Technology has advanced sufficiently to help address the world’s biggest challenges, ranging from climate change and poverty to healthcare, and is ready to accelerate – but progress is being held back by a shortage of visionaries and skilled professionals to realise its full potential. Increasingly, the biggest constraint on technological advance is talent.

So, whilst the UK aspires to lead the world’s digital economy post-Brexit, its success will depend on its ability attract and retain world-class talent.

Many of the most valuable companies today sell technology or platforms, and exploitation of data is at their core. Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are household names, but there are many other highly innovative companies yet to hit the mainstream that have an equal part to play in this wave of digital transformation. The mass adoption of cloud computing and the growth of social media, artificial intelligence and autonomous driving is leading to dramatic changes in how we work, live and communicate.

The UK has potential to play a substantial part in advancing the widespread adoption of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, as it possesses some of the best minds in the field, many of whom studied at world class universities like Oxford and Cambridge. A small but growing UK talent pool is highly sought after – and Google’s acquisition of UK-based DeepMind, is just one example of this.

But future success depends on the UK’s ability to foster and grow such skills. Odgers Berndtson has the privilege of partnering with technology innovators and we regularly experience at first-hand how their lack can negatively impact commercial potential.

The Potential In Key Fields Like AI

For instance, on a recent search we were looking for people with skills in a particular field of artificial intelligence, which rests with just a handful of people spread across the globe. It was clear that not only did we need to make this search fully international, but that there would be a need to attract and re-locate the right people from anywhere in the world.

This was the case even though the UK is recognised globally as having some of the best minds in the field of artificial intelligence. But the necessary depth is lacking. Also our client organisation wants to build global teams with cultural diversity at its core, because this is known to inspire true innovation.

Looking beyond AI, the UK has similar opportunities for technology advancement in other specialist areas, like High Performance Computing. The adoption of GPU (graphics processing unit) Chip technology allows supercomputing capability in ever smaller devices. Autonomous vehicles, as an example, require super-computing capacity capable of processing vast amounts of data in milliseconds, so the car can make the same decisions a human brain can. The UK has considerable potential in this area.

But at a time of great digital opportunity, the macro political climate in both the UK (and US) is having a substantial bearing on our ability to exploit it. When we should be thinking global, looking to bring the best talent to this country, we are seemingly retracting. Brexit has many possibilities, but without action to ensure otherwise, could dramatically set our progress back on digital innovation. We need this country to be a place where the best talent from around the world feels welcome and our political and immigration system allows them to come and live here without barriers.

University Research Is A Magnet

The UK’s leading universities are a hot bed of talent, particularly within the field of artificial intelligence. Cambridge and Oxford in particular successfully attract the best brains from all over the world. But we need to keep such people in the UK, in an environment where diversity is not just supported but championed. Other countries will exploit this and the UK cannot afford to fall behind.

it is recognised that the UK also needs to do more to support grass root talent development in digital fields. The UK Government should be aiming to inspire more young students, particularly minorities into technology related courses, like computer science. And there must be greater encouragement for females to follow these disciplines into a career as they are drastically under represented.

International students, coming to world class universities in the UK to undertake PhD research in areas like data and computer science are also in great demand when they enter the workforce and competition to hire them is fierce. In the US, for instance, the best data scientists being hired after post graduate degrees can expect salaries in the order of US$300K. For companies, such individuals  are a scarce and vital resource to address the challenges of digital transformation. Without their skills, the best business leaders will struggle to implement their strategies for change.

These are also the young men and women with the capabilities to translate into reality the digital vision of today’s business leaders – and potential digital pioneers to lead the next wave of transformation. Google Deep Mind, for instance, was set up by PhD students who met whilst at Cambridge. We believe it is in the UK’s national interest not just to attract the world’s brightest and best to study here, but also to enter the workforce and settle here when they leave university.

We would like to see more action from Government and businesses to attract and inspire more talent into key fields that support the digital economy.  This is likely to require incentives and a more relaxed approach in key areas which have proved politically challenging, like immigration.

But there is also more work to do with the youngest generation and in schools. Explaining to young talent that like industrial revolutions of the past, the foundation of a great society stems from their ability to grapple, invest, deploy and exploit the technologies of the day, so that like the Victorians, the UK can again play a leadership role in giving innovation to the world once more.