Keynote speech by Secretary of State Donelan at the Lord Mayor’s Innovation and Technology Dinner.

The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP

The last year has been a year of firsts for technology in the UK.

For the first time, our tech sector joined China and the USA, as the only countries in the world worth over one trillion dollars.

The government acquired its very first quantum computer.

And I am here tonight as our country’s first Technology Secretary.

But tonight’s event is reassuringly not one of those firsts.

Nearly 150 years ago, 300 of the country’s best inventors, scientists and technology experts had a dinner just like this at Mansion House.

They discussed the future of science and technology, wondering what incredible opportunities might be around the corner.

They sat where we are sitting this evening, before the lightbulb had even been invented, and helped to start a technology revolution that went beyond anything any single one of them could have imagined.

The next day, the Morning Post described the dinner as a turning point for the United Kingdom – ushering in the age of science and technology.

Now while I hope we all go away this evening with a renewed sense of optimism for the future, our generations’ technological turning point is not happening in a single dining hall.

It is happening in cities, towns and villages where the next generation of coders and software engineers are innovating from their own living rooms.

It is happening in shared office spaces where Britain’s brightest and best are collaborating.

It is happening in our public services, where our NHS, transport system and military are gradually becoming hotbeds of innovation.

Our technology revolution is more democratic, open and inclusive than ever before.

Listening to industry, following the evidence and focusing on outcomes – is the approach that drove many of those here tonight to success,

And it is the approach that I and my new Department are taking.

This evening, I want to talk about three of my priorities to drive this incredible culture of entrepreneurialism and creativity forward, and how we are going to solidify this country as a Science and Tech Superpower by the end of this decade.

At the heart of that mission is going to be scaleups.

The UK digital sector is growing three times faster than the rest of the economy.

We are home to over 85,000 tech startups and scale ups, providing over 3 million jobs.

But it is about more than pounds and pence.

When we create the right conditions to allow tech businesses to scaleup and grow, it doesn’t just create jobs and grow the economy it advances our way of life:

Hospitals get next generation, lifesaving equipment.

Public transport becomes safer, faster and cheaper.

The police and emergency services become more effective and efficient.

For people up and down the country, scaling up tech businesses of the future will produce the types of technological breakthroughs that allow us all to live longer, happier, healthier and smarter.

But there is no magic formula.

For some businesses, scaleup will require access to the right kind of capital investment.

Others may need to plug into a cluster or an ecosystem in a local area.

And many simply need a combination of things like skills, finance, partner organisations and access to new technologies like quantum or supercomputers.

In just 7 weeks of the department’s existence, we have listened to business and been delivering.

From our £2.5 billion quantum package, to the UK becoming just one of a handful of countries on the planet building a £900 million exascale supercomputer – we are building the infrastructure that will act as the runway for new scaleups.

But it is not just about public money.

Investors and financial institutions are going to be crucial.

For every pound the government invests in R&D right now, the private sector is investing about 2.

That is why the Chancellor announced that we are supporting qualifying R&D intensive small businesses with £27 worth of support for every £100 of private expenditure.

£1.8 billion over the next 5 years.

It is no wonder then that the UK is attracting more investment into technology than France and Germany combined.

And we are the Fintech capital of Europe attracting more investment last year than any country expect the US.

And I am delighted that Ron Kalifa is here with us today, whose review into fintech has been crucial for capitalising on our competitive edge in a uniquely British area of expertise.

Governments are often accused, of talking too much and acting too little.

This government is not one of them.

Instead, we are listening to what businesses and entrepreneurs are asking for … and delivering.

To name just 2 of the new investments we have launched in less than 7 weeks…

Our brand new Tech Missions Fund

– which is backed by £250 million will help businesses scaleup in key technologies like quantum and bioengineering.

I am also uplifting the UK Innovation and Science Seed Fund by a further £10 million to help scaleups attract private investment.

This comes up top of quantum and supercomputing capabilities

– which will fuel thousands of new scaleups across the country.

These are just a handful of what will be a constant drumbeat, of action-focussed announcements you will see from me in the coming months.

