Digital Strategy for Scotland

As part of the Scottish Government consultation on the Digital Strategy for Scotland, the RSE jointly hosted a roundtable discussion focusing on certain aspects of the consultation document. The report brings together the main points from the discussion and represents the RSE’s contribution to the consultation process. The discussion was held under Chatham House Rule and the report has not been endorsed by participants.

Dr Shonaig Macpherson CBE FRSE discusses the Digital Strategy for Scotland.

Paper summary

In December 2020, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), Scotland’s National Academy, hosted a roundtable with the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) on their consultation on the Digital Strategy for Scotland. The roundtable brought together RSE Fellows, members of the Young Academy of Scotland and external stakeholders with a diverse range of relevant expertise and experience to contribute to the updating of the Digital Strategy. The discussion was focused on, but not limited to, specific parts of the consultation document including No One Left Behind, Services for All, Transforming Government, A Digital and Data Economy, and A Vibrant Tech Sector. The discussion and this report represents the RSE’s contribution to the consultation process and builds on existing RSE activity in this area, including our contribution to developing an AI Strategy for Scotland and to the Logan Report on the technological ecosystem.

The impact of the pandemic has shown the importance of the provision of broadband and digital skills to inclusion, as those from deprived backgrounds have suffered disproportionately as the nation switched to digital during the pandemic. Currently, there are 800,000 people in Scotland who are digitally excluded and 20% with no or inadequate digital skills. Therefore, more needs to be done to ensure that all citizens are digitally connected and are supported in developing the skills they require to access and use digital technologies. While there is an immediate need to provide universal access to broadband along with requisite digital skills, the strategy must take a long term view to putting in place the infrastructure, investment and support that will be required to meet the needs and demands of Scotland’s economy and society in twenty years’ time.

Government and public services have all needed to adapt to the major challenges which the pandemic continues to pose. This has demonstrated the agility and speed at which digital methods can be adopted and deployed. Digital and data have the potential to transform how we ‘do’ government and provide public services. This is reliant on building high levels of public trust in the collection, use and storage of data. This will require the adoption of ethical standards and transparency through governance.

While businesses are facing major challenges from the pandemic, some have adapted to provide services digitally which has brought their products to a wider market. However, the biggest challenge for businesses will be overcoming the vast shortfall in revenue and there is a real possibility that a third of SMEs in Scotland may not reopen after the crisis. Coordinated support for SMEs will be necessary and looking ahead we must build on the uptake of digital methods by business through encouraging uptake of digital services by SMEs.

The Logan Report provided a useful insight into the importance of software-enabled internet businesses in Scotland but does not provide the full picture of the technology ecosystem in Scotland. The recommendations presented in the report are supported, particularly around skills development and computing science teaching. However, more acknowledgement is needed of the role of colleges and universities in the provision of skills and reskilling. The value of the software sector to the Scottish economy is significant as illustrated by the report, but comparably we are not performing as well. Therefore, greater ambition is needed in improving business growth, skills development and in attracting businesses to Scotland, which should be matched by sustainable levels of investment.