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James Valentine and Gary Ford look to understand whether the south is building leadership in emerging technology. Their approach is to start by defining what a leadership position might look like and, as dialogic practitioners, begin with a few really good questions, rather than simply provide answers to what might be the wrong question.
At this point, it might be helpful to add a bit more information about what is meant by emerging technologies.
Emerging (or innovative) technologies are those which are not yet fully developed or even understood, but through rapid growth and adoption have the potential to change the status quo. In the past few years, these are some of the areas that have emerged – drones, robotics, virtual or augmented reality, blockchain, the internet of things (IoT), 3D printing, 5G, quantum computing and many more.
In particular, we’ve seen the rise in discussion, debate (and maybe a little bit of hype) around artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). It is worth being clear on what we mean by these terms.
AI is the design and development of IT systems that replace human beings in tasks and activities which normally require human intelligence, such as pattern recognition (visual, speech, etc) and decision making. A lot of these technologies are designed to augment the decision-making capability of a human being as opposed to actually make the decisions themselves.
ML is often used in conjunction with AI, whereby the 'intelligence' that is built to help the decision-making is created by the machine itself, rather than the human. For AI, the starting point is usually a human being defining the patterns that they 'connect' to be the same thing, but once these basic tags are applied, the system can be designed to allow an algorithm to detect the learning patterns and apply them.
There are estimates from Gartner in January of this year that AI and related emerging technologies will replace almost 69% of the manager’s workload by 2024.
So, to our first question. What are the signs of leadership? How about how many people work within the tech sector? How about how many tech employers there are? And how many are providing innovative solutions? Are they winning awards and being recognised?
There are many digital employers in the region with over 8,000 businesses and 62,000 people in the sector in Hampshire alone. Some of those are major employers; take IBM, Starling Bank, Arqiva, JPMorgan, Sony, Ordnance Survey to name a few.
As far back as 2015, Bournemouth and Poole was recognised as having the fastest digital sector growth in the UK. Now both Southampton and Portsmouth have been recognised as being among the 15 fastest-growing creative and digital clusters in the country. The 2019 Tech Nation report named Basingstoke as the 4th best place for digital sector investment.
In terms of the technology talent that is in the region, let me share a story from when I (Ford) worked for JPMorgan in Bournemouth. About five or six years ago, the firm set up 13 technology centres across the world. We were keen to understand how well each was performing and a number of metrics were selected, one of which was how quickly we could hire from the local talent pool. When the data was published, our location was lagging. After many reviews, local data analysis and investment in our local tech recruitment team, the answer was overwhelming: our hiring practices were to blame and once resolved, we halved the time it took to recruit and were competitive with other locations including Glasgow, Texas, Singapore and India. It was clear: there was plenty of technology talent in the region.
Sounds promising so far, right? But can we find some examples where firms in the south are leading the charge in some of the emerging technologies highlighted above, particular in the realm of AI?
With the South Coast Tech Awards on the horizon for its second year, there is no shortage of companies that are beginning to demonstrate their innovative solutions.
We don’t know who the nominees are yet, but some AI specialist businesses have caught our eye. Ascend Technologies, with offices on the Southampton Science Park, offers machine learning, simulation and physics model design services, which helps other businesses innovate faster. Tekever, a Portuguese business working out of Lydd Airfield amongst other places, builds drones which use AI in roles varying as widely as search and rescue and military surveillance. In the pursuit of fuel savings for the logistics industry, Dynamon develops software which ingests vehicle telematics data to produce procurement advice to increase efficiency for the specific journey and truck being analysed. Are you using the right tyres or even the right drivetrain for your use case? Now you can know.
What supporting capabilities should there be? Great universities to foster talent in the STEM fields, supportive local government recognising the economic growth benefits, innovation centres incubating startups and providing resources and expertise, active participation in the third sector?
The region is served by strong technology-related faculties with Southampton, Surrey, Sussex and Portsmouth all within the top 50 for computer science.
Universities in the south are very active in advancing emerging fields. Without doubt, as populations age and the fascination with human longevity and delaying senescence increases, it is the biomed field which will receive increasing focus in the years ahead. These developments are often presented first as improvements to general human health. Southampton University’s IT Innovation Centre incubates startups in a number of data-driven biomed fields, notably in decision support algorithms for use in hospital triage and big data analysis of disease. BigMedilytics, for example, is using data to predict asthma and COPD attacks and inform both the patient and their healthcare team – a first step on the road to hyperpersonalised healthcare with the capacity to save lives as well as extend them.
We have also seen the rise in innovation spaces and incubators across the region. Southampton University, for example, has both the Future Worlds capability which aims to help new creative startups find business partners and mentors as well as providing space for development and research and the Southampton Science Park which looks to support innovative science and technology businesses from startups to multinationals.
According to TechNation 2020, there are more than a dozen regular tech meet-ups in the region, with CafeSci in Basingstoke, the Thames Valley AI hub in Reading and Tech Solent running regular events in both Southampton and Portsmouth.
There are also not-for-profit organisations like Silicon South which aims to raise the recognition, ambition and capabilities of the people and companies in the digital creative and tech sector in Dorset.
So it certainly is beginning to feel like there is a wider community to support our regional technology talent, help them develop their skills, have exciting opportunities to continue their career growth and create the collaboration events that through the collision of minds produce new ideas. Covid-19 may be driving those ideation opportunities online and making it more accessible in the process.
If you look at some of the firms and institutions we have highlighted above, it is interesting that a number of them have had a long history in the region. Southampton University’s Electronics and Computer Science school was first started in 1947; IBM started using Hursley for a development laboratory as far back as 1958; JPMorgan have had a technology hub in Bournemouth since 1985; ICS, the robotic automation specialists in Southampton were established in 1989. It goes to show that groundbreaking firms with emerging technologies can solidify them into mainstream products given the right support.
But will this leadership persist? That is up to all of you reading this magazine who have a passion for business in the region. Without your support and active involvement in this sector, local businesses will struggle, talent will move on and this vibrant community will be weakened or lost.
All businesses should be looking very carefully at both their people and their IT strategy in the current climate. If you have an opportunity to engage with a local firm to help with that, seize that moment, pick up the phone and find out how they can help your business.
We feel that the region is in great shape, with an active and vibrant community made up of large enterprises and startups, innovators and the institutions that incubate them.
But this is no time for businesses to sit on their laurels and all should look for further opportunities to develop the local technology landscape so that the region’s leadership can be sustained. In the words of renowned American broadcaster, Donald McGannon: “Leadership is an action, not a position.”
Valentine and Ford are co-founders of 4iforum. Based in Southampton (and online), 4i is a community of business people and thought leaders who use the power of dialogue to make lasting change in the world.
The authors run the technology specialist forums and share an enthusiasm for the opportunities that technology continues to uncover.
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