The BBC posted a great article about how Estonia has embraced technology to overcome its relatively small size, this extract about/from President Toomas Hendrik sums it up nicely:
There’s a story from his time in the US that he is fond of telling. He read a book whose “Luddite, neo-Marxist” thesis, he says, was that computerisation would be the death of work.
The book cited a Kentucky steel mill where several thousands of workers had been made redundant, because after automatisation, the new owners could produce the same amount of steel with only 100 employees.
“This may be bad if you are an American,” he says. “But from an Estonian point of view, where you have this existential angst about your small size – we were at that time only 1.4 million people – I said this is exactly what we need.
“We need to really computerise, in every possible way, to massively increase our functional size.”
I’ve been thinking along similar lines about the future of the UK. We’re much bigger than Estonia, but a relatively small global player, and due to get smaller as numerically larger countries become more developed.
So how do we compete in a marketplace dominated by low-cost labour centres, which will inevitably lead to low-cost service centres?
Certainly we need to start producing things consumers in those countries are going to want (the in way German brands have developed a name for quality and luxury) but I also think we need to embrace technology.
Robotics is one area I think we need to get into, both as a market leader and to help boost our manufacturing industry, by off-setting our labour costs and guaranteeing quality. 3D printing is another technology that holds a lot of promise for lowering manufacturing costs.
The designing, building and operation of drones is somewhere else that I think we can become a leader, partly due to our history of aeronautical innovation, but also because it’s another area where it can help off-set our smaller population. (Drones do now seem to have been mooted as a possible replacement for the cancelled Nimrod maritime surveillance project, but it was cancelled in 2010 so we’ve taken our time to work that out.)
There are plenty of other technologies that fit this mold as well, but they need a push, perhaps some incentives from the government (tax breaks perhaps, as with some creative industries).
I don’t particularly fear for Britain’s future, but I think that with the right decisions we could find ourselves leading some industries instead of being an also-ran. They would also stop us becoming overly reliant on financial services, which is where we currently find ourselves heading.