THE BLOG

Economic Success Requires Digital Innovators, Not Digital Cogs

23/02/2015 15:37 GMT | Updated 24/04/2015 10:59 BST

Improving our ability as a nation to work and play in a digital world, treating access to the internet as a utility rather than a privilege and ensuring education and industry work together to provide a digitally competent workforce are all of utmost importance to the future of the nation. These salient ideas are all featured in last week's report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills entitled Make or Break: the UK's Digital Future.

However, the report falls short of really addressing how the UK can continue to develop new knowledge and wealth. This is partly down to its focus on previous work to categorize people by their level of interaction with digital technology, from 'digital muggles' up to 'digital makers'. These two extremes are particularly troubling.

First, as the report recognizes, any 'digital muggles' will soon be in danger of exclusion from society. Even those unlucky enough to find themselves without employment currently struggle to search or apply effectively for jobs or to access support structures without the ability to use both the internet and basic office software.

But the top category, 'digital makers' is even more worrying. In the original work this broad category covered anyone who 'made' digital things, from a spreadsheet to a design for a new processor. This is far too all-encompassing a category and fails to identify that essential element to sustained success: the 'digital innovator'.

The report recognizes that 'creativity is a strength of the UK's economy', but this severely undervalues its importance. Creativity and fostering it more widely is the foundation from which we can build the long term future of the UK's economy, and digital innovators need to be positioned at the heart of this.

In many ways what we need is to combine this call for improved digital understanding with the recently launched 'Get Creative' campaign from the BBC. This important drive to increase the creative output of everyone is clearly focused primarily at the traditional arts, with activities including painting, writing and photography. This will hopefully nurture some seeds of new talent in these fields but surely this needs to link up with a better integration between the notion of the 'creative' and the digital? We need new thinkers who are digital natives, not just generating the exciting new intellectual property but being immersed in the technology to create and distribute this to the waiting world.

Yes, we need digitally literate citizens. Yes, we need people who can write code, design circuits, build websites, etc. But without the raw material of innovative ideas this will just be a service in itself. Owning the intellectual property to the idea is the key to success, not possessing the ability to make the idea real. Just as learning English is no guarantee of writing a successful novel, so learning the tools of a digital world without fostering creativity and innovation is no guarantee of success in the world of today, and more importantly the world of tomorrow.

This report must be taken seriously and its recommendations taken on board, but building a digital future will need so much more. We need to learn from today's leaders and innovators to ensure that we provide environments for ideas to flourish, and for creativity to be valued and nurtured, to enable the digital workforce of tomorrow to shape its own future rather than being a servant of someone else's.