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Tech-Enable Scotland: The recipe for success

Technology is at the heart of all that we do at PwC Scotland, and in the last year, technology has become more important to business than ever before. The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, and companies everywhere must become more tech-enabled.

In this setting PwC Scotland hosted the first Tech Enable Scotland Summit, a series of four virtual events over one day. In the final session, an expert panel looked at Scotland’s economic recovery. Innovation and skills are important to every business, and are now more important than ever as we start to focus on our recovery from COVID- 19 pandemic. 

From education, to the talent pipeline and upskilling, this event will discuss what skills businesses and Scotland needs to show we are a tech enabled nation.

  • Rob McCargow, Director of Artificial Intelligence, PwC UK
  • Gillian Docherty chief executive of Data Lab
  • David Brown, Director of Strategic Partnerships at the University of Edinburgh
  • Alistair Forbes, founder, Scottish Tech Army

 

The session began with an examination of PwC’s Hopes & Fears report, which was launched earlier this month. Looking at where people can see themselves working in the future, the impact of technology features heavily with 60% of respondents worried about automation and 39% believing it’s likely their job will become obsolete.

There is optimism in the workforce however, with 75% of people looking to learn new skills and retrain. Interestingly, as we face a seismic shift in the world of work, only 9% thought they wanted to go back to the way we worked before and 19% would prefer to never return to an office. “This is revolutionary to the way we work,” noted panel chair Rob McCargow.

Gillian Docherty, fresh from appearing at Datafest 21 earlier in days, said that overall Scotland was at a very interesting point in its digital evolution She noted the recent publication of the refreshed digital strategy, along with the publication of Scotland’s AI strategy, and the recent ‘Logan Review’ into digital ecosystem - which recently led to £7m of funding to enact some of its recommendations.

“Between those, we are at a really exciting time,” said Gillian. “Those three key pieces of work demonstrate the recognition by government, our businesses and people, the importance of tech to Scotland's future.”

David Brown from the University of Edinburgh, said  people can be forgiven for being skeptical about government strategies. “This one is different,” he said. “It’s writ in what we’re good at, what we’re world class at. We’ve got the ideas, the research, and the beginnings of the talent that will attract businesses, and that is what brings investment and makes this a long-term success for Scotland.”

Alistair Forbes, who founded the Scottish Tech Army during the first lockdown, points out that while strategies come and go, this time there is a real emphasis on ecosystem. “[We want to] get enough diversity and creativity to get the right ideas and initiatives in an ecosystem to create the impact that’s possible.”

Gillian highlighted how five working groups came together in the last 18 months to help paint the picture for the AI strategy.

“The report wasn’t written by government in isolation, talking about what they needed it to be. We have to encourage businesses to adopt AI so how do we do that? There needs to be an AI playbook to make it tangible. It’s about creating alliances and building the foundations required to become an AI powerhouse.”

David said that such a strategy will encourage more people to base themselves in Scotland, which is one of the keys to driving a meaningful economic recovery. The key, he said, was to grow, nurture, and retain talent

“There is a tremendous amount of talent in Scotland embedded in the system, which is the start of that powerhouse,” he said. “People would get a degree and head for London or San Francisco - we want to keep that talent in Scotland. To keep people, you have to show them the world class work that is already taking place here.”

Impact of Covid-19

The impact of the pandemic returned to the conversion time and again, with David discussing the importance of looking after students’ collective mental health. He expects an uptick in post-grad applications as people work out their next steps after plans were disrupted. 

“The second big thing we have to do is have a very vibrant economy where there are jobs for people in the long-term, whether coming out of school or university. To do that we need to bring companies to Scotland and keep companies here,” he said.

“There are tremendous numbers of people in Scotland who will be affected if the economy doesn’t quickly recover. Longer term we need to get into schools and ask them what they want to achieve and show them how they can achieve it in Scotland. What we have to do at all levels of education is give people hope.”

What we have to do at all levels of education is give people hope.

David Brown, University of Edinburgh

The discussion moved on to diversity in the digital ecosystem, where Gillan highlighted that Scotland has set goals to be a wellbeing economy that works for everyone - and that is why diversity was included so prominently in the AI strategy.

Alistair believes a lot of work needs to be done to improve diversity at the top level of the tech sector. David recounted the story of the University of Edinburgh working with an underperforming school which decided to become a ‘data and digital school’. “Its transformation over three years has been incredible,” said David. “Exclusions fell from 146 to five because what you have is kids wanting to learn, and crucially, being encouraged by their parents.”

Onboarding is unrecognisable to how it was pre-pandemic, and while in person onboarding will likely return however the panel was in agreement that flexibility in the future is the way to get the best out of people. 

Gillian said that working remotely means the time spent together will be much more important in building trust and relationships. “There will be some in person activities, putting money in the culture piggy bank,” she said.

Alistair admitted to having been in the camp of wanting everyone together, “because it’s hard to recreate the magic a team can produce at home”, but he now recognises that some people are more effective working at home. “Ideation and creativity is very hard to do remotely. Tools have developed, shared interactive tools are much better now.”

Some of the questions asked, which businesses will need to address are if people are going to work flexibly, how are you going to make the most of that time? And if members of your team are in on different days, how do you get the opportunity to have that group meeting?

David acknowledged that we are adapting, but said nothing could beat getting a team together in a room to bounce ideas around. “There are life skills that aren’t learned, how do you capture that? We’re going to have to adapt to a new hybrid world, you’re going to need to work at, but nothing will beat getting into the same room.”

Eyes of the world on Scotland

Cop26 coming to Glasgow in November puts Scotland front and centre on the world stage, with Gillian noting it’s a time to showcase all the amazing things going on in the country, from renewable energy to tech.

David said: “It is a great opportunity to showcase what we do, but it’s about those collaborations after Cop that can bring things to life. Lots of people say they are the world leaders in different areas, so the key is what differentiates Scotland, because then we get the talent and skills coming through.”

Looking at where Scotland truly is world-leading David cited health, where digital therapeutics are being developed, as just one example. 

In closing remarks, the group reflected on where Scotland’s tech sectors are, and where they are heading.

Alistair said there were a lot of people looking at how they could contribute to society and how various initiatives could be joined together. It’s really encouraging there’s a focus on that in all the reports that have come out recently. 

David notes that for such a friendly nation we’re not great always at talking to each other. Gillian’s strategy is a clarion call and if we’re to build something from this we must collaborate and get behind the big ideas that can lay out the skills pathway that will lead to a bif rebound from the pandemic.

The session ended with a clear increase in optimism at how technology can help Scotland rebound from the pandemic, bringing together people to be at their best.

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