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  • Writer's pictureMike Spicer

Could a tech revolution in UK public services transform local economies?

In the July 2023 roundup episode of LED Confidential Mike and David review the key takeaways from the Tony Blair Institute's Future of Britain Conference which focussed on the potential of new technologies to transform government and public services. If taken up by a future UK government – what would this mean for local economic development and placemaking? Listen from 20.40.


Robot delivery service in action

Why would a tech revolution in UK public services matter to local economic development and placemaking?


The Future of Britain conference shed light on the overlap between local economic development and the use of technology in UK public services. A new drive to incorporate tech into public services – especially artificial intelligence (AI) - could be a welcome source of economic growth, with public procurement providing critical mass for emerging technologies in areas like health, education, and defence. By drastically improving efficiency in delivery, it could release much-needed resources and address supply bottlenecks. And for those of us working in LED – technology already plays a huge role in helping us to understand local economies through data and set priorities that are more firmly grounded in real-time evidence.


But the impacts could also ripple out in less obvious ways – ones that matter to reducing regional economic and social inequalities. Personalised tuition, a hallmark of private education, could be made accessible to every learner using AI. This could be a game-changer for levelling-up, providing scalable, personalised services from school-age education through to workforce training. Indeed, it is already happening. As many of the newly-minted Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) recognise, more employers are turning to online learning platforms and some, like Khan Academy, whose founder spoke at the conference, already incorporate AI tutors that interact with individual learners. Ed-Tech firm Century Tech – whose founder also presented to the conference – uses AI to help teachers personalise learning for each student. Real-time student performance data from the AI tutor helps teachers to identify struggling learners and make timely interventions.


If the potential for tech to revolutionise UK public services is so great – what’s stopping it from happening?


While the Future of Britain conference focused on why UK governments should care about the potential of tech, it was lighter on the structural barriers to adoption. Public services are typically large and bureaucratic, making it challenging to implement technological changes swiftly. Multiple layers of scrutiny and signoffs can slow down innovation.


Addressing these barriers could involve devolution, giving local governments more autonomy and flexibility to experiment with tech adoption. Devolution in education has shown promise. More local initiatives and less central control could pave the way for faster tech adoption in public services echoing a regular theme of LEDC – that centralisation creates bottlenecks, dependencies and infantilises decision-making.


Compounding this is a chronic shortage of decision-makers within the civil service with the science, technology, and engineering (STEM) backgrounds to take advantage of innovation opportunities. Though reliable data are hard to come by, comparative studies estimate the share of UK civil servants with STEM backgrounds to be lower than peer countries such as Germany, South Korea, and the USA.


Addressing this gap will be essential for setting industrial strategy, managing future crises like pandemics, and drawing up policies. For example, AI could be both a benefit and a threat, with obvious benefits in healthcare and education but also risks around deepfakes, job displacement and autonomous systems. Regulatory frameworks, informed by deep expertise will be needed to balance these concerns and opportunities. Data sharing and interoperability will also need to improve to enable innovation, though privacy concerns still exist.


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