Building the future digital economy

Our Future Digital Economy: Who Will Build It?

18:30-19:30, 10th October 2011, Imperial College Business School

Blog by Andrew Fletcher

Launching a series of talks on different aspects of Tech City, the Guardian’s Tech Weekly team brought together a panel at Imperial College Business School to discuss the big issues.

Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, kicked things off by highlighting the need to inspire people into Computer Science. This was a theme which was re-visited throughout the evening; How can we create the ‘Brian Cox effect’ in the digital economy? Turing was picked out as an inspiration, and with his centenary year coming up there is perhaps an opportunity there to inspire and bring on the future digital economy generation.

The message from Jeff Magee, Principal of Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College was clear: Industry help to shape our courses and they consistently tell us that they want computer scientists who are adaptable, numerate problem solvers, not people who are specialised in one particular technology. This message is echoed by start-ups businesses as well as large IT firms.

Start-ups are still having to go to Silicon Valley to hire good people, said Dan Crow from Songkick. This moved the discussion towards skills beyond coding, raising questions such as where does the entrepreneurial flair come from? David Willetts acknowledged that we need to be better in the UK, but said that we needed to work at changing the environment rather being in awe of the perception that America is just better at taking risks. The reason why Silicon Valley has become a successful cluster is because it fits his favourite definition; a low risk environment to conduct high risk activities.

Jeff Magee admitted that universities need to be better at supporting students in their entrepreneurial ventures but cautioned that this needs to be made available at the right time. Third year computing students come back from their six month placement in industry inspired by the real-world problems that they have been working on and full of ideas of things to do. That is the point to give them support in learning entrepreneurial skills and access to incubation facilities. The challenge is getting this support to the right people at the right time. At Imperial the Business School is ranked highly for innovation and entrepreneurship in its programmes and there are routes to make this available to students across the whole campus. The challenge is replicating this more widely. David Willetts championed the ambition of every university having its own entrepreneurship society, and this approach was supported across the panel.

Emma Mulqueeny inspired both the panel and the audience with her activities through Young Rewired State, identifying and supporting people to learn how to program and then come together to learn from each other. The question raised was when to start. Emma felt that nine year olds were definitely capable, particularly to help engage girls at a younger age and sustain their interest afterwards so as not to ‘lose’ them. This was echoed by the panel. The challenge, said Jeff Magee, is to keep them inspired by giving them interesting problems so that coding doesn’t just become ‘boring.’

Cross-disciplinary approaches were discussed, both in teaching and in research. Dan wanted to see more blending together of MBAs, computer scientists and designers. Imperial College was cited as an example of success in this area, collaborating on courses with the Royal College of Art and incubating businesses successfully that blend skills and disciplines. In the research space, David Willetts highlighted the importance of cross-disciplinary research, supported through grand challenges from the research councils.

Surely there is no better way to develop the skilled work force of the future than by working across the disciplines of the past on the problems of the future, such as the approach being taken by the Digital City Exchange. The real challenge, of course, is making sure that the pipeline of skilled people is strong enough to meet the need of these cross-disciplinary challenges.

The series of talks continue next Monday at Imperial College Business School. For more information and to register:


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