The following column was first published in The Times Red Box on 14 November, 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. Further periods of innovation followed, driven firstly by the rise of electrical power to create mass production in the 19th century, and then by the growth of the internet and electronics in the 20th. From James Watt’s steam engine to Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web, Britain has always been at the forefront of innovation.
Now, an unprecedented, disruptive fusion of digital, physical and biological technologies is set to transform economies and societies around the world, including our own. Dubbed the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), this new wave of technological change is being driven by artificial intelligence (AI), mass-automation and hyper-connectivity. Breakthroughs – and new products – in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, drones, 3D printing and nanotechnology have already captured the public’s imagination. Moreover, mastering the 4IR was the theme at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos: countries around the world are already competing to lead it. Given our track record of innovation, Britain can – and should – develop an early competitive advantage, so it’s this country that leads the world in the 4IR whilst securing our own economic future.
In that global race, Britain is certainly no slouch. The chancellor Philip Hammond pointed out in his conference speech this year, as he announced new investment in the 4IR, that “unnoticed by most of us, entrepreneurs and scientists … have been turning Britain into a hub of tech innovation”, often under the radar. For example, London-based DeepMind Technologies is a world leader in artificial intelligence (but became prominent only when bought by Google) whilst the University of Manchester quietly pioneered graphene, the ultra-strong, ultra-light wonder material.
The huge upsides from the 4IR are not just eye-catching gadgets, but substantial strategic, supply-side benefits for our economy, including increased productivity, lower prices, greater consumer choice, and new jobs in new industries. In September, I led the first ever House of Commons debate on this topic, arguing that mastering the 4IR must be at the heart of the Government’s new Industrial Strategy: we must create the right environment for the 4IR to flourish in Britain. Today, I’m launching a more detailed policy report with the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, backed by the Institute of Economic Affairs.
“Masters of the Revolution” sets out twenty practical, actionable recommendations, which I hope Business & Industrial Strategy Secretary Greg Clark (who is speaking at the launch) will take on board. From abandoning the EU’s “precautionary principle” which holds back innovation and building new 4IR research centres to continued investment in digital infrastructure and reform of our welfare and education systems, we must act now to ensure that our political and economic structures are fit for purpose. To lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Britain must seize the day. We need a positive approach to Brexit, taking control of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to both change the direction of our nation, and our thinking in key areas of policy like Industrial Strategy.
Whilst it’s right to focus on maximising the opportunities that the 4IR provides, we should be clear that it will also result in societal challenges too. For example, as growing automation replaces human labour, especially in low-skilled jobs, government has a role in helping people bridge the gap through education and training opportunities so we maintain a flexible and skilled workforce.
Throughout our history Britain has adopted a pro-innovation approach to technological advances. From farming mechanisation to domestic labour-saving devices to the City’s “Big Bang”, we’ve never allowed fears about the future to stunt the economic and social progress which brought about greater productivity, new jobs, lower production costs, and benefits to consumers as well as producers. 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 mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the age of Brexit.
Alan Mak is the Conservative MP for Havant and chairman of the APPG for Entrepreneurship
His report Masters of the Revolution: Why the Fourth Industrial Revolution should be at the heart of Britain’s new Industrial Strategy is published today.