Wayra UK director Gary Stewart says Britain's tech sector needs to do more to ensure the benefits of progress aren’t just being felt by a narrow elite
Some of the world’s most successful companies, from Microsoft and Apple to Amazon and Facebook, are from the tech space. In fact, of the five richest people in the world, three – Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg – are tech entrepreneurs. Technology connects us, helps us stay informed and is no doubt driving wealth and innovation. But it’s also important to recognise the relationship it has with income inequality and recent populist revolts such as Brexit.
The IMF, for example, has found that technology is reducing the income earned by workers in advanced economies. This begs a few questions. First, should we continue to trust the entrepreneurial class? Second, is the government equipped to keep up? And, slightly more pessimistically, is it already too late and are the algorithms already becoming faster, cheaper and more intelligent than we are?
Some will say this is a modern version of an age-old story. In 19th century Britain, the cotton weavers – now known as Luddites – destroyed the spinning jennies, taking away their livelihoods. And while the term Luddite now refers to anyone standing against technological progress, it’s worth noting that even Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have sounded the alarm over unchecked advancement. Only those in a bubble fail to see that the disruptions unleashed by tech have benefited some while harming others. The harm may not have been caused intentionally but it’s often seen as an acceptable cost of being disruptive.
Within tech, we use neutral terms like “disruption” and “unicorn” that obscure potentially negative implications. We project an image of a sector represented by young, socially awkward geeks working out of garages in hoodies, while asking for government support in the form of tax incentives and startup visas. We’re lucky that society now lauds entrepreneurs but Brexit and the election of Trump should be seen as wake-up calls: those who ignore the victims of technological disruption do so at their own peril.
In a context where the “just about managing” are increasingly numerous and shouting to be heard, few politicians now have incentives to help a sector that’s already very rich. However, while tech may generate brilliant new products and well-paid jobs, a taxi driver ousted by driverless cars won’t find a well-paid job at Google. The tech boom has been great for some circles in London but we shouldn’t pretend that the entire country is enjoying the benefits. As someone who grew up in the Bronx, I know that talent can come from anywhere. Regardless of a person’s race, gender, socioeconomic class, geographical location or sexual orientation, my job is to find the best entrepreneurs. That being said, while talent isn’t limited by geography, opportunity sometimes is. And this needs to change.
I wasn’t really forced out of my own tech bubble until Jim McMahon – then head of Oldham Council – invited me for a meeting in 2015. That visit made us determined to democratise entrepreneurship by opening up a startup hub in Oldham, one of the most deprived towns in England. When we publicly announced the new hub, it was time for Jim – now the local MP – to address the audience. But he found himself speechless: he’d been moved to tears as it meant so much to him to see people trying to help his hometown, which had been largely forgotten for far too long. Since then, we’ve opened new facilities in Birmingham and Cheltenham, and we’ll soon launch another in Haringey in north London with help from Sol Campbell, former England international footballer, and the local council.
Tech is here to stay and I simply can’t imagine my life without many of the great products that talented entrepreneurs have turned into brilliant companies. But our sin in the tech sector has been to assume that our problems are everyone’s problems, simply because we control the fast track to progress. It’s simply no longer viable to see anyone who suffers in the process as acceptable collateral damage.