However, just as those sat here 150 years ago knew, the people in this room tonight know that innovators are our greatest asset.

People, skills and talent are the lifeblood of our technology sector.

I mentioned earlier that last year the UK became only the third country in the world with a tech sector worth over one trillion dollars.

It is only the United States and China who have also passed that incredible milestone.

What you may not have heard is how much those 3 countries owe to skills for their success.

If you look behind the rankings, you find that each of these 3 countries understand the importance of skills.

Just consider the fact that of the 25 highest ranking universities in the world, 22 of them are located in those 3 countries.

And it is also no coincidence that those 3 countries also occupy 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the rankings for the number of academic publications per year, and between them produce more Nobel Prize winners than the rest of the world combined.

However getting to a trillion dollar valuation is no accident – in each of these 3 cases it came about because the importance of skills was recognised.

But as our Science and Technology Framework recently set out, we are not content to simply be a challenger nation to China and the United States.

We want to become a genuine Science and Technology Superpower by 2030.

In the 7 weeks since I became the Secretary of State, I made skills a key priority and have started to take decisive action…

Working with the Department for Business and Trade we have started a Global Talent Network for AI to bring the best AI minds in the world to come and work in the UK.

We’re pumping an extra £50 million into modernising our world class labs.

And we’re doubling the number of AI PhD researchers.

That’s what we’ve done in 7 weeks – imagine what we’ll have done in 7 months.

However, the right skills and the right scaleup ecosystem won’t deliver results if we don’t have the right approach to regulation.

Not only do regulations themselves need to be clear to interpret and simple to implement, but we have to have the right regulatory behaviour.

Of course regulations need to be grounded in common-sense for people to understand their intention, but they also need to be agile enough to keep up with the pace of change, especially in areas like AI with a cohesive framework that all regulators can work to.

And you will hear more this week when we launch the AI White Paper, because regulation must not stamp out innovation.

Regulate to innovate is the culture I am bringing to my new department.

Just take data – it is the foundation for innovation across science and technology.

Once again, rather than simply diagnose the problem, my department is getting stuck in with the solution.

We launched a co-design process with businesses on data, some of whom will be here tonight, to create a new, bespoke and simplified version of GDPR for the UK.

UK GDPR, will build on the strengths of EU GDPR, while ensuring that we maintain our adequacy status to allow businesses to trade and share data across Europe safely.

To be clear it won’t mean companies trading with the EU will have to run 2 systems, because companies operating on EU GDPR will largely comply with our system automatically with some minor changes like a requirement for a complaints system.

UK GDPR will however be simpler and easier to follow – avoiding the behaviour we often currently see where companies can become data adverse.

Talking of regulation – a few weeks ago we published our Science and Technology Framework document, one of the 10 points is dedicated to regulations and standards– setting out a pro-growth, pro-innovation and pro-business approach.

It also provides business with the government’s long term strategic direction needed to provide clarity, stability and confidence.

This will be backed up by our soon to be published AI White Paper, which sets the UK apart in AI by ensuring that agility and innovation come first.

And just the other week, we announced in the government’s response to the Vallance Review that we will be accepting all recommendations starting with the creation of an AI sandbox.

We agree the government should avoid regulating emerging digital technologies too early, to avoid the risk of stifling innovation.

Before I hand over to the Brian McBride,

I want to leave you all with one thought for the coming year.

Whether you are a captain of industry or a young entrepreneur, we want to work with you to achieve our goal to become a Science and Technology superpower.

But be in no doubt, we are not chasing that title for status or glory.

Being a Science and Technology Superpower is not about records, rankings or awards.

I will be measuring our success by the things that matter to real people.

When all is said and done, access to technology is often the difference between living comfortably… and having to live with hardship.

It is the difference between having a job that is fulfilling and meaningful… and simply working to survive.

Very often, it is the difference between losing a loved one prematurely… and having them here with us.

I want our generation’s technology revolution to change everyone’s lives for the better in ways they can see and feel around them.

If we can achieve that, then we will truly be a Science and Technology Superpower.

Thank you once again.

Published 29 March 2023