AS I SEE IT
Scotland needs to turn words into action in order to build on the promise of a digital future, writes TERRY MURDEN
The September Fintech Festival is well under way, with the first of more than 50 events exposing Scotland’s expertise to a global audience. Next month the EIE pitching conference, now a firm fixture in the business calendar, will also focus international eyes on the best young talent. No one can say the pandemic is holding back ambition.
However, there are also occasional reminders that ambition alone is not a guarantee of success and that there is much still to be done for Scotland to justify its claim to be among the world’s leading technology nations.
A collective will to succeed has grown around the sector in recent years, fired by a new belief in entrepreneurialism and, crucially, matching it with innovation emerging in universities. If confidence is a measure of success, then Scotland has certainly turned a corner, and it has been rewarded with some landmark company creations that have achieved global notoriety.
Even so, beneath the sometimes over-zealous cheerleading, not least in sections of the media, there is a vulnerability that needs to be cushioned from the impact of external pressures, such as the even faster growth of the sector in other parts of Britain and the under-provision of companies that defies the often misplaced assumption that Scotland has somehow got it cracked.
There have been a number of early warning alarms that should act as an antidote to any creeping complacency. CBRE’S ‘Tech Cities’ report last year warned that Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland’s principal standard bearers for the sector, will need to raise their game to maintain their high ranking among the top UK technology cities as rivals such as Manchester close in with increasingly attractive offers.
More recently, Mark Logan’s widely-acclaimed report on building a tech eco-system recognised the progress made but spelled out what needs to be done if Scotland’s is to reach the crucial tipping point where it becomes self-supporting and sufficiently attractive as a destination for international talent.
For those who’ve not yet read it, I would recommend catching up with our interview last week with veteran turnaround specialist Alan Faichney who explains how a shortage of capital and opportunities means Scotland still has some way to go to achieve the sort of critical mass enjoyed by cities such as Cambridge.
Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has committed the Scottish Government to act on all of Logan’s recommendations. It is a pledge that will resonate throughout the tech community, though cynics will suspect a bit of opportunistic vote-winning ahead of next year’s election. Faichney has already said the £4m on offer for the first handful of incubators “won’t get us very far”.
The lesson here is that commitment has to go beyond a few headline-grabbing press releases.
We have been promised entry to Fintech’s “Champions League” as part of the economy’s transition to the new digital age. Never has this been so urgent. The pandemic has exposed Scotland’s economic fragility, too dependent on tourism and hospitality which have been goosed by the pandemic. As my colleague Bill Magee wrote earlier this month, we saw Silicon Glen, and the arrival of US and Far investment in chip and PC manufacturing, vanish as quickly as it emerged.
Ms Forbes has form in tackling the economy from her earlier role as Economy Minister but she needs to learn quickly that ambition has to be turned into action to guarantee Scotland a place at the digital world’s top table.