Who will be the next generation of technology millionaires?

(Image: “IT is innovation” by Frank Allan Hansen)

A few years ago I attended a dinner debate hosted by the British Computer Society about the future of technology careers in the UK. At the time, I’d recently written a report for IBM UK on the subject. The common motivation was to explore the effect of globalisation on the UK’s IT industry.

Despite the continuing emergence of high quality technology industries around the world, the local demand for technology skills in the UK was then, and is now, increasing. The secret to understanding the seeming contradiction is twofold.

Firstly, consider which specific skills are required, and why. To cut a long story short, the ones that are needed on-shore in countries with high wages such as the UK are the ones most closely tied to agile innovation in local economic and cultural markets, or to the operation of critical infrastructures (such as water, roads and energy) or operations (such as banking and law enforcement).

Secondly, the more fundamental point is that we’re living through an Information Revolution that is increasing in pace and impact. That means the demand for science, technology, mathematics and information skills is going through the roof across the board. As  evidence, consider this article from McKinsey on the hidden “Information Economy”; or the claim that 90% of the information in the world was created in the last two years (widely referenced, e.g. by this article in Forbes); or that IBM now employs more mathematics PhD holders than any other organisation in the world.

At the BCS debate, a consultant from Capgemini introduced the evening by describing his meeting that morning with a group of London-based internet entrepreneurs. These people were young (20-25), successful (owning and running businesses worth £millions), and fiercely technology literate.

Today, I wonder if the same meeting would be held with internet entrepreneurs? In ten years time, I certainly don’t think it will be – they’ll be genetic engineers, nano-technologists, or experts in some field we can’t imagine yet. Of course, there are already many early entrepreneurs exploring those fields, as was shown in Adam Rutherford’s recent BBC Horizon documentary “Playing God”  (see this video or this review).

I’ve blogged recently about the importance of skills, education and localism to the future of our cities’ and country’s economies. This leads me to believe that more important than addressing the UK’s shortfall in IT skills (as reported by e-Skills last year) is understanding how to systematically integrate the teaching of technology, science, creative and business skills across schools, universities and vocational education. Further, that needs to be done in a way that’s responsive to the changes that will come to the sciences and technologies that have the most power to compliment the unique economy, geography and culture of the British isles.

This is already a problem for the UK economy. The e-Skills report found that UK businesses are nearly 10% less productive than US ones; and that 80% of that gap is down to less effective use of technology. Their research predicts that closing the technology gap could contribute £50bn to the UK economy over 5-7 years. But their finding that the British Education system provides less than 20% of the technology skills we need today means that closing the gap will be hard.

As the information revolution proceeds, the problem will get worse. And unless we do something about it in an enlightened way that recognises that the science and technology skills we’ll need in 10 years time are not the IT skills that are familiar to us today, we’ll fail to address it.

I was born in 1970; for me, the Tandy TRS80 computer my family bought in 1980 was a technological marvel, with its 16k RAM and graphic resolution of 128×48 pixels (all of them green). Today, my 3 year old son is growing up with a high resolution smartphone touchscreen as an unremarkable part of his world. By the time he’s of working age, the world will be unrecognisable – as will the skills he’ll require to be successful in it.

From the earliest years, we need to be exciting children in the mixture of creativity; abstract thinking and modelling; mathematics, technology, art and entrepreneurialism that are apparent now in such forums as TED. (www.ted.com). Whatever their interest and acumen, we need to give them the opportunity to find their own niche in that range of cross-disciplinary skills that will be economically valuable in the future. If we don’t, they won’t be ready to find jobs in the industries of the future when the computer programming industry, and others as we know them today, disappear.

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About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK's largest engineering and infrastructure services companies, and part of the Ferrovial Group. Previously, I was IBM UK's Executive Architect for Smarter Cities. You can connect with me on Linked-In and as @dr_rick on Twitter. The views expressed here are my own.

8 Responses to Who will be the next generation of technology millionaires?

  1. Pingback: Who will be the next generation of technology millionaires? « NanoSpeed

  2. Peter Ward says:

    Yes, but how? Governments come and go, and education remains stubbornly and consistently poor. In fact, I would suggest it’s actually worse now than when we were at school and university.

    I wouldn’t mind a lower level of knowledge if there were a commensurate increase in “creativity, abstract thinking and modelling”, but there isn’t that I can see — and I have one child at senior school and another recently left university.

