The UK is delicately poised between emerging as a global technology powerhouse and a less appealing future as an also-ran, if a new study from Deloitte is to be believed.
There are plenty of grounds for optimism in the pages of the report, which paints a picture of a nation that is adept at producing world-class expertise and bang on the nail in key sectors such as wireless communications and nanotechnology.
There is no cause for complacency, however, because as the report notes there are plenty of opportunities for the UK to trip itself up during what is likely to be a crucial next five years in establishing the technology leaders of the next fifty.
Many of our brightest and best technology ventures end up under foreign ownership just at the point at which they are poised to make some real money. This is not surprising. The corporate giants of the US in particular are adept at spotting opportunities to acquire a promising technical innovation early and add it to their armoury.
What this means in practice is that many UK-born technology ventures disappear into the labyrinthine structure of a multinational, taking ownership of their IP with them.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, and is a tribute to our ongoing ability to supply top-class innovations. As Deloitte makes clear, however, it is in our longer-term interest to have more UK-based profitable technology companies using the revenues from their IP to grow bigger and achieve the sort of scale that would allow them to compete on the world stage.
The UK financial sector is a global success story in its own right, with the potential to be an important ally in this regard. There are, indeed, gratifying examples of the technology and business communities working together for mutual benefit.
One of the key concerns to emerge from the report, however, is the apparent continuing inability of the worlds of technology and finance to talk to each other. Indeed, the relationship between the two is characterised as one of ‘a degree of mistrust’.
Why should this be? Deloitte suggests that the financial sector has an imperfect understanding of the potential of new technologies to make them money, while the technology community is often woefully inadequate at presenting a business plan.
But a more fundamental reason could well be the damage wrought on the very concept of ‘technology’ by the ludicrous excesses of the late 1990s, when untold cash was lost by financiers who foolishly backed business ventures that hijacked the word for their own ends.
In the City, the legacy of the dotcom boom lives on, and escaping it will require a concerted effort to reclaim the word technology by its rightful owners.
It cannot be stressed too many times — IT does not equal technology, and e-commerce has almost nothing to do with the word.
Technology is the application of advanced engineering and science in ways that can change the world. It can make us healthier, happier, more productive and more mobile. It can help the environment and make life more difficult for terrorists. It can also be very good business.
We’re pretty good at it in the UK, but a bit of public relations directed towards the pinstripe-suit brigade could help no end.
Andrew Lee, Editor