2018 was a hugely positive year for Scotland’s tech industry. As highlighted in the ScotlandIS Scottish Technology Industry Survey, the tech sector here is thriving. With more and more start-ups based around the hubs of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, digital jobs continue to increase. As a result, the tech sector is now contributing £5.9 billion a year to the Scottish economy.
For the Scottish Government this is obviously hugely positive. But when it comes to finding ways for this innovation to benefit its own citizens directly, the public sector in Scotland still faces huge challenges. Like the rest of the UK, public services in Scotland are under pressure to find more cost savings. These savings need to be found against a complex backdrop, including an ageing population and a diverse geography made up of urban and extremely remote regions.
Of course, technology has a major role to play in tackling these challenges. However, while we may need to re-imagine how services are delivered when it comes to adopting technology and digitising more public services, we absolutely don’t need to resort to pie in the sky thinking.
By and large the technology that is required to embed digital technology and data more deeply in the delivery of public services is already available. We have access to amazing resources of computing power. Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are already delivering value to a huge array of organisations. And we can see that there is no shortage of amazing tech talent working in Scotland today. This availability of expertise means there is a huge opportunity to harness the positivity of the Scottish tech scene for the benefit of citizens.
So where should we focus in 2019?
We must continue to focus on encouraging more people into the industry to ensure that Scotland remains competitive on a global stage and avoid skills shortages that could stall further growth and progress. This includes creating a more diverse, inclusive workforce. The industry needs to inspire, train and re-skill people of all ages and backgrounds focusing on IT as an enabler, on the art of the possible.
We need to ensure that we are delivering public services where citizens are. That not only means geographically – enabling even those in the most remote locations to access the full range of public services, easily and efficiently – but it also means making sure services are available on the platforms that people want to use.
Technology should also be used to free up resources – enabling the public sector to deploy its people where they are best placed to solve more complex issues for citizens and support those who are most vulnerable in our society. In this regard linking health and social care is an important step forward.
In a similar vein, taking a more proactive approach to making telehealth a reality is a key focus for Scotland in 2019. Treating people in remote areas presents specific problems, such as the recruitment of trained staff and the challenge of having to transport people far from their homes for treatment, which is both costly and often distressing for the patient. The use of technology to enable people to be treated more readily at home could have a hugely significant impact both on people’s health outcomes and on health budgets in Scotland.
Finally, and from a more strategic point of view, the public sector in Scotland needs to fully embrace more collaborative approaches to technology implementations. Combinations of public and private organisations, the third sector, and academia all need to work together if we are to realise the best possible results for citizens.
We have seen some great examples of this collaborative approach already. CivTech, part of the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate, brings together public sector expertise and private sector creativity to look for answers to real problems. The Local Government Digital Office has been set up to work in partnership with Local Authorities delivering a Digital First approach, enabling councils to provide better services to their citizens.
Another example is the Albyn Housing “Fit Homes” project which is transforming the lives of people with complex health needs. By installing sensors in their homes to capture data and predictive health analytics the scheme enables tenants to be cared for in their own homes. The technology used is the result of a collaboration between Albyn Housing, Censis, The Data Lab, Robert Gordon University and NHS Highland. There is no reason that the approach cannot be adapted to retrofit housing in urban areas.
The private sector can also play a more proactive role. For example, NTT Data runs an open innovation competition every year aimed at mature start-ups looking to partner with public bodies and large enterprises to take their technology to the world stage. Public bodies in Scotland should look for ways to capitalise on these initiatives. For example, Scotland could sell itself as an ideal testbed for global solutions because of its size and geographic extremes – building a reputation for its public sector as digitally-savvy, open and progressive, which would provide another significant boost to the country’s tech sector and its citizens.
Rather than assuming there is ‘an answer’ to the challenges in public services, we need to encourage more collaboration at pace between all sectors and academia. There is no doubt that taking on these priorities represents an ambitious vision for 2019. However, the pieces that are needed to make it happen are readily available. It is difficult, but it is also essential that we move now at speed and at scale.