In the last week or so I’ve had the pleasure to attend two of the Future Scot Digital Cities events in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In addition, Stirling, Dundee and Aberdeen have hosted (Aberdeen is actually next week) local events as precursors to the national Digital Scotland gathering in June 2018.
These events provide reasons for cautious good cheer. Good cheer because of the clear emphasis on collaboration and the practical commitments to address an urgent skills gap, the targeted use of digital tools to solve specific socio-economic challenges, and the promotion of our local and national digital strengths.These are rightly being given centre stage. There is a welcome narrative shift towards finding a balance between technology, humanity and better physical spaces, rather than ‘Digital’ being seen as a geeky adjunct to the national conversation.
The caution comes from the fact that underlying and recurrent challenges remain. Not least there is fibre connectivity - where the gap between official statistics, roll-out commitments and actual service availability (and affordability) remains stark. Another gap may exist between aspiration and delivery. For example, the stated ambition for Edinburgh is to make it the ‘Data Capital of Europe’ and who could argue that the city has lots of resources and advantages that could make it so? However, sceptical observers are right to point out that ambitious labels need to be supported by real action, and that the city’s key and oft-referenced digital success stories remain SkyScanner and FanDuel. What else is in the pipeline?
The final cautionary note relates to the very welcome tone of cross-institution, cross-sector collaboration to focus on innovation and region-wide objectives. The risk - as always - is that the rules of departmental budgeting, institutional loyalty and inertia can often supercede good intentions. To overcome these structural weaknesses, I wonder if actually we need to re-think some of these institutional and departmental boundaries - which continue to reflect some distinctly Victorian-looking organising principles. The development of FinTech Scotland seems to exemplify this approach of developing new institutions to enable targeted economic development - and it would be welcome to see further reorientation within government, education, transport and health (to name a few) to better reflect and deliver these digital visions.
The context of Brexit and IndyRef#2 cannot be avoided, but are no grounds to pause or dampen Scotland’s appetite for real, digital enabled, change. Overall, the range of projects and initiatives showcased a great range of potential - from City-wide masterplanning, renovating Scottish canals, to tackling public health and improving digital education. This is a multi-billion pound transformation in the making - no less important than the transformation wrought by the industrial revolution two centuries ago. Here’s hoping that Scotland pays as important a role in this transformation as it did back then.