Dot Everyone – how the UK can take the digital lead

Posted by Professor Richard Sambrook

If you havn’t yet seen this year’s Dimbleby Lecture by Dame Martha Lane Fox I recommend you stop reading this and do so. Then come back here and continue.

It was a tour de force by Martha – one of the founders of in the first internet boom and now government advisor and evangelist on the digital future. She made a compelling case for a new public institution to rebalance the commercial interests of the internet in favour of the public interest, for it to help the UK to take a global lead in digital development and – particularly – for more women to be encouraged to take up and succeed in technology roles.

As she put it, “It’s not ok not to understand the internet anymore.” And it’s clear from the early stages of this election campaign how little our politicians do understand it. This is a huge wasted opportunity, economically, educationally and politically. As she points out, Silicon Valley is on the point of establishing a global monopoly on all of our futures.

Her hopes for a new institution, and the lecture, are outlined here.

At heart, she argues that the internet now impacts – and offers huge opportunity – in every aspect of life. Britain has a great track record in creative development – not least with Tim Berners Lee inventing the web – which currently is not being adequately recognised, supported or developed.

It is one of the reasons why here at Cardiff University we launched a Masters Programme in Computational Journalism – a mix of computer science and journalism run across two of the University’s leading Schools. This course – which by the way has a ratio of 3 women to 1 man both on the course and in applications – is designed to develop a combination of coding, tech development and editorial skills which the media industry tells us are in high demand and short supply.

That combination will be of direct and immediate relevance to journalism and media – but as Martha Lane Fox points out will have a far wider application if the next decade runs as she hopes and predicts. To us, the course, and the need for it are obvious. To others, the title and the idea of such a cross-disciplinary course still raises the odd eyebrow. Not among employers however who talk of the growing need for such skills and the “unicorns” who can offer them.

Universities should have a key role in supporting the skills – and the vision – to help the UK meet the demands of the future. Like other public institutions they are funded to innovate, lead, support creativity, and help discover the future. Every aspect of the future will be digital – and it’s essential that our universities push boundaries to ensure the UK can play its role not only commercially but also in terms of public and social policy.

As Martha concluded, Britain “has a rare opportunity to have a new and significant role in the world. To lead in the civic public digital world…think of the BBC, the NHS. Let’s have no poverty of ambition. We can and should be inventing the definitive public institution for our digital age.” I very much hope our graduates will be part of it.