Alex's Agenda

Our politicians can’t afford to ignore the future

By Alex Wood 10 February 2016

Our businesses are fit for the modern world. It's time our politicians caught up.

Alex’s Agenda is the weekly column from the front-lines of the future by The Memo’s Editor in Chief, Alex Wood.

“London’s fast becoming the digital capital of Europe.”

Those were the rousing remarks by Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates as he opened the mayoral election hustings at HereEast in the former Olympic Park.

This important event brought together five candidates hoping to become the next Mayor of London, to hear how they plan to retain London’s rightful tech crown.

With digital continuing to outperform almost every other sector, gaining its support will be essential to the future mayor’s success. During his term Mayor Boris Johnson threw his considerable clout behind the sector, supporting the development of London’s so-called ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and today expanding that vision to cover biotechnology too. Whoever wins in May will need to continue and improve upon his legacy.

Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith.

But when it comes to politics, talk is far too cheap.

There’s a woeful lack of understanding of the status quo. Considering we’re the digital capital of Europe, our leaders still fail to speak in a language that reflects the world we live in today.

“I’d like to see a tech champion in every school”

Those were the weak words of Peter Whittle, the UKIP candidate who boasted to the crowd he uses his phone “all the time”. At my school we didn’t need a “tech champion”. I’m not sure exactly what one would do. When I was at school the internet was growing at a rate faster than any politician could cook up with a meaningless policy idea.

“I’ll appoint London’s first Chief Digital Officer.”

All of the candidates announced this idea with a suggestive pause that cried out for applause that failed to materialise from the audience.

The idea was lifted straight from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy book. In 2011, Bloomberg hired Rachel Haot, an internet entrepreneur, to take New York state’s digital presence to “the next level” pioneering initiatives in the fields of open Government and unlocking the city’s data.

While a Chief Digital Officer sounds impressive, I hope the new title lives up to more than its name, as Haot did, and actually delivers tangible change.

Read more: Mayoral hopeful Sadiq Khan on Uber, Google & escaping Corbyn’s shadow

When I went to Google…

London still suffers from substandard broadband, but do our politicians really know what it takes to fix the problem? Instead we heard soundbites about “notspots” and cringeworthy namedrops about “..that time I was at Google Campus” and “…when I was last at Twitter and learned about Periscope”.

The leaders had the best of intentions, but most were drowned out by political guff that served to show a worrying lack of understanding.

Sian Berry, the candidate for the Green party, gave an exceptional opening speech, revealing to the delight of the audience she had previously worked for a tech business.

Instead of sticking rigidly to the script, she spoke confidently off the cuff, outlining sensible ideas like acknowledging the potential positive impact for Uber in improving public transport in the city. This was in contrast to the Conservative’s Zac Goldsmith who pandered to the vote-winning powerful black cab driver lobby.

Green Party candidate Sian Berry.

Talk the talk

I don’t doubt the political abilities of any of the candidates on show. But if the next mayor wants to be taken seriously by a digital-first electorate, the narrative has to change and better represent the way we live today.

Russ Shaw and Tech London Advocates should be applauded for hosting this groundbreaking event that brought together innovative people from the private sector and showed our leaders how very different this new world is from the one we used to live in.

We already have tech leaders in business. Now we need them in our politics.

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