What is the Connected Nation?

By John Baird, Lead for the RCUK Digital Economy Theme.

With the stage set for Connected Nation: Thriving in the Digital Economy, a major cross-council event taking place at the British Library this Tuesday, 8 December, John Baird, Lead for the Research Councils UK (RCUK) Digital Economy Theme provides a background to the event, and explains how research funded by the UK Research Councils is helping make the UK a safer, more trustworthy and more enjoyable place to live.

The world is changing. Our economy and society are becoming increasingly dependent on digital and data technologies, which are presenting us with new challenges and opportunities almost every day.

The UK is ideally placed to tackle these challenges – it’s in our DNA. From Charles Babbage’s 1822 concept for a Difference Engine, a landmark in the prehistory of the computer, to the work of Alan Turing, the father of theoretical computer science, and to modern data analytics, which can make sense of the digital world around us, the UK has an incredibly strong foundation in the science that has supported digital technologies over the last centuries.

Today, our skill at connecting people, things and data together, in safe, smart, secure, trustworthy, productive and efficient ways is more important than ever, as we design and build digital technologies for future generations (some as yet unimagined) that will rely on discovery and innovation stemming from fundamental research.

The Research Councils are at the heart of this and have currently invested more than £170 million in cutting-edge research in the digital economy and information & communications technologies.

Connected Nation: Thriving in a Digital World will bring together influential policymakers, businesses and third sector leaders on 8 December at the British Library to discuss the key issues affecting the future of our digital economy. The event will also showcase how long-term Research Council investments are already benefitting the UK and how they can continue to help our economy and society not just to survive, but thrive as a future connected nation.

You can find out about this research on the Connected Nation blog, which has been launched to coincide with the event, and gives Research Council-supported researchers a chance to describe their ground-breaking work in their own words.

As the Connected Nation is about you and the contributions we can make together, we will be covering the event live at #ConnectedNationUK for you to engage and ask questions even if you are not there in person – our speakers are looking forward to answering your questions. So please note the date – 8 December. Log in, follow the hashtag #ConnectedNationUK hashtag, have your say and help us take the discussion forward into our connected future.


Reinvesting for Growth

Outcomes of past research surround us everywhere. The technology that runs our cars, pain-killers and other simple treatments for our ailments or the scholarship that underpins that fascinating history documentary we watch on TV; it’s hard to imagine a world without the products of research.

Another example is the smartphone technology that many of us rely on, not just for communication but also for access to information. Smartphones represent an extraordinary convergence of research into a single device, but underpinning it all is the wireless network. And that aspect of the technology is about to go through the next revolution as we move from 3G to 4G networks, which promise to provide connection speeds on smartphones to rival the best available from wired broadband.

As well as a huge opportunity for new innovation, the 4G revolution will also provide revenue for the Government through the auction of 4G spectrum that is planned for next year. A new report from the Campaign for Science and Engineering and NESTA makes the case that this windfall is part of the return on our past investment in research. And also argues that the best use of the money is to reinvest it in research, technology and innovation; a boost to drive sustainable economic growth.

The report proposes a programme to spend the projected £4 billion of additional income. The suggestions are well designed to cover both investments that will bring benefits in the longer term, and those that will deliver on shorter time-scales  I think these proposals merit serious consideration and represent an exciting opportunity to make a step change in innovation-led growth.

From an RCUK perspective, it is especially pleasing to see such a strong emphasis on spending on research infrastructure. Innovation is driven by world-leading research which needs access to world-leading research infrastructure. Government has made significant investment in research capital over the last two years, but there are still major opportunities available that we need to seize to keep our research at the highest level. In the coming weeks we will be publishing the RCUK Capital Investment Framework which sets out these opportunities. Allocation of further funding would allow us to turn opportunities into realities, with major benefits for the economic performance of the Nation in the long-term.