Event report: Pictfor Annual Dinner 2016 – Tech, Brexit and the Future

Pictfor hosted our Annual Dinner, sponsored by Huawei, in the House of Lords on 5 December 2016 themed ‘Tech, Brexit and the future’. Key speakers included:

• Chi Onwurah MP, Co-Chair of Pictfor
• Lord Tom McNally, Pictfor Treasurer
• Anne McElvoy, Senior Editor, the Economist
• Harriet Finney, Deputy CEO and Policy Director, Creative Industries Federation
• Jerry Thompson, Deputy Managing Director, Huawei UK
• Simon Blagden MBE, Non-Executive Chairman, Fujitsu UK
• Chair: Kate Russell, Tech journalist, blogger and author

Pictfor Co-Chair Chi Onwurah MP opened the Annual Dinner by welcoming Parliamentarians and members, thanking the event’s host, Lord McNally, and the event’s sponsor, Huawei. Chi Onwurah MP advocated that technology could be a key the driving force in the UK and could be used to remedy issues faced by society. She highlighted that technology is at the heart of many current issues including housing and health. She concluded her speech by stating that whatever the future holds, science and technology have the potential to bring opportunity.

Kate Russell, a prominent technology reporter and blogger, chaired the event. Kate began her speech by agreeing with Chi Onwurah MP that digital is crucial to everything. She introduced one of the evening’s topics, Brexit, highlighting that the referendum result and subsequent negotiations will bring many questions, including access to the single market and whether the UK can close the skills gap.

Jerry Thompson, Deputy Managing Director Huawei UK, then thanked guests for attending. He said that Pictfor is the perfect environment to discuss pressing issues and stated that the UK has a world-class digital economy, which brings phenomenal opportunities. He noted that that Huawei has 11,000 people working for the company in the UK in a number of research facilities. Jerry Thompson closed his speech by calling for continued investment in tech infrastructure and connectivity to support the UK as a leading digital economy.

Anne McElvoy, Senior Editor at the Economist, referenced a recent Guardian article she has written on ‘Tech for Good’ and explained her approach to technology from a policy perspective. She called on the audience to think about how tech should be. She went on to question what the social and psychological impacts of artificial intelligence are likely to be. Anne McElvoy argued that the impact of technology is often higher than we think, citing how tech developments can change jobs and the nature of work. She argued that this dynamic is not limited to low skilled jobs as tech often affects higher skilled jobs too, such as accounting. She went on to ask how tech companies should respond to this changing work environment and economy. Anne McElvoy highlighted the differential in the potential benefits from technology, advocating that tech developments can be positive for those who are already better off, but do not always improve the lives of those in poverty. She claimed that this may in part be due to people working in tech inventing solutions to the problems that they themselves have. She cited food delivery service apps and laundry apps as examples of this phenomenon.

Anne McElvoy called on the tech sector to do more to address the problems of others. Anne then raised the question of what learning and employment will look like in the future, suggesting that adaptive learning platforms could be used. She suggested that there can be an ‘incuriosity’ in policy making and that cross-party action is needed to address current challenges. She highlighted that big data is starting to be utilised and claimed that small data is just as important, especially for policy areas such as welfare reform. She concluded by stating that tech’s greatest challenge is the digital divide and she called on everyone to engage to overcoming this issue.

The Chair, Kate Russell, took a question from Lord Clement-Jones who asked about the implications of tech developments for higher education and employability. Anne McElvoy stated, in her response, that tech access is an important component and that higher order skills are needed by employers. She added that constructive thinking skills are needed as well as critical thinking skills. She said that the University of Exeter is a good example of best practice and concluded by saying that tech is enriching.

Kate Russell stated that one out of every eleven people across the UK work in tech and that it is the UK’s fastest growing sector in the economy. She then introduced the next speaker, Harriet Finney.

Harriet Finney, Deputy CEO and Policy Director at the Creative Industries Federation (CIF), introduced the Creative Industries Federation (CIF), and explained that they recently celebrated their second birthday. She said the creative industries have historically been too fragmented to articulate with one voice. Harriet explained that having consulted their members, the top concerns included the skills pipeline, routes to finance, infrastructure and intellectual property regulations. She argued that there are extraordinary opportunities for generations to come, but that the impact of Brexit and an industrial strategy need to be assessed. She said many of CIF’s members worry about a shortage in tech skills if they lose access to European talent – an issue that can impact broadcasting/communications to computer games tech and beyond. Harriet Finney stated that there are long standing issues that need to be addressed including apprenticeships and engagement with STEM. She voiced concern over trade and investment which can be particularly challenging for small and medium companies. Harriet said an intellectual property and regulatory framework are both crucial to enabling creative industries. She went on to add that the free flow of data in the digital economy is key for competitiveness. Harriet closed by stating that the creative industries need to continue to engage in Brexit negotiations and policy making.

Questions and comments were then taken from attendees at the dinner, chaired by Kate Russell. Lord Clement-Jones asked whether the government is listening. Harriet Finney replied positively that the government has been willing to hear the CIF’s concerns. Pictfor Co-Chair Chi Onwurah MP said she agreed that the nature of work is changing, but asked about what is being done to address diversity. Harriet pointed to the CIF creative diversity report and said that we must assess how to develop a more diverse workforce. Baroness Ludford suggested that there may be a branding issue around tech being described as “disruptive”. She advocated that this word doesn’t send the right message and that tech should be branded as being enabling, providing opportunities rather than threats. Harriet Finney agreed, suggesting that the barriers that prevent people from seeing tech as an opportunity need to be broken down. Kate Russell remarked that fear is a big factor in this argument. Daniel Zeichner MP stated that EU funding is a vital consideration and he argued that a loss of EU funding could result in the sector increasingly being in competition with other UK industries for funding. Harriet Finney advocated that the key to this challenge is to know what the pot of money is and try to ring fence it.

Kate Russell then introduced Simon Blagden MBE, Non-Executive Chairman of Fujitsu UK and Industry Chair of Pictfor. He highlighted that Pictfor serves as an important forum for constructive dialogue, allowing parliament to give its view about the tech industry and vice versa. He then announced a number of upcoming Pictfor events.

Kate Russell invited Lord Tom McNally, Pictfor Treasurer and host of the Annual Dinner in the House of Lords, to conclude the evening. Lord McNally highlighted that one of the reasons Pictfor is important to him relates to his work with the Youth Justice Board where emerging issues such as cyber culture and online extremism are considered. He closed by saying that there is a need to talk frankly about modern problems and that forums such as Pictfor offer this opportunity.

Click here for the list of those who attended.

If you would like further information on this topic or about Pictfor’s programme of events, please contact admin@pictfor.org.uk.

Please note: This document includes the minutes of the meeting. This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. All-Party Parliamentary Groups are informal groups of Members of both Houses with a common interest in particular issues. The views expressed in this report are those of the group.

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