Frank O’Donnell: Ideas and information will be the currency of the future

Picture: John Devlin
Picture: John Devlin
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The digital and data economy is growing nearly three times faster than the overall economy – and that change is only going to accelerate.

The strength of economies is currently measured in the flow of goods and trade. However, in the future, economic vitality of countries will be closely linked to the volume of data and ideas that flow through them.

That is why the University of Edinburgh and its partner organisations should be applauded for grasping the opportunity presented by the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

Data-driven innovation (DDI) is the impetus behind this venture and the plans presented will, over the next 
15 years, lead to collaboration between industry and academia on a level that has not been seen before.

Five hubs will be created across the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University including the Edinburgh Futures Institute, 
the Bayes Centre, the Usher Institute, the Robotarium and Easter Bush campus.

Academics and students will work closely with ten industries in the public, private and third sectors to solve industry problems and challenges using high-speed data analytics. This will be no light-touch initiative, with the DDI 
programme aiming to engage with 1,000 organisations.

Data has always been with us. However, we are generating more of it now than ever before. What has also changed is the processing power of computers. Their ability to take large amounts of data, look for patterns within it, learn from it and then operate autonomously has increased greatly.

Artificial intelligence has been with us since the 1950s, and the University of Edinburgh had an AI department in 1965, but it is now more accessible and affordable than ever. However, there is no doubt that, over the next ten years, further ethical questions about the use of our personal data will arise.

People are becoming more aware of the value of their own data and the enterprises that thrive in the future will be those that recognise this fact and reward their users for handing over their information.

A 2016 McKinsey report on digital globalisation predicted that, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s GDP will be generated by 600 cities. The survey stated that cities with excellent data structures can become vital hubs for the flow of the world’s information.

Once a city has established itself as a data centre for a particular industry, other related industries begin to flow into the region. It is this idea of clustering that Charlie Jeffery, senior vice principal of the University of Edinburgh, expands upon in his comment piece on page nine of this supplement. He explains that we are already seeing examples of it in the region.

The opportunity is there for us all to benefit from the City Deal, and it is pleasing to see that its architects have put great stress on making sure that initiative’s benefits are experienced by as many people as possible.

Frank O’Donnell is editorial director of The Scotsman