Michael Sturrock: Data is the key to growing a huge knowledge economy

As delegates convene in Glasgow for the last day of the SNP conference, discussions on the development of the ­Scottish economy have dominated the agenda.
Michael Sturrock, external affairs executive, Direct Marketing Association.Michael Sturrock, external affairs executive, Direct Marketing Association.
Michael Sturrock, external affairs executive, Direct Marketing Association.

There are two main challenges: inspiring a faster pace of growth and establishing solid economic foundations to weather oncoming constitutional challenges, be it ­Brexit or the potential for Scottish independence.

With short-term economic issues uncertain, the government needs to invest in something that can reach all areas of the economy, has ­guaranteed long-term growth potential and a degree of imperviousness to changes in constitutional makeup.

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It sounds as if no such thing could exist, yet if you’re reading this from a screen, opening this article has ­produced a little more of it: data. It is easy to overlook because of its apparent intangibility. Yet, data supports and grows economies today. Be it general business administration, new ­technologies and AI systems in ­business operations (including ­crucial financial tech development), market research or trading, data is the underlying facilitator.

In recognition of the potential for Scotland to be a key global player, the UK Government, Scottish ­Government and Edinburgh ­University contributed to The ­Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Deal, which will provide more than £300 million of funding for data-driven initiatives. Data innovation will always attract investment, and the ease of data flow creation (along with the UK’s high standards of data privacy) means new trade agreements on data can be made very quickly.

The value of the digital economy in Scotland was estimated to be £4.45bn in 2014. Data-driven innovation alone could deliver £20bn of productivity benefits in the next five years. These are good benchmarks, but in spite of data’s clear worth, its pervasiveness and ­fluid form makes numerating this worth particularly difficult.

This is why DMA Scotland is working on several exciting initiatives to research and establish the value of data to the Scottish economy. We hope this ­pioneering work will allow businesses to view data in a way that allows them to create more value for themselves and their customers. However, the value of the project is not focused on monetary benefit alone. Data-driven products and services throw up ethical questions about how technology interacts with people.

Data-driven technology can ­venture as far into the human ­experience as we choose. AI ­algorithms can judge who should or shouldn’t get a bank loan or receive benefits; data-driven tech can alter or enhance human experience of the world; and driverless cars hold decision making power in life-and-death situations.

The ­value of data becomes not about economic worth, but moral. Exploring these issues requires debate about the future of humanity and technology. As is signified by the recent and exponential growth in the number of digital and data ethicists at ­university institutions, the questions that arise from how we use data-driven technology will define how we live.

Such questions demand huge breadth and depth of thinking. For the data, tech and AI sector, calling upon the broadest amount of human ­experience is necessary for developing the best technology and deciding how it should be used.

This is no small feat. However, one need only look back to the Scottish Enlightenment to prove that Scotland is able to be a catalyst for world-leading ideas. Philosophers such as David Hume, James Mill and Adam Fergusson set out new methods of reasoning and visions of political society. Adam Smith created the field of economics, today’s cornerstone of global ­prosperity. Mary Somerville, John Playfair, James Watt and Thomas ­Telford advanced scientific method with huge implications. These and many more in science, philosophy, government and the creative fields led global thinking on topics that traversed every area of society.

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This great challenge fits in with what the Scottish Government aims to achieve politically: improving the opportunity and prospects for those from under-represented backgrounds in ­education and jobs; creating a welcoming environment for those from abroad who seek to make their livelihoods here; investing in world-leading research; and supporting industries with growth potential.

Making data a cornerstone of the Scottish economy has clear benefits. It facilitates modern economic and technological functions and cannot be replaced. The potential for data to do many more things remains – as with North Sea oil in the early 60s – untapped.

The challenges posed by data and technology will be some of the great tests of the age. Scotland has the opportunity to lead in this era-defining work.

Michael Sturrock, external affairs executive, Direct Marketing Association.