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Wherever you stand on the government’s ‘levelling up’ promises, there can be no doubt that the UK is in urgent need of a rebalancing.

Technology may be ideally placed to realise this, but while specialist clusters have sprung up in all corners of the nation – witness the geographical spread of businesses in our sister publication BusinessCloud’s Tech 50 innovation rankings – investment continues to pour into London and the South East.

Trade association techUK has a firm focus on boosting the regions. “We’ve got to transform this nation of 60-odd million people into high-value, high-skill, hi-tech people,” CEO Julian David tells TechBlast.

“That means all sorts of things: we’re not just talking about data scientists and 5G engineers and physicists, we’re talking about people who can help you use tech; implementation of tech; people who can design the creative industries. It’s a big landscape, but it’s completely short on skills.

“That’s a big mission we’re on. The second thing – which really does energise me – is this whole thing the government calls ‘levelling up’. I call it bringing opportunity to all parts of the country, and giving people that chance to take on a new and interesting career. 

“There’s a lot of places around the country where nobody knows anybody who works in a highly skilled, hi-tech job. And if you look at the stats, the divergence of the country is drifting into people who are in the sort of jobs we’re in; and the people who aren’t. 

“If you’re not careful, this freezes in time. So that’s something I’m really passionate about.”

Building techUK

techUK aims to realise the positive outcomes of what digital technology can achieve through innovation and collaboration. It boasts 860 members, 500 of them SMEs by the Companies House definition of fewer than 250 employees.

David, who also serves on its board of directors, led the transformation from its predecessor Intellect in 2015, putting an increased focus on the growth and jobs the technology industry offers in a global economy. 

“It was a little bit old-fashioned, to be honest,” he says of Intellect. “It didn’t have the right footprint. We weren’t really into some of the new technology areas that are really transforming society.

“We were not a purposeful organisation in the sense that we did a lot of convening and commentary – but did we actually focus on issues and promote solutions that would solve that? It was clear, also, that we needed a new brand.”

David himself underwent a government retraining scheme to enter the industry before a long career at global tech giant IBM culminated in the roles of vice president for small and medium business then public sector.  

“After IBM I did five years as a one-man consulting firm. We got to that point of: do I actually build a company here? But this job came up – I was completely intrigued by the idea of taking over this trade association and transforming it.”

He set about attracting members from ‘chips to clicks’. “The people who design the core basic technology that drives our industry and the digital world; right the way through the classic players in hardware, software, devices and services; through to the people born on the net, the Googles the Metas, the TikToks, the Ubers,” he explains. 

“We also moved location so we were in the city, not in the university area where we were before – we’re not academic, we’re about business. We’re about the application of tech, and we’re about the transformation of society.”

He set about driving forward the tech agenda in key areas such as skills, digital ID and public sector transformation: in 2020, techUK joined forces with TechSkills, the employer-led organisation that aims to improve the flow of talent into the digital workforce.

Today, techUK employs 70 people. “We coined a mantra that said: we must be relevant on the issues that matter – to members, first of all, then the extended industry –  and we must be credible, so we have really got to know what we are talking about. We started to build up people that are specialists in certain areas,” continues David. 

“We moved away from a profile of more generalists to people actually focused on particular programmes. We run 21 programmes and we have people that really focus on that. 

“We want to be influential: deciding what are the big issues, making sure that what we say makes sense, then saying ‘this is what you need to do’.”

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Smart city report

An example of this is a report released by techUK this week which says that every city – regardless of its size – should be looking to develop smart city capabilities.

‘Demystifying the smart city – working towards better implementation’ urges cities to embrace partnership opportunities with technology companies to enable innovative delivery and engagement practices for smart initiatives.  

Intended as a guide for city leaders, the report – developed in partnership with organisations including Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Jacobs, DG Cities and Newcastle City Council – outlines the fundamental steps councils must go through when planning, consulting and delivering smart initiatives. 

Earlier this year, techUK published a separate report which made the case for enhanced digital innovation adoption across the UK’s local public services to improve citizens’ lives.

“We actually wrote the basic papers which have been used by the government to come up with a new approach to digital identity. We aim to do that across the piece,” says David. “We want to campaign more; we want to make things happen.

“We want a high-value, high-skilled economy. So we look at things like international trade, digital trade, we look at things like business innovation measures on a broad scale. And we look in particular at what’s happening up and down the nations and regions of the UK. 

“We’ve done a local digital capital index – a set of dialogues around England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that said: as a community of small businesses, local leaders and tech practitioners, what makes a good digital region or nation; what are the opportunities; and what are the challenges?”

techUK launched the local digital capital index alongside Metro Mayors including Andy Street, Tracy Brabin, Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham.

“We also worked with the Scottish Government, people from Tyneside, Teesside, West of England… you can have that kind of reach now,” says David. “The UK economy is very South East, but particularly in tech, you can see where the hotspots are.”

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Happy Hammer

David, a fan of both West Ham and Real Madrid, represents techUK on a number of external bodies including the Digital Economy Council, the Cyber Growth Partnership and the Department of International Trade’s Strategic Trade Advisory Group. He also sits on the executive board of DIGITALEUROPE and is a member of the Board of the Health Innovation Network the South London Academic Health Science Network.

So what’s next for tech UK? 

“There’s there’s a secret sauce here: if you can say to somebody ‘come into our industry, through any of a number of ways – higher education, apprenticeships, training providers, online providers – and you get an accreditation that is based around what employers want in order to give you a job’, you can actually transform the life chances of a lot of people,” he says.

“The tech industry is a fantastic place to work – and you can also then address the talent problem.”