Budget 2017: Hammond targets UK productivity with tech investment

Parliament building at night

Digital skills and startup funding were among the government's Budget priorities today, as it seeks to reinvigorate the UK's waning productivity.

Committing 3 billion to cushion the landing of a potential hard Brexit, Hammond said: "This Budget is about much more than Brexit. For the first time in decades Britain is genuinely at the forefront of this technological revolution.

"Not just in our universities and research institutes, but this time in the commercial development labs of our great companies, and on factory floors and business parks across this land. But we must invest to secure that bright future for Britain."

His first stop was productivity. After acknowledging that the OBR has revised down Britain's GDP growth forecast to 1.5% this year (falling to 1.3% in 2019) due to "stubbornly flat" productivity growth, Hammond pressed on with a flurry of investment announcements in the tech sector.

Last year's 23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund will now provide 31 billion in funding over six years, compared to the originally planned five. R&D will receive another 2.3 billion investment, under the government's Industrial Strategy aim to ramp up R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP.

Startups and skills

Hammond declared that he wants to double the number of tech startups founded in Britain, to see one created every half an hour, and announced a 10 million Regulators' Pioneers Fund to help regulators find new ways to bring emerging tech - AI and 5G - to market.

As previously reported by IT Pro, the government's startup promotion body, Tech City UK, will be rebranded as Tech Nation, a body with a remit to spend 21 million on developing the UK's various startup hubs.

In a bid to tackle the UK's stark digital skills gap, Hammond also outlined fresh cash to retrain people and provide a greater focus on maths and computing for children and teenagers.

A National Retraining Partnership with the TUC and CBI will focus on targeting digital skills shortages through methods such as online classes, and an 8.5 million investment in workplace-based learning.

A further 406 million is to be used to improve maths and computing education, with 84 million of that dedicated to upskilling 8,000 computer science teachers, and bringing the number of computer science teachers up to 12,000 by the end of the government's current term, to help boost studies in the subject. A National Centre for Computing will support schools and supply them with training materials.

The government also committed to finding ways to address the gender imbalance in STEM studies.

Deputy CEO of industry lobby group TechUK, Antony Walker, said: "TechUK is pleased to see the Chancellor's package of 100 million to expand teaching of computing in schools. TechUK has been flagging the urgent need for additional funding since 2014."

AI and 5G

The Budget also set aside 160 million to invest in new 5G infrastructure, including a 10 million project with the National Cyber Security Centre and 5 million for a 2018 trial.

In fact, the government is spending 500 million collectively on 5G, AI, full fibre broadband and other technological innovation.

A Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation will seek to ensure "safe, ethical and ground-breaking" AI is created, with the government estimating the technology could boost GDP by 10%.

A 75 million investment will see the government create new AI fellowships, fund 450 PhD researchers and explore the possibility of data trusts that control access to data needed to train AI systems.

Chris Rosebert, head of data science and AI at tech recruitment firm Networkers, said: "The multimillion planned investment in AI digital skills courses shows great promise from the government to future proof the UK economy with the technology skills it needs to remain innovative and competitive.

"There is strong competition in Europe for people with AI skills, so this investment will help the UK establish a pipeline of talent for the future and help retain the talent that is already emerging in this country."

SAP's ERP Cloud president, Darren Roos, added: "While today's pledge is an excellent start, other countries are investing far more in AI. Today's pledge from government must act as a catalyst for cross-industry investment in this technology, with bold new ways of working created and AI front and centre."