The following column was first published on The Huffington Post on 13 September, 2016. To see the original story click here.
Around 250 years ago Britain led the First Industrial Revolution as engines and factories powered by coal and steam changed the world’s economic landscape. Britain’s manufactured goods were exported around the world, fuelling the nation’s economic growth at home and establishing our reputation as innovators abroad.
Last Thursday afternoon, amidst news of Brexit and grammar schools, the Government made a bold commitment that will secure Britain’s economic future for the century ahead. Jesse Norman, the Business Minister, committed Britain to being at the “forefront” of the new Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the unprecedented, fusion of digital, physical and biological technologies, which is being catalysed by artificial intelligence (AI), mass-automation and hyper-connectivity.
Technological breakthroughs that have yielded new products, from advanced robots to driverless cars and 3D printers, have already captured the public’s imagination. The Minister predicted that technologies such as these will lead to “dramatic transformations in the landscape of our industry and commerce” so we must act now to ensure that our political, business, and economic structures adapt to the 4IR, from funding regional 4IR technology hubs and continuing to invest in apprenticeships to delivering 5G internet. By adopting a pro-enterprise, free-market approach, Britain can lead this Fourth Industrial Revolution as we led the First, and government has a key role to play.
From Alexander Graham Bell to Tim Berners-Lee, we have always been home to innovators, and in a rapidly-changing world, we must continue backing our start-ups and the entrepreneurs behind them. It is soon expected that 50 billion things will be connected to the internet, with everything from smart meters to fridges hooked to the web. Graphene, a super-lightweight and flexible metal 200 times stronger than steel, is becoming more prevalent; drone technology, autonomous vehicles, such as “driverless cars”; 3D printing; and biotechnology are growing in ubiquity. Britain must be at the centre of these changes.
The huge upsides from the Fourth Industrial Revolution are not just eye-catching gadgets, but substantial strategic, benefits for our economy too, including increased productivity, lower prices, greater consumer choice, and new jobs. That’s why mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be at the heart of the government’s new Industrial Strategy: we must create the right environment for it to flourish in Britain.
These are all points I made in my speech last Thursday, when I led the first ever House of Commons debate on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I called this debate, with cross-party support, because we must be ready to take advantage of the changes. MPs from all parties spoke of the superb examples of 4IR technology already in place, but rightly, they warned, that to be unprepared risked future growth and jobs.
That said, we would be building on already-strong foundations: the government has done much to promote enterprise, including delivering the G20’s lowest corporation tax rate, attracting the world’s talent through the Entrepreneur and Exceptional Talent Visa schemes, and backing innovation hubs such as TechCity and Canary Wharf’s fintech-focused Level 39. The Catapult network of regional innovation centres has been a great success. These physical centres allow the very best UK businesses, scientists and engineers work side by side on late-stage research and development projects, transforming high potential ideas into new products and services to generate economic growth.
Growing automation may threaten some low-skilled jobs - factories in the future might only need a constant supply of raw materials and energy to produce goods - as well as some white collar ones, so continued investment in education and training is needed to nurture a flexible and skilled workforce. And where roads, bridges and viaducts facilitated the Victorians’ industrial growth spurt, digital infrastructure such as universal broadband and 5G internet are tomorrow’s equivalents.
The countries best able to adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be those with nimble free-market economies, low taxes, and a competitive regulatory environment that encourages entrepreneurialism and protects innovation. As a new Industrial Strategy is developed, I welcome the government’s continued commitment on pro-enterprise policies that encourage investment in emerging technologies. Allowing test flights for Amazon drone deliveries and test runs of Google’s driverless cars are all welcome steps.
In the coming months, I’ll be setting out a more detailed set of policy proposals in a pamphlet for the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, backed by the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. This will outline how the Government can continue its support for our 4IR businesses.
Throughout history, Britain has adopted a pro-innovation approach to technological development. From farming mechanisation and domestic labour saving devices to the City’s Big Bang, we did not allow fears about the future to stunt our economic and social progress. We soon realised the folly of requiring drivers of early cars to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag. We must adopt the same, forward-thinking approach when it comes to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
As a new revolution accelerates, we can be confident that if we follow the lessons of history and have the support of government, Britain has the entrepreneurial spirit and talent to master the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the same way we mastered the first.
Alan Mak is the Conservative MP for Havant & Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Entrepreneurship