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Q&A: Ian Livingstone on the Importance of Computer Science to the Digital Economy

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Ian Livingstone is the President of Eidos, and also co-author of the Next Gen report, a study that stresses the importance of the digital economy and the role teaching Computer Science in schools plays in its growth.

We were able to talk earlier this month at the Explay Festival where he gave one of the keynote speeches.

What's key to fostering growth and retention in the UK games industry? Is it through government initiatives like tax breaks?

There are five things I concentrate on in supporting the games industry, I call it 'The Five 'P's'.

One is 'Perception', the perception of games to change, with people talking about them in a more positive light, whether it's the media, the government, or whoever.

The second 'P' is 'People', we need a skilled workforce - that's one of the reasons I wrote the NextGen report with Alex Hope - to get a skilled workforce, that can work not just in the games industry but in all the creative industries.

We need 'Pounds', and by that I mean access to finance. Tax breaks are absolutely important and one of the reasons the Canadian, Montreal in particular, games industry has grown at such a stellar rate - they're offering a 37.5% production tax credit for anyone who sets up shop there, but I'd also welcome a more long-term solution: getting investors to understand the value of digital content companies, games in particular.

Startups don't necessarily need the tax breaks for day one, they need smart money, investment capital, so they can bring their games to market. Once they start to grow they will benefit from a production tax break but on a much wider issue I'd like to get people investing in games rather than tax breaks, which are probably seen as a subsidy and preferential treatment. I want people to understand it as an business opportunity to invest, because [currently] games are seen as risky and not as investable as traditional industries. So I think that's a more important issue, tax credits fit within that remit.

The fourth 'P' is 'Property', and by that I mean intellectual property. Our ability as a nation to be one of the most creative nations in the world, to create fantastic intellectual property, but retaining ownership of it. Often you hear stories of people selling their IP too early, or publishers seeing greater value in our IP than we do ourselves, the ambition of some creatives being short-term, they're happy to sell it early. So I think to build the next Twitter, Google, or Zynga, we need to be able to retain ownership of our IP take it to the next level, scale the investment through understanding digital content.

The fifth 'P', 'Pipes', as in high-speed broadband, not just to download content but to be able to upload content to global markets.

Is it domestic publishers that will allow developers to retain IP?

Developers and publishers are one and the same these days in the online world, the route to market has diminished to a virtual pipe. We need to invest in people to be able to scale their own businesses to make sure the IP resides, from a tax point of view, in the UK.

Do you have an image of what a good Computer Science teacher would be?

Let's get one thing straight, I'm not an educationalist or a technology expert. All I do know is that the UK needs more computer scientists that it's got today. All I've done in the Next Gen report is highlight the need for a skilled workforce because the universities are failing the students, schools are failing schoolchildren. If you look at the universities, there are 150 courses around the country with the word games in them. But they're, a lot of them, not fit for purpose. They're generalist courses, essentially media studies courses, and they're teaching the philosophy of games rather than the skills in how to make them. What we need good programmers and animators, not someone who knows the social relevance of Grand Theft Auto. That was one problem area we highlighted.

Then we looked at ICT in schools: whilst useful it's nothing more than office skills. Learning about PowerPoint, Word, and Excel is useful but nobody's going to give you a career in the games industry.

There's been a disconnect of understanding of what people think ICT is. It's largely about using applications, not teaching them how to make applications. It's the difference between reading and writing. We teach children how to read but we don't teach them how to write. What they need is creative technology in which they learn how to build stuff and use technology.

But What age do you think we should start it in schools?

Certainly by GCSE but I think you could start a lot younger. Children I've seen in school who have been given the digital building blocks, you see their imaginations engaged, they're happy, they're creating, it inspires them to want to learn more. So we need to give them those digital building blocks at an early age.

Do you feel we're behind the rest of the world in supporting out technology scene?

Well, we're behind some, and it just seems an obvious thing to do to have Computer Science on the schools' national curriculum as an option within science. Not force it on [students], but give them the option to do Computer Science.

You look at all the countries who are successful in the digital world and, guess what, they've all got Computer Sceince on the curriculum, China, Isreal - some of the best digital IPs in the world today are coming out of Israel. It's not rocket science to understand this.

But we've always had a tradition of people discovering and learning technology by themselves.

We've let an opportunity slip through our fingers, in the 1980s the BBC Micro was the cornerstone of computing in schools and at home the Spectrum was an affordable, available, computing device. Some years later, Schools stopped programming and moved to ICT that taught applications not programming. So we went backwards, I think people are only starting to realise that.

What sort of response are you finding to the report?

Well, we launched Next Gen in February, since February we've been gaining slow support, until recently following the MacTaggert lecture in which Erich Schmidt (Chairman of Google) referenced Next gen in his criticisms of the UK's educational system not having Computer Science on its curriculum. Since then it's galvanized lots of support. We had a ten minute feature on Newsnight about it, we had a debate about it in the House of Lords about it, several Lords recommending our suggestions be implemented, I was at No. 10 recently discussing it with some of the special advisers there. So it's definitely being brought up as an important issue, whether anything will happen we'll have to see but I'm very hopeful.

Do you think the Raspberry Pi is this generation's BBC Micro?

I'd like to see it become the new BBC Micro. The Raspberry Pi is an fantastic initiative, I think David Braben and the other people in the charity are doing something that is fundamentally and potentially brilliant. The Raspberry Pi itself could be manufactured, I believe, for about £15 and potentially given away to schools. You just plug it into a screen or a TV, plug in a keyboard, and, because it comes with Linux software on-board, you're up and running. You can be programming just like that [clicks his fingers].

Is the attitude to gaming changing?

I'm delighted by the way this government is coming round to the games industry as being a core component of the digital economy going forward. If you think about it the manufacturing services are in disarray and the games industry could potentially be one of the main drivers of the economy. We have the creativity, we have the technology, and potentially we have the skills.

What happens now for Next Gen?

We get a formal response from the government later this month and then we respond to their response. With the intention that one day, hopefully in the not too distant future, we'll get computer science in schools as part of the national curriculum because we can't build a digital economy with a nation of digitally illiterate people.

You can read the government's response to the Next Gen report here.