Secretary of State speech to London Tech Week
Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, Chloe Smith, gave the opening speech at London Tech Week today (14 June 2023)
Thank you for that warm introduction, Alex [Webb].
And a big thanks to London Tech Week, not just for inviting me to join you today, but for hosting another outstanding event.
One that’s convened the best and brightest of the global tech sector, that’s showcased the very cutting-edge of British innovation, design and technology, and that’s brought together many of the world’s greatest thinkers to debate some of the most pressing questions of our digital age.
Founders Forum, Informa, London & Partners and Tech London Advocates all deserve credit for ensuring that this London Tech Week, now in its tenth year, has sent the strongest of signals - that when it comes to tech, the UK is fully open for business.
I’ve certainly seen that first-hand in the events I’ve been part of this week.
Whether it’s the relaunch of Silicon Valley Bank UK as HSBC Innovation Banking and the multi-million-pound investment it’s feeding into our home-grown Fintech, Life Sciences and Consumer businesses so they can scale up and grow.
Or in our announcement of a new MoU between Australia and the UK on diversifying telecoms. An agreement that will boost the roll out of more 5g networks and safe, secure, superfast broadband to communities even in the most far-flung of communities.
This week saw the announcement of our Smart Infrastructure Pilots Programme, helping councils in different parts of the country test new smart lamp posts that extend mobile coverage and increase connectivity for more homes and businesses than ever before.
My colleague Oliver Dowden and I also hosted over 80 Indo-Pacific business leaders from unicorns and scale-ups at the London Stock Exchange for the market close earlier this week. An invaluable opportunity to strengthen a long-standing trading relationship worth over 250 billion dollars and growing.
The UK Tech Sector’s Success
Everyone here knows that in recent years, the UK has become one of the most competitive countries in the world for tech.
We have the largest tech sector in Europe and the third largest in the world behind the US and China.
Last year, we became just the third country to date with a tech sector valued at $1trillion.
And it’s fair to say that when it comes to AI, Fintech and Bio-tech, the UK is consistently punching well above its weight, having created more billion dollar ‘Unicorn’ tech start-ups than Germany, France and Sweden combined.
Our unique combination of world class talent, R&D capability, and pro-enterprise regulation means the UK is the best place anywhere in the world in which to start and grow a tech business.
Growing the economy
It’s these businesses which are making people’s lives better, spurring growth and creating employment opportunities that will unlock the full potential of communities right across the UK.
Businesses such as Darktrace, who are using artificial intelligence to protect people against even the most sophisticated cyber-attacks…
Companies like Quantinuum, who are harnessing the immense power of quantum technologies to build machines that eclipse conventional computers.
Or semiconductor and software designers like Arm, in Cambridge. Pioneers in modern engineering and machine learning, whose CPUs are used in virtually all modern smartphones.
So, we’ve come a long way together.
But the Government is not complacent about what’s required to maintain the UK’s pole position in the global tech race.
We know that there has to be a steady pipeline of investment over the coming years and that’s exactly what we’re providing.
With £370 million of funding going towards five transformative technologies that are front and centre of the 21st century tech revolution: Quantum, AI, Bioengineering, Telecoms and Semiconductors.
Investment that will bring profound benefits to our society in converting household waste into biofuels, in developing the next generation of green, self-driving cars and enhancing road safety, in new gene editing technologies to personalise medicine and support the early detection of diseases.
Start-up businesses are being supported too through our £12 million Digital Growth Grant -run through Barclays Eagle Labs.
Funding for specialised support to accelerate the growth of at least 22,000 UK tech startups through mentoring sessions, market research and insights, and guidance for budding tech entrepreneurs.
We’re also fulfilling our commitment to spend £20 billion per annum in R&D by 2024/25 – with every £1 of public expenditure leveraging double the amount of private investment.
And we’re keeping our promise to level up all parts of our United Kingdom by increasing public investment outside the greater South East by over a third. It means that cities like Newcastle which are hotbeds for tech start-ups right now can share in the UK’s success too.
But you and I know that investment alone, however great, is no guarantee of success.
That’s why, back in March, my department’s published its Science and Technology Framework - a bold 10-point plan to keep the UK at the forefront of global science and technology this decade.
It’s a framework to ensure that researchers have access to the best physical and digital infrastructure that we leverage our post-Brexit freedoms to pursue pro-business regulation.
And that we continue to showcase the UK’s towering science and tech strengths both here at home and abroad.
It’s a Framework which recognises that innovation and technology are our future and are key to unlocking our long-term prosperity.
We recognise, too, that in order for the UK to stay ahead of the pack, we need to develop a whole tech ‘ecosystem’ supported by smarter regulation, a greater focus on skills and training, and long-term industry-backed strategies.
And I’m going to say more about what those ambitions look like in turn.
When it comes to the regulatory environment, we said from the get-go that we wanted to make the UK a competitive, fair and open market for the tech industry.
And we believe our Digital Markets Competition and Consumers Bill is helping us make that vision a reality by creating a more dynamic digital economy.
It will ensure that businesses which rely on the biggest, most powerful tech firms, including the news publishing sector, are treated justly and aren’t strong armed with unfair terms and unfair contracts.
Smaller digital firms will also find it much easier to enter new markets, without being crowded out by the biggest firms.
And we’ve taken a similar, common-sense approach to the regulation of Artificial Intelligence.
Countries all over the world are thinking long and hard about how they should prepare for a technological change so fast and so significant that it could redefine the way we work and live our lives.
In contemplating AI, we’ve always said that governments must play their part to ensure the guard rails are there for this technology to develop in a safe, transparent and fair way.
