This country is on the cusp of another industrial revolution, according to Labour MP Iain Wright, but if it starts costing people their jobs, it could become a problem.
Speaking at the Frost & Sullivan, Global Community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL) event in London, the MP for Hartlepool and chairman of the Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee, said the business community needs to work with the government to ensure success.
"Everybody accepts that technology and innovation are key goals of improving competitiveness and creating wealth," he said. "It is often said we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution. The first in the 18th century used water and steam power to mechanise production, the second in the early 20th century used electric power to create mass production. The third in the late 20th century used electronics and IT to automate production, unleash digital and revolutionise the means of communication.
"The basis of this next revolution is data. Some call it the fourth revolution. We know it as the 'cognitive era' – and the technology that this unleashes is remarkable – IoT, autonomous vehicles, material science, nano and bio technology, trying to tackle energy shortages, AI and quantum computing. It will disrupt every industry in almost every country."
But it also played a part in the Brexit vote last week, he warned.
"My constituency voted 70 per cent to leave the EU; one of highest proportions anywhere. I actually don't think that it was a protest about Europe. I don't even think it was about immigration, because Hartlepool is 98.6 per cent white and British born. We don't really have that problem with immigration coming to take our jobs. I think the reason was a reaction and protest against the last 40 years. Hartlepool could be seen as a failure of globalisation. Jobs have gone. The steelwork industry that employed my father and grandfather is losing jobs – to China, and other parts of the world.
"But they are also losing it to technology. And how do we make sure people embrace the technology revolution and are kept on board while fearing for their jobs? What will that impact have on society and the employment market? We need to address that. This country is remarkably divided. Divided between the winners and losers of globalisation. Divided between London and England. Divided between Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales. And crucially and most concerning, it is divided between young and old.
"The older generation voted for Brexit. The younger generation didn't. But it's the younger generation going to have to step up to the plate and realise what's next for Britain. The path we take is clear. A week after the referendum almost everything else isn't.
"Lenin once said there are decades when nothing happens and weeks where decades happen. The past week certainly lives up to this.
"This referendum is nothing short of the single biggest event in this country since the Second World War. It will have a profound effect on UK society and economy, and impact on the very survival of the UK. It will have enormous repercussions on investment decisions for companies.
"For example, a £100m deal between a [government] funding circle and the European investment bank was paused last Friday and is unlikely to proceed. That is not the only one. IT has been reported that £20bn of investment in infrastructure into the UK has been put on hold. The higher education sector, one of the jewels in the crown, has had much of its business model thrown into doubt. Tighter immigration rules will affect retention and recruitment rates of overseas students both at undergrad and postgrad level. We are a net beneficiary of European science and research funds.What on earth is going to happen at that level too?
"We are in a global race. The result a week ago and the means by which investors choose to respond are key. Companies pausing that decision to invest in tech in the UK perhaps for a quarter or two is perfectly understandable. But in that global race any pause for any time makes it more difficult for Britain to play catch-up and win that global race. We run the risk of running in the wrong direction.
"There is a lack of authority in the government space at the moment. Who is going to step up? Select committees can play a big part in helping shape the future. We want to help chart a new course. We want to turn the result last week – however people voted – into a real opportunity for businesses, workers and consumers. And I am asking, what should this opportunity look like? What should we be doing to enhance our competitiveness and economic prospects?
"We see our work in the future after Brexit encompassing four key elements: inward investment – how can the government support and improve levels of foreign and direct investment and other sources of finance at what is an unprecedented time for the economy?
"Regulation – we have heard how Europe has outdated regulation that holds back firms' competitiveness. We want to explore how to get a new regulatory environment to help UK businesses thrive and grow while protecting the rights of workers.
"Third is higher education. How will the government protect the global advantages of university in the face of uncertainty in terms of access to funding and overseas students? Fourthly, trade deals – how will the basis of trade deals look? What should be our priorities in getting deals that benefit businesses and stimulate growth?"
He said the government now needs to provide a level of commitment to R&D and support to ensure we stop any uncertainty.
"There will be many deals cancelled all around the country," he said. "The government needs to step in and provide funding to make sure it doesn't stop. I have Nissan in my constituency – I do worry. Where will the next generation of cars be built? Especially when there is undercapacity in French Renault factories.
"Everything changed on Thursday and the government needs to provide vision, leadership and certainty in order to maintain continued investment and innovation in our country."
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