A New Economy for Wales
Dr Trefor Lewis
The UK economy is in great difficulty. Ranking just above Russia in projected economic growth is not a position to be envied or sought.
Brexit, supply problems and world-wide inflation have provided a cornucopia of problems for the UK to manage. Along with an outdated and worthless economic model.
At the moment, the intervention by the Bank of England to raise interest rates – and thus curb embedded inflation – simply raises unemployment and adds further costs throughout the value chain. Essentially, self-defeating. More inflation and more misery.
So, what’s to be done?
Well, nothing that can be achieved with the existing tools of monetary or fiscal policy. It’s a huge problem to halt terminal decline and it needs outstanding leadership.
But most of all it needs a new economy and it needs it now.
Wales has the answer to this problem.
Various models of the new economy are evident to see in most countries. It is the digital economy: high technology that is driven by Artificial Intelligence. And it has many huge advantages.
The economist, Enrico Moretti, has calculated that for every job created in the high-tech economy, five more jobs are created outside it. Five to one is a powerful multiplier and not to be ignored.
How can this splendidly juicy factor be applied to Wales?
How can we get going, at last, and enter the digital economy – as a serious contender?
The digital economy runs on data. This is structured and analysed to enable learning to take place to generate knowledge that provides innovation in the form of new services and products.
This is a process that can build an ecosystem that encourages new enterprises to be formed and those already existing to move ahead with innovative goodies. Surely, a consummation devoutly to be wished? And one that lies close at hand in Wales.
Wales NHS holds vast amounts of patient and other data and it’s of the very rich, complex and sophisticated kind.
Unlocking that golden hoard, when it is securely anonymised, will pave the way for expert diagnoses, cures of all kinds and tools and procedures to promote and sustain better health.
Among desirable outcomes would be a huge array of drugs to prevent or cure prominent diseases, high-tech surgical equipment and superior technology to assist in aiding those with chronic symptoms. And much more that we can’t imagine at the moment.
It is a true cornucopia of life-enhancing and prolonging possibilities. And will fire up Wales’ life science industry. And much more. However, the real wealth lies in the huge database – the fuel of the high-tech economy.
A key point to remember is that a hoard of sophisticated data is not just a heap of discrete information. It closely resembles a living organism. New information can add a further dimension in which to view older data.
The value of data can change depending upon the perception from which it is seen against new stuff that emerges. Thus, data, such as contained within NHS Wales needs to be kept in one place and not sold off in bits as demanded.
Undoubtedly, this new organisation will initially look like other large information technology companies but over time will make dramatic changes as it reforms to meet the changing needs of the digital economy.
It will develop a unique management structure and flexible business model as it adapts to the anticipated demands of its customers and will help and entice the rest of the UK to follow in its footsteps.
As any researcher knows, old data can take on new and significant power when set alongside something more recent. And vice versa. Data has a mysterious and far-reaching memory.
For this reason, it needs to be carefully stored and curated for what it is – a great treasury. Enhanced and developed in intriguing ways by Artificial intelligence. And overseen, controlled and nurtured by a benevolent, institution – mainly public but not wholly.
A great institution that is beyond immediate, financial gratification that is achieved by selling something off to the highest bidder – an arm of NHS Wales.
But amongst its initial problems is that of getting the data into one manageable form.
Much of it is stored on paper and hand written. Or, should one say, hand scrawled. Fortunately, the technology to deal with this already exists and has been used to good effect by NHS England.
By managing and nurturing such a golden hoard, Wales NHS will no longer be trying to keep up – in the sense of ‘affording it’ – with high tech advances in surgery and general medicine. It will be leading the way and generating much income. And wealth for this nation.
The anonymised data could be made freely available to all, with accompanying software – open source – and some kind of royalty or income-sharing agreement with respect to ensuing products and services. Of which there will be many.
This would provide a considerable income for the NHS – hugely changing the face of health care in Wales. It would be a world leader.
Essentially, NHS Wales could be following Google but have a great competitive advantage: it owns its own anonymised data and is constantly producing huge amounts of new data every day.
This is to be set alongside that which already exists – a huge trove of sophisticated data.
It is the data that produces the most wealth – look at Google – and not the innovative ideas that come from it.
But there is nothing new under the sun.
This idea has been put forward by Sir John Bell who led an independent but government-commissioned review of the UK life sciences industry – published on 30 August 2017.
But NHS England does not appear to have taken his ideas on board.
There are obvious reasons – it’s very hard. And it’s mostly unexplored territory.
President Kennedy stated that the US chose to go to the moon, not because it was easy but because it was hard. But most importantly because “it will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Well, there are a lot of latent energies and skills in Wales available for organising.
The new organisation will need many statisticians, coders, mathematicians, scientists, business analysts and exceptional young people who have not yet had the chance to prove their worth.
And the achievement of this new moon-shot will provide much more for mankind than the last one. In its provision of new ideas to explore it will be able to overcome the existing problem of AI being a destroyer of employment: new jobs will appear to take up the slack.
Wales was a great leader once – the first industrial nation – and it’s highly probable and desirable, that it can be so again. It just needs somebody or something to take the first step.
There are three acclaimed and prominent universities in Cardiff alone. Each has a successful business school. This provides an exceptional talent pool from which to draw upon.
There are also a number of internationally successful entrepreneurs who are also committed to ensuring Wales’ success.
And a lot of young people who just want to get on with things and make a good life for themselves.
Initial leaders may have to be appointed but as things develop, new leaders will emerge at all levels – as they always do.
The inbuilt flexibility to allow this to happen is crucial as is the belief that this must be a truly co-operative effort of all the talents. And that means some form of cohabitation with those of perceived abilities but no qualifications.
Nothing less is to be expected from an organisation that will be unique and visionary: something that we’ve never seen before.
A nascent organisation could be up and running within a year.
If it isn’t, then it’s not attracting the right sort of people to make the vision happen. Experience has shown that in the digital economy, if it doesn’t happen quickly then it won’t happen at all.
And all of those people without jobs at the moment will feel bitterly disappointed.
And the chance to change and enhance the economic image of Wales – to truly reflect its talented workforce – will have gone forever.
Trefor Lewis is an innovation economist, business consultant and academic. He was MBA director at UWIC, senior economic advisor at Gorwel, holds a doctorate from Cardiff University and is an Honorary Fellow of Cardiff Metropolitan University.
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