A small group met last week at TramshedTech in Cardiff to discuss opportunities that Brexit might offer for the digital sphere in Wales. This meeting was part of my early work for the Carnegie UK Trust, seeking positives from Brexit and followed on from a similar meeting in London. I set out some ground rules for the discussion – assumption that Brexit was going to happen, seeking positive opportunities, no partisan-ship, no reheating the campaign. The participants threw themselves into the discussion in good faith and some fascinating ideas emerged. I’m organising similar events the North East, Birmingham and Edinburgh. If anyone would like me to do another somewhere else, please get in touch.
Summary notes are below, any errors are mine I have editorialised and re-ordered points made for sense and coherence, drawing together themes across a couple of hours discussion. Views reported here are not Carnegie UK Trust’s nor, necessarily my own nor shared by all participants.
- More than an opportunity, but a necessity in Brexit to set a new modern vision for Wales – moving on from coal, steel, sheep to digital creativity and delivery and a great place to live and work.
- Wales has strong potential in a more internationalist digital world – innate bi-linguality provides simple competitive advantage in developing apps and services for many countries.
- Good companies will just have to get on with post Brexit environment.
- Brexit could clear out a lot of dead wood and stimulate regrowth.
What sort of digital economy does Wales want, what IS the digital economy? Brexit opportunity to move on from steel, coal, sheep etc and recast Wales’ economic image as a digital maker of things. Can it be like similarly-sized Estonia – test bed, giant lab to develop technologies that can provide benefit internationally. Requires political leadership and vision as well as techs doing the work.
Prevalent bilingualism is an economic USP for Wales in UK. Enable easy thinking in multiple languages – ideal for more outward facing global word in other language groups. Bi-linguality is hard to quantify, but is a clear differentiator.
Hope future is more about open intellectual property, particularly where public sector has had a hand in creating that IP. More open licensing for more people to exploit IP as a public good.
Wales has substantial quantity of public service media created with public money – how can this be opened up for exploitation culturally, economically etc – not necessarily full access, but clips etc? Current baseline is: no access to anything in public service content archives in Wales (and UK). See Tony Ageh Royal Holloway lecture.
In 5 years – likelihood still small ‘c’ conservative government in Wales and London making state smaller, shrinking it. Pressure will still be on saving money – using tech as a positive to deliver that saving in public service budgets by using money more effectively.
As government expenditure and structure shrinks, Wales has to become more attractive to business to maintain prosperity.
Vital to educate workforce with digital skills. Donaldson review of curriculum in Wales – includes digital literacy from 2018.
Wales has high quality of life for creatives – digital startups even appearing in still deprived post industrial areas.
What can Wales learn from digital incubator/accelerator models – e.g. Idiap Institute innovation work in Lausanne (outside EU) with close relationship with local canton.
Are there lessons from the Basque country – where government is investing in r&d and maintained its manufacturing base, despite it being unprofitable for years. Similarly Catalonia, where ‘being different’ is part of their USP and has helped with investment etc.
There is no alternative – Wales has to be different in five years, lagging economically anyway
Brexit will bring more niche opportunities – things developing quickly. Many small businesses need some help forging intl. links in new environment – need something specific to support them – trade missions etc
Existing trade missions are a bit too sectoral – TV film etc well understood, but govt. doesn’t get their head around the digital space.
Overall, if you are doing something world-beating in digital then Brexit doesn’t matter. But most businesses (by definition) won’t be. What do they do? Digital industries are strongly global, not just EU. As the world gets even smaller those with a nimble, outward looking mindset will do best.
Product design has to be international anyway – in digital world can’t design stuff just for the EU. It’s almost a given that digital products have to be exportable and easily translatable. But regulatory issues can affect consumption – eg some large companies are switching from web services storing lots of personal data outside the EU, to in-EU storage for more certain data compliance. However, even if data is required to be stored in the EU post Brexit, then you just pay a bit more to have it in France, say.
Whilst Wales has data centres, they can’t compete with AWS etc. But, for outward facing businesses, if they have to pay a little more for web service products due to tariff or currency barriers it might not make that much difference. Many issues don’t hit until scale – work globally – take on minor costs incurred to be a global player.
Could Wales/the UK become a sort of good data haven – super secure, super well regulated.
Being forced into thinking differently by disruptive change is a good thing.
What are the relevant skills to imbue into young people at school now who will leave school the year the UK Brexits – what digital skills (and others) will they need for that new environment?
Impact on Higher Education – r&d has been collaborative across the EU. Brexit will make this harder. What will replace Horizon 2020? Is it possible to have a new post Brexit research programme more attuned to UK priorities than EU ones?
Access to capital – it’s possible that capital could be tough to find for a while around the time of Brexit, would make market less egalitarian (it’s strikingly egalitarian now). For people building the best things, money will still find them the second tier will be less likely to access capital.
Some EU funding has been too easily accessible to people who can fill in bid responses in right way and use appropriate black magic. When that dries up, will see impact on middle range companies used to playing this system.
Sometimes you need a fire in the forest to clear out the undergrowth, weaker plants etc – Brexit could do that.
National vision – Trump sold something people wanted – problems with politics in the UK – where is there a more social vision about what life would be like after Brexit (not just economy)?
Lack of media plurality an issue – need many voices to reflect the turbulence back and help understand it – declining media in Wales under-serves this.
Five year vision?
In five years, Wales has more faith in itself, standing up as a proud digital nation. Wales that is confident to take on the world – look internationally, not across the bridge. A global outlook, while being conscious of who we are. Politicians should deliver the positive side of nationalism. Global opportunities are there.
Brexit was vote for change – want to be able to make own decisions in Wales for outcomes that are more relevant to us and be responsible for it, not blaming others when it goes wrong.
Ask a bigger question than five years – Going much further – in 2050 – what will we look back on in shame about what we are doing today? Waste, pollution, eating meat?
If the rules have been slowing us down, now is the opportunity to try more innovation. Innovation in fact is more than an opportunity it is a necessity for the future of Wales. But not just tech innovation, social innovation too. We’ll die without innovation.
Don’t see Brexit having much impact. Impact on the short term could be beneficial if we frame Wales in the right place – competing internationally, from Wales.