The Form Playbook Interview: Tony Blair on the future of UK tech and how start-ups should engage with government
Every month we interview a leader in venture, start-ups and regulation for The Form Playbook, our newsletter supporting founders building in markets where policy matters.
For our first issue, we spoke to Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister, on how companies should engage with government and the future of UK tech.
Takeaways for founders:
- Every high-growth company will need to engage with government at some point, but authorities are juggling hundreds of priorities and can be slow to respond. Start working on your engagement strategy early, not just when crisis hits.
- To engage well, articulate the impact of what you’re doing simply, and on the terms that decisionmakers care about. Don’t just describe the technology — no matter how interesting it is!
- To secure the future of UK tech, governments should focus on building its own network effects and treating data as a competitive asset: innovative models like the UK Biobank, reforms to allow dual-class share structures, and targeted R&D spending all support this.
FORM: You recently gave a major speech highlighting the three major revolutions facing the UK: Brexit, climate, and tech. On the latter you talked about the gap between accelerating technology and a government in need of vast re-ordering, e.g. how “policymakers … are more comfortable talking about regulating Facebook than setting out the opportunities.” Could you expand on this?
TONY BLAIR: The fundamental point is this: the technological revolution that we are living through today will have consequences that surpass those of the Industrial Revolution. Our understanding of biology is dramatically improving, new clean technologies can completely change how we produce energy, while areas such as cultured meat and vertical farming can radically alter our model of agriculture. On top of all of this we have AI, which is perhaps the most consequential technology in history.
However, the political debate has been too narrow and there needs to be a much wider focus on how we develop and harness the technologies that can significantly improve our well-being. The leaders and countries that do this will be those that drive the future.
In your time in government, the first wave of this technology revolution — the internet, web and mass computing — started to hit. Now we have an explosion of both tangible and intangible tech, be it alternative proteins and drones or social platforms and web3, that is reordering entire economies, societies and bureaucracies. How can governments get comfortable with novel, modernising forces? How should political leaders engage with the challenges but also articulate a more expansive, optimistic vision for the role of tech in the UK?
There have been periods of history where governments have been comfortable in this space, including New Labour. I actually spoke about the possibilities of science and technology in my 1996 conference speech! That era was obviously a modernising one — something we again need today. But the key point is that it requires a culture and mindset that is curious and open to new ideas.
Given the role that technology now plays in so many people’s lives, I think you would find it hard to find many who don’t believe that health, education, transport, or even areas like tax, can all be improved by technology. But it requires leadership and a clear articulation of how it can improve well-being in simple and human terms, as well as more creative thinking about how to make this a reality.
You’ve spoken extensively about the UK and Europe needing to build bigger companies as in the US, while, in recent times, listing in London has proven challenging for companies like Deliveroo and ARM. Is this just about a lag in funding/ecosystem maturity, or are there deeper obstacles to building, scaling and capitalising big companies here? What should governments be doing in response?
This is a critical question for Britain given its position today. Our economy is spiralling and making the country the best place to grow and build a business should be a priority as we rebuild our economic model post-Brexit. No one fix will do this, but we should be thinking about our own network effect the state can create. That means thinking about how we build talent in AI, biotech, the R&D and white spaces we want to explore, right through to how we commercialise and scale, including more growth equity and elements like those raised in the Hill Review such as dual class shares. Given the significance of AI we also need to think of data as a competitive asset, looking at how we create more innovative models such as the Biobank that can really stimulate research and industry.
Just as governments need to understand the opportunities generated by innovators and start-ups, what do early-stage start-ups and founders need to understand about how government and policy really work?
One of the fundamental issues that my Institute works on is bringing the change-makers and policy-makers together so that there is a far more productive dialogue. But for companies the point is: they are all going to have to engage with government and regulation at some point, while government — which has myriad of priorities at any one point — will nearly always be too slow to engage. Working out how to engage with government early is therefore going to be critical; it shouldn’t be an afterthought.
Many start-ups find it hard to engage with governments. What is the best way to cut through to reach decisionmakers and effect change?
Articulate the idea well and simply! Too often those working in technology like to describe what it is, rather than what it ultimately means. If you have a good and idea and can do that, I’m confident engagement will be much better!
What’s one tech issue or sector where the UK could and should lead, but isn’t yet? What change would you like to see?
I’m excited about our potential in biotech and clean tech and work being done at Culham and by fusion firms could be game-changing. Companies such as Graphcore, Oxford Nanopore and Wayve are also really exciting, but more broadly I would like us to build an ecosystem that means that UK is building brilliant companies and the jobs that will power our growth and prosperity.
Which forthcoming tech advancement do you think will fundamentally change the world in your lifetime?
This is not particularly novel, but AI. Recent breakthroughs by OpenAI and DeepMind have been astonishing. Its potential is profound.
This interview was published on The Form Playbook, our newsletter supporting founders understand, navigate and build where regulation is a driver of success: