A reboot up ‘boring’ Scottish tech

Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

image copyrightGetty Images

  • Scottish technology can be world class, and drive the economy much faster, according to a new report.

  • It requires an “ecosystem” that starts from school through universities into a widened ”marketplace”, and more supportive finance.

Are you a frustrated inventor? Most of have an idea for something.

Mine is the technology that tells me, on entering the BBC car park and others, where I can find a space (not such a problem since 23 March, of course).

Add up all the hours and fuel wasted cruising round car parks, and you get to some big potential savings, of time and emissions.

So how is this plan getting on? Well, it’s not. First, I don’t know how to find out if anyone else has developed that technology. Second, I have negligible IT skills with which to make it work. Also, I’m quite busy.

But I can tell you there’s a man with a plan to change that. Mark Logan, former chief operating officer of Skyscanner, the Edinburgh travel booking technology unicorn, was given the task of finding a way of improving the link from Scotland’s economic potential to a reality that could grow the economy.

The context of this short-run ministerial commission was the need to get out of the current recession. The answers finance secretary Kate Forbes received suggest ministers will have to be more patient than to think this is going to be the solution to a recession and rising unemployment this year.

image copyrightMark Logan

image captionMark Logan wants to create an “eco-system” that will encourage tech start-ups to grow

Recent days, with the annual figures and rammy over Gers, Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland, have given us another context: that the growth rate of the Scottish economy is going to have to pick up a lot if the gap between taxation (just below the UK average per head) and spending (well above the UK figure) is to be closed.

The wider context still is that this is not a new problem, and nor are the answers all that new. But this is a timely report, telling the story in a compelling way, and it carries the authority of someone who has been there, hit the jackpot, and urgently wants others to follow.

The potential of Scotland’s universities is clear from world-class performance in publishing research papers. But spinning out ideas into commercial successes is much rarer than in parts of the USA, for instance, or Israel.

Mark Logan’s diagnosis is of an “eco-system” for technology firms that is currently some way short of a tipping point that would put Scottish technology into the big league of tech clusters.

To get it and individual startup firms to the tipping point, he illustrates the path from school to billion-dollar unicorn as narrowing too sharply, like a funnel. Rather than cut down the chance of success by shutting people out of tech know-how, better to keep people engaged and opportunities widened out through formal education and beyond.

He emphasises that changes have to be made in several areas – some of them “unglamorous”, he concedes – and that work on only one of these is not going to fix the eco-system.

They are education, getting the right skills, and plugging the gaps in finance. In between is the challenge of getting the infrastructure right: in other words, ensuring there is a “market square” for entrepreneurs to learn and understand what they’re getting into, and how to make it work for them.

image copyrightGoogle
image captionEdinburgh’s Codebase is an example of how small firms can be helped to grow

Edinburgh is ahead on that. CodeBase a lively and respected centre for small firms to be incubated and grow. It is, itself, a market place of ideas, where techies can meet and talk tech. Glasgow, it is noted, has nothing like it, and it should. And Mr Logan suggests that the challenge should be taken on around Scotland.

Edinburgh University is often credited with providing the base, around which companies such as Skyscanner can recruit and grow. It’s helped to train and to draw into the sector a critical mass of recruits. They head for the Scottish capital, knowing that there will be a variety of firms at which they can advance their careers.

But the university sector more widely faces some bruising analysis in the Logan analysis. Too often, computing and business students are taught apart. Academics don’t have enough knowledge or interest in getting into business.

Where is the funding to support student business ventures with technology? Indeed, it is pointed out that universities and their funding are geared to discourage students from pursuing their ideas and business dreams.

When universities do back a tech spin-out, they’re seen as expecting too much equity, when compared with successful tech campuses in other countries.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionShould computing be seen as a core subject like maths or English?

While there is a lot of focus this year on schools, exams and the curriculum, the element of the report that has most relevance to the general public is in the education system.

This Logan report is particularly blunt about the way computer science is taught in schools – or not taught, because 17% of secondaries have no specialist computer science teacher, he says, and that gap is getting worse.

Too often, he notes, business studies teachers are required to boot up their knowledge of the subject, staying a chapter ahead of pupils, but without the confidence in the subject to make it the creative hothouse that it can become, given the right cultural context and support.

The result is that it’s, simply, “boring”. It’s got a huge gender bias to boys. And the conversion rate from National 5 to Higher is at a relatively low 50%.

One of many recommendations is to put computing on a par with maths and English, as a core subject, treated with respect within the school, improving the recruitment and training of potential teachers with the necessary skills.

So if schools and teachers feel they haven’t got enough of a challenge already this year… ?

Related Topics

  • Scotland economy

  • Edinburgh

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