Can the UK government do more to drive IoT growth?

Can the UK government do more to drive IoT growth?

Can the UK government do more to drive IoT growth?
Can the UK government do more to drive IoT growth?

Long read — The UK Government is typically slow to embrace new technology, with some now questioning if there’s more Whitehall can do to drive IoT governance, standardization and overall end-user adoption. IoB investigates.

The UK Government is sometimes accused of being slow to adopt new technologies, and this is often rooted in risk aversity and an unwillingness to invest public money in new systems, especially if such money could be better spent on vital services.

And yet the government cannot be accused of ignoring the Internet of Things (IoT), for it has already invested in a variety of projects in this area in recent years.

In March 2015, the government announced plans to fund IoTUK, a £32 million ($39.7 million) three-year program driven by Digital Catapult and Future Cities Catapult to advance the production and adoption of IoT in businesses and the public sector. The government fund, or more specifically the fund from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and Innovate UK (the UK government innovation agency), currently stands at £4 million ($4.96 million).

The program, which has been up and running since September 2015, is the government’s primary tool for promoting IoT in the UK. Notable other investments have come in the form of Manchester’s CityVerve project – a £10 million ($12.4 million) smart city project launched in August with the aim of improving services for residents – and a new £9.8 million ($12.15 million) IoT Research Hub led by PETRAS, a consortium of nine UK universities that is focussed on privacy, ethics and security in the IoT.

It was announced in August of this year that a further £1m ($1.24 million) will also be given to advertising agency, R/GA, and start-up incubator, Startupbootcamp, to support and accelerate growth and commercial viability of 20 UK start-ups. Furthermore, the government is looking at driving the usage of such technologies closer to home, with the Department for Work & Pensions announcing plans to encourage use of artificial intelligence and machine learning within the department.

Cracks in the foundations?

So there is evidence of investment both in and outside of government, and yet criticisms have been raised that it is not nearly enough. Is one million British sterling pounds enough to kick-start the UK’s future of a digital economy? Why is the U.S. investing SO much more? How will Brexit impact all of this?

In an interview with Jonny Voon, lead technologist at Innovate UK, we put it to him that the U.S government was leading the charge, spending $8.8bn in 2015, and that UK might be in danger of falling behind global leaders. Voon argued that investment numbers, such as the recent £1 million, must be taken in context.

“The US government’s reported $8.8bn investment is predominantly supplier contracts, which includes infrastructure spend on things like cloud storage. The DoD’s spend on biomedical sensors is also included in this figure. Even the “Startup America” program with its $1bn budget doesn’t specifically focus on IoT”, he told IoB.

“The aim of the £1m [the UK government invested] is to determine the effectiveness of whether public money can be used to amplify the work of established private sector organizations.

“This is more about how we, at Innovate UK, need to constantly evaluate and assess the effectiveness of where we spend public funds. For example, in the instance of the IoT Hardware Accelerator Programme, the amount is small compared to other programmes in the UK and abroad. However, the aim of the programme wasn’t to fund just a few start-ups, but to help stimulate an ecosystem that was struggling in the UK – hence why the funding has gone to the accelerators themselves. Sometimes just providing a grant to a small businesses or start-up isn’t the most effective use of public money.”

It’s a fair point, but surely a government throwing money at a problem to try and solve it is as bad as one that doesn’t invest at all? So, does the UK government understand IoT and its challenges? Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow minister for Industrial Strategy – and previously an engineer at Ofcom and other firms, has her doubts, to put it mildly.

(Image credit: Chronicle Live)
(Image credit: Chronicle Live)

“No, I don’t think the government understands IoT,” she told us. “I don’t see a vision or a direction or strategy. I think ministers and civil servants know that IoT exists, they know it’s important and they know it has technology associated with it, but I’m not sure it’s got much past that.”

“To be fair, unless you’re more familiar with technology it can be hard to understand IoT, but the potential for it and the transformative potential of it, I don’t think the government’s grasped that.”

Related: Chi Onwurah says government can do more for IoT, digital inclusion

Industry support

What do those in business make of government progress to date? IBM’s distinguished engineer for IoT, Andy Stanford-Clark, called the UK government investment a “welcome boost to an industry with so much potential in the UK”, while CEO of Drayson Technologies, Lord Drayson was even more positive.

