Home to dazzling start-ups, the best access to early stage capital in Europe, a world-famous arts and design scene, a global financial center and 20+ category-breakout tech companies including Funding Circle, JUST EAT, King, Mimecast, Transferwise, Swiftkey and Zoopla, London today is the center of Europe’s digital revolution. But it’s an Internet-led success story which has yet to be felt across the rest of the capital, country and the wider business community.
A similar problem is in evidence writ large at a national level too.
The British are world-class Internet consumers. According to research by the Boston Consulting Group, by 2016, products and services delivered online are predicted to account for 12.4% of UK GDP, making the Internet economy larger than almost any other single economic sector including financial services, construction and education.
Last year, the Office for National Statistics reported that 36 million people used the internet every day a figure that has more than doubled since 2006. 83% of households have Internet access. 73% of adults bought online in 2013 almost 20% more than in 2008.
This blizzard of positive data would certainly seem to suggest a bright future for Britain in the Internet age. Yet that is only part of the story. If we truly want to stay at the forefront of digital change, and the way it’s reshaping almost every aspect of the world around us, then simply being world-beating consumers isn’t enough.
“The Internet isn’t really a technology. It’s a belief system,” wrote Joichi Ito, director of MIT Media Lab. That’s a phrase, written in 2011, which remains just as resonant today. The digital state of mind is both empowering and intoxicating. It teaches you to spot opportunities, innovate around barriers and collaborate on ideas with others, whether in the same room, or on the other side of the world.
The UK faces two challenges
However in order to harness the Internet’s transformative powers, the UK faces two challenges. First, we must equip the next generation with the tools required to operate in a dynamic and highly competitive marketplace. Under 25s are digital natives, 93% of whom are on a social network. Yet, strikingly, only a small minority within this group has ever created a website themselves.
The introduction of coding to the national curriculum from September 2014 is a milestone on the path towards universal digital literacy. But it’s only a down-payment on the investment required, not least because 71% of adults don’t know the policy exists and 90% can’t code.
Second, we need to capture the imagination of people, no longer in education, who are in effect Internet self-starters. Many of them think nothing of streaming movies, booking holidays or ordering the family supermarket shop online, but have little or no idea how to deploy software creatively to solve problems or acquire new skills and jobs.
This group may include supposedly digitally-literate marketing teams, who divide themselves into digital and non-digital departments. Or companies that use the redundant “e” prefix in their job descriptions, plainly failing to comprehend that the Internet long-since ceased to be a specialization and is now part of everything their organization does.
The one thing we can predict with certainty is that the Internet will ignite further momentous change. Think about how recently it would have seemed unimaginable to order dinner, book a taxi or adjust your home heating through a couple of swipes on your phone. My seven-year-old son doesn’t understand that a phone was once just something you only used to make a call. Look around and ask yourself which part of your daily routine will be obsolete in ten years time?
Creativity cannot come from a computer
Yet our ability to understand and leverage fully how the Internet’s impact is being felt not only in the workplace, but in education and our social lives, too, lags far behind our day-to-day adoption.
London has a strong start-up ecosystem something I’ve spoken and written a lot about in the past. Companies like ASOS, Betfair, Lovefilm and Skype show how successfully we can produce significant companies. The government has bought into the belief system of the Internet, too, with the introduction of Government Digital Services. Old Street roundabout is a hub of initiatives nurturing this ecosystem and Google Campus feeds it with events, investments, and collaborative office-space.
London has the diversity, openness, creativity and confidence needed to be a leading player in this Internet age.
Creativity cannot come from a computer. You can’t, for example, code the flair and brilliance seen in the Central Saint Martins graduate show. But what we can and must do, is empower people, and crucially all businesses, with the tools to use the Internet to its full effect, not just as consumers, but as creators and innovators too.