THERE is no doubt that the past year has caused many people to press the reset button, whether that’s in their personal lives or working days.
It’s been a shock that an invisible virus could bring the world to a standstill and make us all feel so vulnerable. We’ve still got some way to go before potential vaccines can take away the fear factor but we are already looking towards economic recovery and growth as we learn to manage the situation. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
In many ways, however, the situation we have – and will find ourselves in – is not that different. There are still the same issues facing Jersey surrounding the need to increase productivity in a small island that also needs to control its population size. I believe there was, and still is, only one way to improve productivity with finite resources, and that is by investing in technology and the skills to exploit it.
At Digital Jersey, we have focused on the need to expand our economy in the right way, and that has not changed. It is why we established the Digital Academy 18 months ago and why we have engaged with stakeholders across the Island, from industry, education, government and the public, to push the importance of not just teaching our youngsters future-proofed skills, and to retrain our existing workforce. Economic growth for Jersey has to be the right kind of growth. It has to be driven by skills, talent and entrepreneurialism because it is that combination which will improve performance, productivity and profits.
What I hope that Covid has changed is the awareness of this need. We haven’t just been working on training a narrow audience within the digital sector; the only way to create the right conditions for controlled population size and a buoyant economy is to tackle this in all sectors of the economy. How else can we reduce the need to bring in low-paid, low-skilled workers for agriculture, for example? We have to embrace the benefits that technology and the right skills can bring to all sectors. Looking forward, at Digital Jersey, we want to create technology roadmaps for each sector of our economy so that all industries can benefit.
One outcome of the Covid lockdown is that we have demonstrated the importance of our dominant industry, finance, being a resilient one. With some short-term pain, most workers were able to move to home working with little disruption to business. This has highlighted the importance of digital resilience, not digital transformation. The latter is a given.
Those companies which haven’t embraced digital are already gone, or are falling so far behind more forward-thinking competitors that their days are numbered. Digital transformation is no longer the ‘nice to have’ for larger businesses that have big budgets. It’s affordable, simple and essential for all.
Earlier I mentioned another element that Jersey needs – entrepreneurialism. While low-paid, low-skilled workers will bring little benefit to our economy, we do need to bring in people who have something we cannot already find here, whether that’s a skill or a great business idea.
Jersey is a fantastic place to do business because of its excellent infrastructure, which has been proven in the last year as the Island’s gigabit network kept businesses, students and our social lives alive. Jersey has a lot going for it. The problem is that we face lots of competition from other jurisdictions, such as Luxembourg, who want to attract the skilled and entrepreneurial too. We have to invest in attracting the right businesses here and part of that investment needs to be in a highly skilled local workforce. We need to shift our mindset to train people who are in full-time work, whether that’s by putting people on a four-day working week and one-day skill-improvement day, or another method.
We need to get the whole of Jersey’s education system behind this upskilling. Our aspiration is to see a satellite campus of a major UK university in Jersey specialising in areas such as financial services, fintech or digital sustainability. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s something we should aim for. We should also invest in bringing our most talented youngsters back to the Island and not losing them to the bright lights of the UK and further afield.
We need to look at what other business opportunities there are for us. Our finance industry focuses on handling funds and family offices, for example, but what if it was focused on data and protecting data? The world’s first Sovereign data exchange in the Island would put us on the map and we already have some of the skillset here that we need through the synergy with our finance industry.
There are also huge opportunities to deliver improved public services. We have already created a digital twin of the Island which can be used to make evidence-based decisions and visualise the impact a decision would have. How much easier it would be to make major infrastructural developments if that tool was used effectively.
Despite the Covid disruptions, I’m delighted by what we have achieved this year. We were instrumental in getting the Track and Trace app launched in Jersey for the benefit of everyone. Our Digital Academy carried on virtually throughout the year and saw an increased number of students joining us for the second year. Jersey TechWeek may have had to go online to meet social-distancing rules, but it helped us to reach out to new and valuable global contacts. Plus way back in ‘the good old days’ of February, I gave the University of Exeter’s annual lecture on the subject of disruptive innovation.
Innovation is something that Jersey has always done and we must carry on doing it. This isn’t a ‘new normal’. All of the things we have done were the things that needed doing before Covid. What the pandemic has done is create more urgency for things to change – and that is definitely a positive.
A future Jersey has to be one which uses technology and the skills that go with it, to better run the Island and drive its economy.