“Over several decades the UK has made significant investments in computer science, network infrastructure and skills, all of which have put the UK in a leadership position in emerging IoT technologies,” he told us. “Our universities have been increasingly good at ensuring these skills and innovations are successfully transferred from the research lab to the commercial environment. It’s the reason we have a healthy cluster of IoT businesses in the UK right now.”

Part of the network infrastructure he refers to includes the announcement that London is set to get the UK’s largest IoT network, courtesy of government-backed Digital Catapult. It’s the infrastructure that Lord Drayson speaks of that has the UK listed third in analyst house IDC’s G20 IoT development opportunity index.

Lord Drayson
Lord Drayson

If you share these views, the opportunity for IoT is ready to be exploited it would seem, but reservations about the government’s effectiveness still exist. In part because the UK still does not have what Chi Onwurah called “champions and cheerleaders of IoT” in government. This idea of the government taking a strong lead was a view widely shared by the experts we spoke to.

Leading from the front: an IoT champion in UK government

Onwurah is particularly passionate on this point.

“We’ve seen how digital has transformed various sectors and value chains, particularly media or retail…the IoT has far greater scope than anything we’ve yet seen on digital, so the government should be championing the IoT and its potential,” she said.

Stanford-Clark also emphasized the government’s role and was keen to stress that “it is critical that the UK competes effectively in [IoT] with the likes of Germany which is power ahead with its Industry 4.0 initiative.” He said: “To do that we need strong government investment in skills development, helping to drive an IoT curriculum into university courses. It is vital to train the next generation of IoT engineers and designers as the market and the industry mature.”

“But this isn’t enough. The IoT world is all about partnerships and ecosystems of players with complementary skills. The government’s role in this should be to fuel the engine of “UK PLC”, bringing together academia, small businesses and corporations to drive innovation and push the boundaries of technology. Through funded programmes by Innovate UK, EPSRC and others, it has already been shown that this model works.

“The government also has a role to play in driving public awareness of IoT and the UK’s leadership position. Many people are buying devices such as smart thermostats for their homes, and benefiting from the value-added services provided by connected vehicles. However, there is little public awareness about how and why this is happening and the broader technological trends that this is part of.”

Comparing this makeshift checklist with the investments outlined earlier, it’s apparent that the government is making lots of the right noises but there is also a significant role for business to play.

IBM and Drayson Technologies are among some of the many players pushing IoT development forward, which reflects the fact that governments can only do so much. It also reminds me of something Bristol is Open (BiO) CEO Barney Smith said when discussing how Bristol is driving its smart city projects. Ultimately, he told reporters, corporates would have to drive smart city innovation “because this is not a centrally planned economy,” and that’s also true of IoT.

A long road ahead

Irrespective of where you sit in regards to the current IoT market in the UK, it’s true that plenty of work needs to be done. Chi Onwurah summed this up, saying “we don’t have standards, we have regulatory risk and, in some respects, it’s still about technology searching for an application.”

The Internet of Things has significant potential to transform the environments we live in, but a combination of strong government leadership and buy-in from private businesses is what will drive this. Perhaps more public money could be invested moving forward or more time spent raising awareness of IoT’s benefits, but spending public money remains a difficult job – particularly considering Brexit when markets and governments are uncertain.

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Matt Hancock

But a champion for IoT could still emerge within the UK government. Matt Hancock, minister of state for Digital and Culture, was unavailable for interview but he did share with us the following statement:

“We are determined to make sure the UK is global leader in Internet of Things (IoT) technology, which is fast becoming part of our daily lives.

“We are also determined to make sure that businesses and consumers can use these exciting products and services with confidence, so it is vital that cyber-security risks are fully addressed.”

“We continue to make significant investments to create the best possible environment for innovation to flourish, including an open approach to tackling regulatory barriers, and of course our three-year IoTUK Programme supporting a pioneering smart cities programme in Manchester and a research hub.

“Through the programme we are also helping to fund projects in healthcare, the public sector and schemes to allow businesses to capitalise on this cutting-edge technology to help create a society that works for all.”

Strong words from government, and support from industry. End users can only hope that this drive results in the real business benefits that have long been promised.

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Related: Uk Govt announces new £24 million IoT research centre