THE transformation of the North of England to a digital economy needs to be carried out in such a way that it allows all of society to benefit, it has been warned.
Leeds alone is currently home to a tech sector turning over more than £1bn a year with a GVA of £3bn, employing moe than 30,000 people, a figure expected to rise massively in coming years.
However research shows that just a quarter of businesses were collaborating effectively across the sector and concerns over access to talent and the effect things like artificial intelligence can have on workforces rising.
Jon Davies, founder of Switching Energy, told a discussion event organised by professional services firm EY, that it was unrealistic to expect all children currently at school to leave education prepared for a role in digital tech.
“So how do we position Leeds as a place whereby there are jobs right the way across technology, from production right through to the design side of things and everything in between?
“There is a danger we end up with just a segment of that and part of our society is left behind.
“Leeds is a prime example of that happening already.
“So when we think about the kind of things we want this city has to offer it has to be right across the board, there are all types of people across the city who could find themselves left behind.
“So part of the Northern Powerhouse initiative should be looking at how do we keep everyone engaged?”
Pete Casson, chief technology officer at Sheffield-based Twinkl, which specialises in education technology, said that changes in curriculum were needed to ensure that young people had tech skills embedded at the heart of all learning.
He said IT and technology should remain as a subject topic and but also taught across every subject.
“How we answer that question is it is not just a question of putting it in the curriculum, it is about changing the mind sets of people and taking away the apprehension of technology and the idea that it is something which is difficult to use.
“There is still an awful lot of work to be done.”
Sarah Tulip, operation director at Software Cloud in Leeds, said the problem was not just confined to young people.
Pointing towards large employers in the city cutting roles due to increasing automation, and rapidly evolving technology, more needed to be done to prepare society for changes,
“We are going to have a real problem at the other end of our workforce because, as we automate and cut out humans, there are going to be a whole pool of people who find themselves unsuitable for a digital workplace,” she said.
“We could have an aged population that finds itself unemployable because of the latest industrial revolution.”
Omair Vaiyani, founder & CTO of Synap in Leeds said that there were many examples of artificial intelligence technologies making companies more efficient and creating jobs.
He said: “It just depends on how you use the AI, it is just a technology and how it is deployed can be for the good.
“There is a difficult taxi exam in Ireland where the pass rate is about 10 per cent and yet they are struggling to get more taxi drivers on the road and unemployment is going up.
“They came to us and used our learning system to take that 10 per cent to 90 per cent and we used that AI to help those drivers learn better.
“It is not AI in itself that is making things for the worse, if you use it properly you can increase jobs.
“In terms of skill sets, if you are going to deploy it then yes you need to be highly skilled, but if you are just going to use it then you don’t.”
Elsewhere, responding to data that only a quarter of companies are actively collaborating with other businesses to embrace the next stage of digital technology, Ms Tulip said this tended to be confined to leadership level.
“If you look in the tech hubs a lot of the businesses are collaborating and I think a lot of people do not realise that their employees are doing that.”
The disucssion event was held at the Platform offices in Leeds and is one of several being held across the North by professional services firm EY.
Looking at how the North can be at the forefront of the next Industrial Revolution, the Ideas Sprint events will be pulled together to produce a report with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (NPP), which will then be presented to the Government as recommendations ahead of the Budget.
Andrew McPhillips, chief economist at the NPP, said digital growth was a key area for the North’s economy and one that could advance without relying on transport infrastructure upgrades.