May 25, 2017      

As U.K. and U.S. leaders meet at a NATO summit this week, it’s a good time to review the British government’s digital strategy, particularly in the wake of its exit from the European Union.

The U.K. recently announced its post-Brexit digital strategy, and the country’s robotics sector is busy assessing the implications. How will the new strategy help British robotics companies face the challenges — and embrace the opportunities — posed by Brexit? How should the U.K. government work alongside stakeholders to achieve the best possible results? And what are the long-term prospects for the automation industry?

Business Takeaways:

  • The U.K. government has launched a high-profile “post-Brexit” digital strategy, which identifies U.K. technical strengths.
  • The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund sets aside £4.7 billion ($6.08 billion) of additional R&D funding for key sectors, including robotics and AI.
  • Some £17.3 million ($22.38 million) is already committed to funding robotics and AI research at British universities.

Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund

As the U.K. edges ever closer to transforming last years’ decision to leave the EU into a concrete reality, the British government has launched a high-profile digital strategy aimed at building on the country’s strengths and “tackling its underlying weaknesses to secure a future as a competitive, global nation.”

The green paper, published in late January, specifies robotics and artificial intelligence as key areas of U.K. strength in research and development. The new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will support these areas as part of an additional £4.7 billion ($6.08 billion) of R&D funding.

Robotics fund co-founder Dominic Keen

Dominic Keen, founder of High Growth Robotics Ltd.

Dominic Keen, ?founder and CEO of High Growth Robotics Ltd. (also known as BritBots), welcomed the “positive intent” of the digital strategy. However, he warned that the amount of money committed to it is “small by international standards” and does not appear to address the “structural barriers in transferring robotic technologies out of universities into businesses.”

According to Keen, the fundamental challenge that Brexit poses for the U.K. tech sector is that it may make the country “less attractive” to talented engineers and entrepreneurs. Many have moved from across Europe to the U.K. over the past decade.

“This new strategy doesn’t appear to do anything to address this issue,” he said. “I think most of the other initiatives should have been pursued in order to modernize the economy, whether or not Brexit was happening.”

Digital strategy welcome, but more action needed

Kit Cox, CEO at U.K. service automation company Enate, broadly welcomed the digital strategy. Anything that “promotes discussion” and enables businesses to keep up with technological changes — and unlock the potential of robotics and AI — is a “positive thing,” he said.

That said, Cox argued the simple establishment of a strategy is not enough. He called on the British government to outline a “clear plan of action designed to deliver quick results.”

“Today’s technology sector is driving innovation and boosting productivity across all industries,” he said. “Yet, in tomorrow’s economy, every sector will be a tech sector. The government has also seemingly woken up to the fact that education and skills are one of the biggest factors behind productivity across the U.K.”

The digital strategy’s £17.3 million ($22.38 million) commitment to funding robotics and AI research at U.K. universities “should be applauded,” Cox said. The challenges of “truly shifting the needle” in British tech education run “much deeper,” he noted.

“There is, of course, the possibility that Brexit is just a red herring,” Cox added. “The pace of innovation in artificial intelligence and robotics outstrips anything that will happen in relation to Brexit.”

Nurturing skilled labor

The recent U.K. budget pledged investment to provide young people with the right skills for high-income jobs in the future. Cox observed that the government needs to devote much more effort to identifying the exact nature of these skills.

“They fall into two categories,” he said. “Firstly, STEM skills, and secondly, the skills that Philip Hammond [the U.K. chancellor of the exchequer] does not recognise — the most human of human skills — creativity, collaboration, and empathy.”

A combination of science, technological, engineering, and mathematics as well as social skills will be the “lifeblood of the fourth industrial revolution,” Cox asserted. The next generation will need them “in a world where automation and AI are pervasive.”

“Investment needs to be made much earlier on in the education system than at university level to prepare young people for the future of work,” he added.

More on U.K. Robotics and Global Digital Strategy:

Fostering financing

Looking ahead, Keen also urged the British government to do “everything it can” to foster the financing environment for robotics startups. Measures include encouraging Local Enterprise Partnerships to invest in them and remaining committed to the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme.

“Free movement for bright European engineers and innovators must also be guaranteed,” Keen said. “Additionally, more support must be given to roboticists in academia who wish to devote time to spinning out their technology.”

“If the entrepreneurial environment can remain strong and tariffs on British-built robots can stay low, then the prospects for the sector are positive in my view,” he added.