    Instead, it seems the population is being increasingly expected to believe and to do as it’s told in this “post-scientific” world where so-called science and politics line up against reason and the scientific method we learnt.

    So how do we achieve this? How do we facilitate learning of creativity, flexibility and cross-domain skills, and becoming a generalist/T-shaped person? When universities are struggling even to cooperate across departments* even within a School and the big questions range across Schools?

    * A recent discussion with a professor was enlightening. Doing a PhD requires a supervisor. Anything cross-discipline requires multiple supervisors, and starts to equate to doing multiple PhDs. And that’s without the problem of finding an examiner who can understand the thesis. All this points to most PhDs remaining mono-discipline at a time when we need more breadth.

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  3. rickrobinson says:

    Hi Pete,

    You make some very good points. I don’t for a moment think that the changes I have suggested will be easy to achieve, or that I’m the first person who these thoughts have occurred to.

    I think there are some positives we can look too: I went to a parents’ evening at my 3-year old son’s nursery yesterday. Amongst his achievements and interests I learnt were music, painting, counting to 40 and computer programming. If that mix of activities isn’t the right place to begin, I don’t know what is. Clearly we also have responsibilities as parents to instil the value of learning in our children and provide them with the broadest possible set of opportunities to explore where their own creativity, talents and interests lie.

    I’ll also mention my own experience as a Physics PhD student; I spent significant time outside the Physics department in Computer Science, Mathematics, Materials Science, Nanotechnology and Electronic Engineering, all of which contributed meaningfully to my final thesis. In fact, the degree of “bottom-up” collaboration between these schools was remarkable. There are also good examples of formal cross-disciplinary Research organisations including WMG at the University of Warwick, with whom we’re both familiar!

    Finally, there are some interesting initiatives already underway in education – both the grass-roots movements of teachers sharing experience and resources to teach the creative use of computing and social media, and in more concrete initiatives such as the Birmingham Ormiston Academy who provide vocational education in the creative arts.

    However … these are isolated, interesting examples; without a more holistic approach they will not amount to the changes that I think need to happen. In my view the challenge is a broad and significant one for our society and culture as much as our education system. It needs to begin in our families and spread through every level of education and employment in a way that is organised and holistic.

    I’m going to start an initiative next year amongst IBM’s technical community to get to grips with these challenges and understand how we can contribute to meeting them; and I’ll reach out to our contacts in education, academia and industry in doing so. Let me know if you’d like to be part of it!

    Cheers,

    Rick

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  4. Pingback: Accessibility or Bust « meme-too

  5. Peter Cripps says:

    Rick, Nice post and something close to my heart as well (http://softwarearchitecturezen.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/why-we-need-stem-graduates.html). The challenge we have is how to get these 21st century skills taught in an education system that was basically constructed in the previous century when the world was very different indeed. It worries me that discussions in the news just this week about universities taking over A levels to prepare students for university is missing the point somewhat. We need young people to be prepared for a world where they need to make a decent living when the knowledge they have probably needs to be refreshed every 5 years at least! In other words anything they learn when they start secondary school will probably be out of date by the time they leave! Rather than teaching facts and how to pass tests (A-levels or whatever) we should be focusing on the three C’s (creativity, communication and collaboration) and giving them the basic ability to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing world. I think that industry definitely needs to play a bigger part in this. Similar to you I learnt my programming on a BBC micro, a joint initiative between government, BBC and industry (Acorn as was). More initiative like this would be a good start.

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  6. Peter Cripps says:

    This is definitely worth a read as well: http://www.squidoo.com/stop-stealing-dreams. To whet your appetite:

    “The economy has changed, probably forever.

    School hasn’t.

    School was invented to create a constant stream of compliant factory workers to the growing businesses of the 1900s. It continues to do an excellent job at achieving this goal, but it’s not a goal we need to achieve any longer.”

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    • rickrobinson says:

      Thanks Pete,

      Not for the first time we seem to be on the same page. It’s interesting to ask: what’s the point of an education system that’s based on learning facts, when tablet technology now literally puts every fact in the world at our fingertips on demand? Our relationship with information has changed fundamentally, and we need to grips with that. Look forward to working with you on this,

      Cheers,

      Rick

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  7. Pingback: Is the Raspberry Pi the New BBC Microcomputer? | Software Architecture Zen

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