Touting an ambition to transform a city, region, or country into the next Silicon Valley has become a tired expression among politicians. The world has seen a failed and futile attempt to recreate the magical combination of entrepreneurial dynamism, financial adventurism, and university- and government-led research brains that have made Silicon Valley one of the world’s most dynamic innovation hotspots. are scattered. Besides, it’s not even clear if Silicon Valley still has what it once was, thanks to the sharp price drops in tech markets, the social failure of Big Tech, and the financial disaster of the Crypto Brothers.
But none of these considerations prevented UK Prime Minister Jeremy Hunt from declaring in a statement in the fall that he wants the UK to be the next Silicon Valley. If it was simply that he wanted Britain to become a more innovative and productive economy, few would question his intentions. Now he and the rest of his government are obliged to match their refreshing rhetoric with focused action. The UK has a good story to tell about innovative technology start-ups. But there are at least four areas where the government can help build on its success.
Nearly all UK tech companies are looking for more skilled employees to begin with. But the country’s outdated education system doesn’t provide them enough. As a report from the ScaleUp Institute highlighted this year, schools are not devoting enough resources to computer science. The number of computing teachers in the UK has fallen by 17% between 2013 and 2021 to 12,719. At Oxford University, there are more than twice as many undergraduates in computer science as in the humanities.
Companies often fill their talent shortages by hiring skilled workers from abroad. Skilled immigrants make a huge contribution to UK business and the government needs to make it clear that they are welcome. But some ministers are doing their best to dissuade students and entrepreneurs by fomenting hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric. The UK, which has consistently ranked her second only to the US in previous polls, has dropped to her seventh place in the ranking of preferred destinations, according to her latest Gallup poll.
Third, the government has made a major rhetorical commitment to transform the UK into a scientific superpower, pledging to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of gross domestic product. But it is the bare minimum required to compete in the global economy. It still falls short of countries such as Israel, South Korea and the United States. A permanent exclusion from the EU’s 95 billion Horizon research program would devastate many UK-based science projects. Biotech startups also resent Hunt’s shrinking of his R&D tax credit to small businesses.
Governments will ultimately need to do more to incentivize growth capital to help expand promising start-ups. Over the past two decades, the UK has built one of Europe’s most vibrant venture capital industries, but it still lacks the financial resources to transform a national champion into a global corporation. Institutional funds that prefer bonds should be encouraged to imitate their Canadian counterparts and invest more in alternative his equity assets.
French President Emmanuel Macron has defended his country’s tech sector for several years, giving the UK much tougher competition. Paris recently grabbed London’s crown as Europe’s most valuable stock market. This competition should provide further impetus for the UK to double down on the success of its technology sector. Britain will never build another Silicon Valley. But it is still possible to create uniquely powerful economic combinations of research, technology, finance and creativity.
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