number of different approaches to client-supplier engagement through the CivTech programme and Digital Services procurement framework - both of which offer a route for small innovative tech companies to access public sector demand for digital tools and capabilities.
Gerard Grech, CEO of TechNation, took us through some stats on Scotland and how its major cities were performing versus the UK and the world. Their excellent survey provides some fascinating insights into regional variations - Glasgow and Edinburgh thrives on access to high quality student populations, but bemoan the lack of digital infrastructure and access to funding, for example. Both cities recorded over 400% increases in start-up activity (not the fastest in the UK), and the digital economy continues to outstrip the economy as a whole in terms of growth. The TechNation report provides a positive picture and outlook for the UK tech-sector, but also cautions over the need to attract and retain talent, provide access to finance and maintain world-class infrastructure.
It's a moot point as to whether we're ready to drop the D word in Scotland. It's easy in a room of tech professionals to feel like everyone 'gets it' - that our digital economy needs to be the engine of the whole economy. Attending one of the infrastructure break-out sessions, I was struck by a panel comment about the cost and lack of investment return for providing high-speed connectivity to rural communities. And yet, some 150-200 years ago we saw fit to invest in railways and roads to provide transport connections to all the towns and cities of the UK. The returns for such investments was not made in 5-10 year cycles, but lifetimes and generations. For Scotland to be a genuine force in the future and global economy we need that boldness of vision to return.