The road ahead for the digital economy: Martha Lane Fox
It was an inspired decision to invite Martha Lane Fox, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, CBE to deliver the keynote address at the 2018 O2 Blue Door Conference, as part of O2 Live, on September 27. As one of the UK’s first dot-com superstars she knows better than anyone how technology has shaped and influenced the way we live and work since she co-founded lastminute.com more than twenty years ago.
She may have left lastminute as long ago as 2003 but her passion for technology remains. She has advised two Prime Ministers on the country’s approach to digital skills and computer literacy, she sits on the board of Twitter, and she is the founder and executive chair of Doteveryone.org.uk, a charity fighting for a fairer internet and building a movement for responsible technology.
So from a technology perspective, where does the UK currently stand? And what does the road ahead look like? For Martha Lane Fox there are four pillars that should influence the digital economy over the coming years.
Although 50% of us believe that the internet has made life a lot better for people like ourselves, only 12% would say that it has had a positive impact on society. That is according to doteveryone’s 2018 Digital Attitudes Report, and it’s a statistic that simply has to change, according to Martha Lane Fox.
The UK has a fantastic opportunity to lead the world in technology over the coming years, and it has to start with a really deep sense of inclusivity. What role can technology play in addressing some of the country’s most pressing social issues? What do we need to do to narrow the digital divide, when we still have 8.4% of adults who have never used the internet in 2018?
We are seeing both energy and focus lavished on the start-up digital economy: According to Forbes, more than 10,000 software development and programming businesses were incorporated in the UK during 2017, a 59 per cent increase on the 6,300 companies set up in 2016. And the debate about the potential of 5G is very exciting. But to thrive over the next ten to twenty years, there is no room for complacency. Just as important is the need to empower public policy decisions that benefit us all, including the most vulnerable in society. We simply can’t leave anyone behind.
“It’s unbelievable to me that that 96% of the world’s software engineers are men.”
To understand the size of the challenge we have in encouraging more women into the technology sector, Martha Lane Fox made a startling observation. In percentage terms there are more women in the House of Lords, where she sits as a cross bench peer, than there are in technology, a sector that barely existed just thirty years ago.
We have to encourage a different group of creators, designers and engineers to fuel the digital economy for the decades ahead. We can only expect to build better products and services, and to tackle many of the challenges we face in society, if we work in teams that include a diverse set of approaches and opinions. That means more women, certainly, but also people from different backgrounds and socio economic groups. Fail to do this and our development teams are simply designing products for the people around them.
“As a country this feels like the right moment to reimagine and build a technology sector that isn’t just about the digital economy and start-ups but it’s also about diversity, inclusion, entrepreneurship and solving the right problems.”
According to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), a quarter of small business owners lack confidence in their basic digital skills, and tackling this digital skills deficit in small businesses would have a positive effect on productivity growth in the UK.
Martha Lane Fox has worked with successive governments on a number of digital skills projects, and she has seen for herself how many of the people given digital skills training have gone on to set up digitally enabled small businesses of their own.
“Our nation’s small businesses have so much to gain from being online, from potential revenue to customer interaction, and it is so important to me that as many as possible understand this.”
We have to think about our responsibilities regarding technology in a different way, according to Martha Lane Fox. We have everything to gain as a country if we can raise the level of digital understanding amongst the decision makers in our society, building an ethical framework for technology both through legislation and through the problems that we need to solve.
She gave us the example of the local council facing a housing crisis or a rise in instances of domestic abuse. How can we help to solve these problems if we don’t understand enough about the technology available that might provide part or all of the solution?
“I don’t think it would be acceptable to sit on the board of a company without being able to interpret a cash flow forecast. I think we should consider digital understanding and capability in the same way.”
Giving the people we employ training in digital skills is about much more than using the Internet and answering emails. As business leaders, we have a responsibility to raise the bar with people’s understanding of the technology we use, such as knowing what data we collect about our customers, relevant privacy laws or compliance issues.
The road ahead may be uncertain, but Martha Lane Fox’s message for the technology sector was a positive one.
“We can be a country that doesn’t just put technology at the heart of building our economy but benefits the lives of every one of us by using technology in imaginative, creative and responsible ways.”
For more about our keynote speakers at O2 Blue Door Conference, as part of O2 Live, click here. We also heard from Chris Whiteley, Head of Partnerships at Netflix in the UK, and his thoughts of some of the values that have enabled Netflix growth over the last decade.
To recap the day in full, head over to our wrap up blog