And here in the UK, as the Prime Minister rightly asserted at the beginning of this week, our strategy on AI is to lead at home; to lead overseas; and to lead change in our public services as well.
We’ve committed to holding the first major global summit on AI safety this Autumn to develop an international framework. It will help ensure this technology develops in a reliable, safe and secure way.
That’s complemented by £100 million of start-up funding for our new Foundation Model Taskforce which the Prime Minister announced earlier this year. A taskforce responsible for accelerating the UK’s capability in rapidly emerging types of artificial intelligence so that we remain globally competitive.
We’ve published our AI White Paper showing how we intend to identify and address risks but also create a regulatory environment which fosters innovation and growth.
Instead of targeting specific technologies, it focuses on the context in which AI is deployed and enables us to take a balanced approach.
We recognise that using a chatbot, for example, to summarise a long article presents very different risks to using the same technology to provide medical advice. The rules governing one will be markedly different to the other.
And this flexibility runs throughout our White Paper with a commitment to work in close partnership with regulators and business on sensible, pragmatic rules.
Indeed, there’s still time for businesses and the public to join the debate on how we should best set the rules for regulating AI.
Our consultation closes [next Wednesday] and I would encourage anyone with an interest in helping us shape the regulatory environment for this technology to submit their responses.
Skills and talent
So, creating the right conditions for our tech industry to freely innovate is vital.
But so is ensuring the sector has access to the right talent and skills.
I want the next generation to be equipped with everything they need to compete and thrive in the global economy.
That’s one of the reasons why we set up the Digital Skills Council last year, to consult the views of industry leaders. And to encourage investment in employer-led initiatives focused on upskilling and digital apprenticeships.
That’s accompanied by a £30 million package to support a new generation of AI talent through scholarships, each worth £10,000 so that more young people can become masters in the technologies of tomorrow.
This funding supports conversion courses for a diverse group of non-STEM students, allowing them to gain an MA in Artificial Intelligence and data science.
And that’s not the only way we’re driving forward big improvements in hands-on training and education.
Building on the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier this week of two new Turing AI World Leading Fellowships, my department is today announcing a £50 million package with UK Research and Innovation – funding for 42 new projects to explore the acceleration of responsible AI and machine learning.
We’re backing a consortium led by the University of Southampton, spanning the whole of the UK, to create an international research and innovation ecosystem for responsible and trustworthy AI.
And finally, we’re green-lighting a whole host of new UKRI projects for AI technologies that will help us reach our ambitious net zero targets.
Projects to help decarbonise our transport systems, integrating renewable energy sources like wind power to make our farms and our rural communities more self-sufficient and kinder to the environment.
Projects that will see a massive acceleration of energy efficient CO2 capture, especially in our new freeports and green freeports on the Scottish coast.
And projects that will develop AI solutions to improve our country’s resilience against flooding and severe weather, all while hastening our journey to Net Zero.
Research Ventures Catalyst
We want to continue diversifying how cutting-edge science is funded too.
With that in mind, I am delighted to announce that my department will shortly launch an open call for proposals to pilot new collaborative approaches for performing science in the UK.
Backed by up to £50 million of government funding to drive investment and partnership with industry and the third sector, we want to catalyse new ideas and new ways of working with the potential to deliver transformational breakthroughs.
We want to fund ideas that aren’t being adequately addressed elsewhere in the UK research landscape.
I encourage researchers and innovators across all fields to consider applying when our call for proposals opens in a few weeks.
Enabling core technologies
With the right investment, the right regulation, the right skills and talent, I believe the UK is primed for a new era of innovation and growth.
But to really shoot for the stars, we also need to do something else – we need to strategize for the long term.
We need to consult industry experts and reflect fully on how we want to see some of our core technologies evolving not just over the next one or two years but over the next ten to fifteen years.
If we take geospatial technology, for example, we know that here again the UK is already a global trendsetter.
We’re ranked second in the world for geospatial readiness and boast some of the best geospatial organisations going - Ordnance Survey, the Met Office and the UK Hydrographic Office, to say nothing of our brilliant research centres at universities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Nottingham and Southampton.
We want all organisations to take full advantage of the latest developments in location data and services including mobile apps.
That’s why today I am announcing our new UK Geospatial Strategy 2030 to help us deliver on that objective and to secure the UK’s position as a geospatial world leader.
The strategy includes three missions.
The first is to embrace enabling technologies to accelerate geospatial innovation.
Using anonymised population movement data and satellite imagery to help us design new homes, integrated transport systems, and improve the sustainability of cities so they better meet the needs of residents. It could also help our emergency services improve response times with more accurate understanding of where assistance is needed in real-time.
The second mission is to drive greater use of geospatial applications and insights across the economy. Using location data, for example, to build a digital map of underground infrastructure so we can reduce disruption when pipes or cables need fixing, or to understand where we need to install more superfast charging points for long journeys with electric vehicles.
The third mission is to build confidence in the future geospatial ecosystem – increasing the UK’s international standing through bringing together countries from around the world to share knowledge and insights so that we move geospatial technology forwards together.
So that’s what lies ahead.
A government working hand in hand with our partners in industry, in academia, in global forums like London Tech Week to keep the UK at the forefront of this new digital frontier.
A government that will proudly champion our world-leading science and tech sectors to drive investment, to level up communities throughout our United Kingdom.
And to ensure that this growth translates into real improvements to people’s lives.
Whether it’s more high-skilled, high-paid jobs on their doorsteps, whether it’s new training and educational opportunities in the technologies of tomorrow, whether it’s better diagnoses and treatment of life-threatening diseases.
The UK is already the greatest tech and science success story of this decade. Together let’s make it a true tech and science superpower in the next decade and beyond.