Scotland’s new ‘Silicon Valley’ offers hope and a warning – leader comment

Glasgow University’s plans for a high-tech campus at Govan could be as important as shipbuilding in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli.
An artist's impression of the planned new high-tech campusAn artist's impression of the planned new high-tech campus
An artist's impression of the planned new high-tech campus

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli is an intelligent person, an expert in international finance, Vice-Chancellor of Glasgow University and chair of the influential Russell Group of leading universities.

So when he says that new-fangled industries based on “quantum technology, nanofabrication and precision medicine” could become as important to 21st century Glasgow as shipbuilding was in the past, it is worth taking seriously.

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True, he was speaking as his university unveiled plans for a high-tech campus on the banks of the Clyde, so he had an interest in talking up its potential and the historical comparison with Govan’s illustrious past may have proved too tempting to avoid.

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But what seems clear is that the world is close to scientific and technological breakthroughs on a number of different fronts that could fundamentally change life as we know it.

Artificial intelligence is already having an impact on our everyday lives and recent advances have been dramatic, offering up hope that it could help humans to think in dramatically different and better ways. Combine AI with the extraordinary power of quantum computers and the possibilities seem almost endless.

Scotland should work hard to ensure that it is at the forefront of cutting-edge research so that it is in a good position to use all this knowledge to create the high-value industries of the future.

However, perhaps inadvertently, Professor Muscatelli also provided a warning that grand visions don’t always turn out to be quite so impressive as everyone hoped, when he said the new campus would create “Scotland’s Silicon Valley on the Clyde”.

In the 1980s, there was a lot of talk about “Silicon Glen” as the Scottish version of California’s famous Silicon Valley, but after a number of high-profile closures – including Motorola in Bathgate, NEC in Livingston and NCR in Dundee – the term is not used quite as often as it once was.

But just as Professor Muscatelli said “we can’t afford to look back on past glories”, we also should not look back and be discouraged.

The pace of change is becoming ever more rapid and, for the sake of its economy and to play its part in the advancement of human knowledge, Scotland must make sure that it keeps up.