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From diversity to defence: Tech leaders’ wishlist for the next PM

Picture Credits: The official photostream of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Many think Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a 4 July election will be the only surprise of a campaign in which the result is considered a foregone conclusion by many. Indeed, Sunak’s announcement, competing with protesters belting out Things can only get better while his suit gamely did its best to relieve pressure on Thames Water’s drainage system, appeared to underline that describing Conservative expectations as extremely low is unrealistically generous.

But there are six weeks of campaigning ahead, and a lot can happen in that time. Here are a few thoughts from tech leaders on what they are hoping for, whoever is sitting in No. 10 on Friday, 5 July.

A listening government

Sunak has often been praised, and criticised, for being an aspirant tech bro. But not all feel that he has done all that he could for the sector.

Sarah Turner, Home Grown ambassador and Angel Academe CEO, hopes that the next government will work more closely with the sector. “It’s about time we saw better engagement with the startup ecosystem,” Turner said. “During the Coalition Cameron years, entrepreneurs were in and out of Number 10, right at the heart of things and the engagement was high. It’s been remote and disjointed in recent times. I’d like to see an energetic government focused on the high-growth scene that truly listens.”

Chris Bruce, Chairman of Cambridge Tech Week, made a similar point. “Whichever Government we have next will need to think carefully about how to support the science and technology communities and tech hubs,” he said. Highlighting the regional tech sector around Cambridge as an example, he added that it was vital the government recognised their role “with policies and following action to match, to improve public services and create high-skilled jobs that can power it forward.”

Improving diversity

Sarah Turner, also added that she would like the government to use policy to increase diversity in the sector. “I would like to see increased support for female entrepreneurs on the list of government priorities. Support and investment for female entrepreneurs has been minimal and performative, so the next government needs to focus on turning words into action,” she said. She cites America as a positive example, “for a long time, the US has supported buying from female and minority-owned businesses with tax breaks and other incentives; it’s time we followed.”

Prioritising defence tech

Sunak’s announcement gave some clues of the ground he wants to fight the election on, and defence is one of those areas, where he highlights the decision to increase defence spending.

Andriy Dovbenko, Principal and Founder of UK-Ukraine TechExchange, highlighted the wider importance of defence. “The elected government must prioritise defence and international cooperation,” he said. “What we have seen since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine is global instability, from food scarcity to soaring fuel and energy prices. Whichever government is elected on 4th July must invest in technology (and the companies spearheading this) that will help achieve and maintain security.”

Skyrora’s CEO and founder, Volodymyr Levykin, echoed the importance of defence, and the role of space in that. “Skyrora would like to see investment in the space sector on the list of any government’s priorities,” he said. “Unlocking space is key to stimulating a thriving economy and will also play an important role in the nation and its allies’ defence capabilities.”

Addressing the challenges of AI

Sunak hosted the world’s first AI Safety Summit, but the event did not result in any meaningful changes to policy or regulation. Several leaders commented that the next government will have to deal with AI, whether they want to or not.

“Whoever is the leader of the next government will, almost by default, need to take a personal interest in and stance on AI,” said Dr Roeland Decorte, CEO and Founder of Decorte Future Industries. Calling for ‘a cautious and balanced approach to regulation’, he said he hopes for a government that does “the hard work of engaging directly with, and listening to, the UK startups that will form the backbone of a healthy domestic AI economy.”

The legal challenges presented by AI are also likely to cross the Prime Minister’s desk. “There is an urgent need to reform the law if we are to effectively deal with AI, including the patentability of AI-assisted innovation and fair use of publicly available data to train AI,” said Peter Finnie, Partner and Patent Attorney, Potter Clarkson. He pointed out cases, like the recent controversy over similarities between the voices of OpenAI’s chatbot and Scarlett Johansson, saying, “there is little in the law that directly deals with the issues that are coming thick and fast, other than attempts to interpret outdated laws. This needs to change.”

A real strategy

If there is a constant message in all the comments, it is that tech leaders are looking to the government to incentivise and support the sector.

Ali Nicholl, Founding Member and Head of Engagement at IOTICS, focused on this. “We need a government that recognises the importance of startups and SMEs as drivers of growth and prosperity. Highly volatile market conditions coupled with a carousel of politicians has led to increased instability without providing meaningful direction and leadership,” he said.

Outlining the challenges ahead, he called for the government to present “a vision of a freer, fairer, society that embraces diversity, creativity, and ingenuity with policies that focus on outcomes rather than tasks.”

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