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Tech at heart of new U.K. industrial strategy

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Tech at heart of new U.K. industrial strategy

New technology is a key area of focus for Britain's new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, as detailed in a U.K. government industrial strategy green paper.

Robotics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, connected and autonomous vehicles, drones and 5G mobile networks are just some of the priority areas being targeted by the new fund.

"We have often been slower than competitors to take up and deploy existing technologies: for example, the UK makes less use of robotics and automation than most other countries in Western Europe," according to the green paper, unveiled Jan. 23 by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

The government's proposals are part of efforts to support to British businesses by investing in science and research, targeting regional inequalities and regulatory barriers, as well as upgrading infrastructure and skills.

The new fund is likely to appease concerns in the technology industry, which was flagged as the one of the sectors that would suffer in the wake of a Brexit vote. On Jan. 24, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled the government would require an act of parliament to trigger Article 50 in order to begin the process to leave the European Union.

The government also renewed its commitment to annual autumn statement, first unveiled Nov. 23, 2016, which ushered in £400 million in funding for a new Digital Infrastructure Investment fund, £740 million of which was pledged to 5G and fiber development.

James Sproule, director of policy at the Institute of Directors, welcomed the government's industrial strategy but highlighted the country's broadband network as an area in need of vast improvement.

The U.K. has the fifth largest number of fixed broadband subscriptions and the fourth largest number of mobile subscriptions among OECD countries, according to Speedtest figures. However, Britain ranks 30th in the world for average download speed and 18th in Europe. When it comes to average mobile speeds, the U.K. ranks 40th globally.

"[Broadband network] changes … will take time to take effect, so it is important that the government seeks an immigration policy that avoids skills shortages, which would hold firms back," Sproule concluded.

Tudor Aw, head of KPMG U.K.'s technology sector, agreed that skills would form the backbone of the government's new industrial policy and stressed the importance of training the British workforce to meet demand.

The U.K. is said to produce about 90,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, graduates a year — including international students — but will reportedly need 100,000 new STEM graduates every year until 2020, according to a study commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

To help tackle the shortage in STEM skills, May announced £170 million of new capital funding to new institutes of technology, tasked with delivering higher level technical education to students.

"As has been long recognized, to be successful in tech, we desperately need to upskill our workforce in STEM subjects," Aw said. "[To] see investment in these skills as well as in science, R&D and innovation is hugely promising," he added.

The government also pledged to increase research and development (R&D) spending by an additional £4.7 billion. Britain invests 1.7% of its GDP in R&D, substantially below the OECD average of 2.4% and countries that contribute more than 3% of their GDP, including Denmark, Finland, Israel, Japan, South Korea and Sweden, according the green paper.

Describing May's proposals as a "huge step forward," Alison Vincent, chief technology officer of Cisco UK & Ireland, said the technology fund, the uplift in R&D spending and May's "particular focus" on the development of STEM skills would help establish the U.K. as a "digital powerhouse" in the years to come.