By Tony Moretta, chief executive of Digital Jersey
DESPITE our many appearances in the JEP, the team at Digital Jersey is sometimes still asked to describe what we do, and, to be fair, it can be complicated. Here goes then with my attempt to describe, in just over 1,500 words (editor’s request) what we do and why.
I sometimes jokingly describe our mission as dragging Jersey kicking and screaming into the 21st century, as it has to be said we are a bit of a mixed bag as an island when it comes to using technology.
My usual line to illustrate this is to point out that while we are literally the number-one country in the world for broadband speeds, you can only buy a house on a Friday between 2.30pm and 3pm. To be fair, we can now renew dog licences online.
Seriously, though, we do state that our mission is “to accelerate Jersey’s digital future” as we will evolve automatically in time but there are massive benefits if we can speed up tech adoption across all industries and aspects of our lives.
If we look at the major challenges facing Jersey, such as the ageing population, the problems recruiting staff, the desire to limit immigration, the need for sustainable economic growth etc, they can only be addressed with the better use of technology.
If we want people to be able to carry on living independently for longer and not need an army of carers or much larger and more expensive healthcare facilities, then we need to get our act together on digital health to diagnose problems to enable early intervention and monitor wellbeing at home.
If we want to grow the economy without growing the population significantly, then we must invest in technology across all industries and invest in training the workforce to use it. There is lots of talk around the world of AI replacing jobs but, in Jersey, it can remove the need for jobs we can’t fill right now anyway and don’t want to import labour to fill in the future.
So much of the work we do in our finance industry, for example, is administration and that is already being automated. That is fine if we also invest in the skills of our workers so that they can focus on more value-adding roles, which, by the way, will pay more and result in higher profits and tax contributions.
We can’t just invest in fintech though. We also have to invest in our agricultural and tourism sectors, as well as in the public sector, now one of our largest employers.
AI is an opportunity for Jersey but also a threat. If we do nothing, then our well-paid jobs will be automated in time anyway, we won’t have a flexibly skilled workforce to take advantage of new roles and we will be left with the lower-paid jobs, such as cleaners, food and drink servers and carers, which are more difficult to automate. That really wouldn’t work with a system like ours which relies predominantly on personal taxation to fund our public services.
What is Digital Jersey doing to drive progress towards this essential mission?
The most visible element of our work is running the Digital Jersey Hub and Academy. In the former, individuals, companies and various public sector areas can be seen working, developing, meeting, collaborating and generally generating new ideas, business opportunities and ways of making money or improving our lives.
It really is one of my greatest pleasures to walk through the Hub and see it packed out almost all the time now with people coming together from all walks of life with such enthusiasm towards a common goal. We even have a similar, slightly smaller version of the Hub called the Digital Jersey Xchange in the JT telephone exchange (you can see what we did there) in Red Houses and that is now just as busy.
The Academy is also full most days with a wide range of students, whether those studying hard at Highlands – who I’m so pleased to partner with as they do such a fantastic job – on their computing degree or workers taking half a day out to attend a short course to improve their knowledge of digital marketing, data analytics, the latest AI tools and many other subjects. These people go back to their companies to add even more value and can demonstrate the benefits of investing in themselves as well.
We provide support for individuals and businesses in many other ways, and especially to those who join as small business and enterprise members. These include not only our many technology companies but also banks, law firms, utilities and accountancy firms.
We provide advice on raising funding through our Springboard advice clinics. We run Tech Start-Up Bootcamps where we provide office space, inspirational coaching, intensive training and support and even a small stipend to allow young entrepreneurs the luxury of focusing on their ideas exclusively for a three-month period.
We also work with partners, such as the South-African-originated Grindstone, to run accelerator programmes to scale up technology businesses locally. We also provide access to mentors and other services to anyone who needs it.
We have some great technology businesses that have grown locally – companies such as Pinpoint (recruitment software) and KYC360 (fintech) as well as Velos IoT, built and sold by JT generating £80m for the Government of Jersey, as its shareholder, and funding the next generation of our telecoms networks. But, as a small island, we also need to attract new businesses and entrepreneurs to our shores.
The good news is that, especially post-Covid, we are an attractive destination for digital natives who can live in an attractive, safe place while providing their services globally through our world-leading connectivity and joining an active tech community locally.
We’ve brought over so many amazing individuals and businesses that have not only paid their taxes but who also add value in other ways such as passing on their knowledge through training courses, mentoring, job creation and investing. I would say this, wouldn’t I, but people coming to see us as they shop around the world for their new base are amazed at what we have built and have to offer despite our size, and the Digital Jersey team, offering and brand is a key part of that.
We regularly advise the government on new technology opportunities, whether this is in relation to the impact of AI and automation or opportunities to improve public health or safety. In fact, one of the proudest moments of my career was the support Digital Jersey was able to provide to the whole Island during the pandemic, developing community initiatives, bringing the industry together to upgrade our broadband speeds, provide free connectivity for those schoolchildren in need, helping set up our world-leading Covid test-and-trace operation and even making sure we weren’t forgotten in the global rollout of Disney+.
Collaboration locally is an essential part of our work, and Jersey is a great place to do that with our many partners, which range from government, agencies such as Jersey Finance, Jersey Business and Visit Jersey or our regulators such as the JFSC and the JOIC (apologies to anyone who thinks I’ve left them out, but it’s a long list).
However, in the global technology ecosystem, it is vital that Jersey isn’t insular and that it builds relationships with other countries and organisations around the world. In 2023 alone, we hosted the Estonian ambassador to the UK and a leader from the Canadian government’s Impact Canada team at our annual review, were invited by the UAE ambassador to the World Government Summit in Dubai, participated in the New Jersey Big Data Alliance annual conference and ran our first stand at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona.
In the UK, we have developed relationships with government departments and agencies, including Innovate UK which is funded to the tune of around £8bn a year, and NESTA. We have also built relationships with major UK universities and built partnerships with many global companies such as Ericsson, Google and Mastercard. These have already delivered tangible benefits to Jersey and will continue to do so in the medium and long term.
I’ve talked about examples of the major investment which other – and, to be fair, larger – countries make in technology and innovation. Jersey has historically not been well equipped for this because of our scale, funding and lack of institutions such as universities.
Digital Jersey therefore increasingly focuses on our role as the Island’s research and development agency. We have long marketed ourselves as a sandbox, or testbed, for tech trials and we’ve seen companies like Sony here, fintech companies and even last year an AI Asian hornet detection developer.
We have worked with the finance industry to develop the world’s first proper data trust, built on the foundations of our internationally renowned trust laws. Someone once said to me that what we call our finance sector is actually a business services sector which just happens to focus on money. We’ve shown that we can diversify to bring our skills to bear on other areas such as data and are already attracting international attention to our work in this space.
Finally, and staying with research and development, in 2023 we launched our Impact Jersey initiative, born out of the £20m Technology Accelerator Fund, itself funded from the sale of JT’s IoT division. This is our opportunity to really look at where technology investment can help address our major challenges whether economic, social or environmental.
We’ve only just started on this particular journey but, after eight years in this role, I have never been more enthused about the possibilities Digital Jersey can realise in this wonderful island of ours, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the digital stories you’ll find in this special edition of the JEP.
By the way, and please keep this to yourself, I quite enjoyed going to the Royal Court to buy our house, even if I did have to wear a tie, but there were a lot of meetings with lawyers and bankers and estate agents, and lots of paperwork with wet-ink signatures. There has to be a better way…