The Stack Archive Interview

How Renew Britain aims to start a ‘tech revolution’

Fri 4 May 2018

Renew Britain was formed in 2017 by former Foreign Office anti-terror officer Chris Coghlan and is a political party with a few basic aims. It wants to turn back Brexit, occupy the centre ground of British politics, and instigate what it calls a ‘tech revolution.’

It placed candidates in the recent local elections in Wandsworth, Tower Hamlets, Chiswick, Ealing, Greenwich and Tyneside. In some areas of those constituencies, the party received more votes than the Lib Dems. Having drawn comparisons to En Marche, the French party led to success by Emmanuel Macron, another centrist technophile, the party has potential to have a big impact on British politics.

This publication knows better than to meddle in politics – least of all Brexit – so it will stick to what it knows – technology. We met with James Torrance, one of the party’s principals, to discuss what exactly a ‘tech revolution’ means, how the party plans on making that happen, and how technologies like artificial intelligence might change our economy forever.

The Stack: What is a tech revolution to you?

James Torrance: I think there are two ways of looking at it. It’s a revolution in the economy that will have far-reaching impacts. At Renew we think a lot about the way in which automation and artificial intelligence will affect industries that have been relatively insulated from those kinds of things before. Given that our economy is so heavily service-based, as those kinds of things creep into more and more industries, it’s going to dramatically change what work looks like for everybody.

That’s one element. The other aspect is how the government interacts with its citizens, and how it delivers services. If you take, for instance, the new cancer treatment CAR T, it’s fairly revolutionary in terms of the results it gets. But, it’s a completely different business model because it’s a sort of a ‘drug-as-service.’ Previously, drug companies have had a process where they make a drug, manufacturer it, sell it on to a hospital, and that’s it.

james torrance renew

James Torrance is one of Renew Britain’s principals.

Now, however, you have a situation where you have to find a patient, take their blood, bring it into a processing centre, do the work, take it back out to the patient, and that needs to happen all within a reasonable time period – you can’t ship blood halfway around the world and back again. That means that the supply chain is completely different, and the health service won’t be able to cope. They’re in a position where they’re still using fax, or maybe a word document attached to an email.

The Stack: So, what would you do if you were in power tomorrow?

JT: A lot of the things we want to do cost money, that’s the reality. As a first step, I’d say we try and make chunky investments or capital available to drive commercialisation of technologies we have developed. As well as that, there’s a big issue around access to skills and that’s where I think the government’s immigration policy is incredibly damaging.

You need to bring in skills from all over the world in order to take advantage of those technologies. So, I would want to liberalise that end quite considerably. I think that’s a decision that the government can make, it doesn’t require investment or additional spending.

I think you then have to look at the skills you’re generating internally and how you incentivise people to build the right sorts of skill levels. That means looking at tuition fees in universities, and how you fund and encourage people to do the right kinds of degrees. It’s very trendy and easy for people to say ‘we’ll encourage STEM’, but you have to back that up with cash basically.

The Stack: You’ve written that you would scrap tuition fees for STEM subjects. That’s quite controversial.

JT: Yes, it’s a massive challenge, and getting the balance right is really difficult – we know we will upset some people. I actually think the opposite is already happening. There’s already an imbalance away from subjects that are difficult to teach – you are seeing universities and colleges shut down classes that are really resource-intensive, like STEM subjects.

More importantly, I think there is a real long-term issue which needs to be addressed which is the impact of technological change over a 30-year time frame. You won’t be able to enter a career when you’re 20 and think ‘I can reliably do this for the next 40-45 years.’ That career will change massively in the time that you’re in that industry, and so we have to prepare the whole workforce to be in industries that change, to be able to re-train midway through their career and respond to new changes.

We have to ask, is it helpful to decide that there is a guillotine moment where you make your university and career decision? Maybe you’d be better going into a career for 5-10 years and coming back to it later. We make it really difficult for mature students at the moment, getting funding, going through the application process, getting support for families and that kind of thing – it’s really tough. So, looking at the way we approach education is definitely an important part.

The Stack: We have written articles on The Stack about AI and IoT initiatives by the current government. Are you saying they’re not doing enough?

JT: They are obviously willing to recognise that these things are important, but there is relatively little cash behind it. I think here, immigration is a good example of where the government allocates its priorities. It might say that AI is important and fundamental to the British economy going forward, but the reality is that when you get into the government’s immigration policy, their priority is reducing net migration to below 100,000. And that aim trumps AI or IoT or anything in their industrial strategy.

For us, I would say that I don’t really necessarily want to reduce net migration to below 100,000, but I would say building an economy that works in the 21st century is more important than whether we have 100,000 or 200,000 immigrants. That’s where the government, when they end up actually being forced to make choices, they choose the wrong things.

The next step for Renew, says Torrance, is a ‘down-on-the-ground’ campaign in the build-up to the Brexit decisions that are being made in the autumn. Depending on which way that goes, he says, they will have to adjust their policies accordingly. One thing that won’t change, he says, is the party’s commitment to technology.

It remains to be seen whether this commitment, alongside the party’s controversial Brexit policies, will be enough to persuade the British electorate in the long term.


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