Scotland must urgently address an “educational emergency” in computing science, according to Mark Logan, the former Skyscanner chief operating officer and now lead for the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Transformation.
Speaking exclusively to Insider, he bemoaned steadily falling levels of secondary pupils taking the subject – not to mention the increasing gender disparity among those who do – alongside a roughly 20% drop in the number of teachers specialising in it.
Logan warned that while the Scottish higher education system has been a major driver of a generally healthy technology start-up scene, this trend could seriously disrupt the supply of crucial graduates into the workforce.
“We may run out of talent for these start-ups and spin outs, so it’s really important to look at the whole talent funnel going into the sector,” he argued.
Since leaving Skyscanner in 2017, Logan’s focus has been as a start-up and scale-up advisor, investor and non-executive director.
He has also become a professor at the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science, a senior fellow at Strathclyde University’s Technology Innovation Centre and an advisor to the Scottish Government on technology policy.
Crucially, he is now leading the Scottish Government’s implementation of the Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review recommendations, following a report he authored in 2020.
Among its many recommendations, the report included the proposal that all pupils be taught computer science from the first year of secondary school, along with providing incentives for universities to produce homegrown software engineers from courses currently dominated by those from overseas.
While the report was launched just as the first Covid-19 lockdowns were being implemented, Logan says that the pandemic has actually accelerated much of the agenda.
“For the first time, we’ve had an intersection of industry and government focus, which has made it possible to do things quickly.
“There’s been very good engagement at a ministerial level, while the civil service has been doing well implementing the recommendations in a series of waves,” he continued, adding that they should give Scottish start-ups a strong platform, while also encouraging those from overseas to set up here.
Logan is quick to admit that for many small tech firms starting out, the coronavirus crisis has led to “severe trauma”, but while the clouds dominate, there have been silver linings for some able to take advantage of home working trends or helping with the recovery.
He says that while Scotland has a long line of start-up success stories, it has historically lacked many that have been able to scale-up in the country. Most – including several he has been a part of – have eventually been sold to foreign owners.
“The tipping point in the ecosystem is where you have a sufficient critical mass of start-ups, when things start to happen spontaneously – it becomes easier to attract top talent and networking effects begin to take hold.
“The same can be said for investment – seed capital is currently available, but scale capital is mostly focused on bigger ecosystems, like London for instance.”
Logan will be hosting a panel at this year’s Institute of Directors Global Conference on 3 September, reflecting on the digital ecosystem, specifically in terms of the challenges and opportunities for tech firms to make an impact in the race to net zero emissions.
It is a subject which has become increasingly key to the work he takes on.
“Tech is often proposed as the solution to the climate crisis, but this isn’t a new crisis and the tech industry hasn’t solved it so far.”
“In fact, if we’re honest, the tech industry is currently a net accelerator of climate change – for example, we’re using new technology to access previously uneconomic oil fields.
“We celebrate Blockchain, but its biggest application consumes more electricity than the average European country. “
While companies clearly need to do more, Logan insisted that to really make a difference, “massive government intervention” is required to lead and direct the industry to truly tackle the scale of change required, in the exploitation and maturation of existing technologies and in developing new ones.
He also argued for more directed investment out of subsidies for fossil fuels and into solutions for climate change, pointing out that approximately 30 times as much UK fiscal stimulus is spent on carbon intensive industries than is on green ones.
“It’s possible we’re already too late, but we’re certainly not too early – we need true urgency in every government department.
“Setting targets is the easy bit, we need to do much better on the inputs to those targets – and no government is doing remotely enough, because it seems expensive and inconvenient.”
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report painted a worrying picture for the future, but Logan noted that the findings only took up the news agenda for a day.
“We’d rather not believe it, but the reality is that we’re at war with our path dependence – our sunk costs, our lobbying groups and our vested interests – we need a wartime-scale response.”
His hope is that the last 18 months of battling the spread Covid-19 may have taught leaders in both the private and public sector that exponential growth – be it good or bad – really can and will happen.
“Hopefully enough of us will apply that experience to climate change, and feel a bit more urgency” Logan added.
“After 30 years of experience in this ecosystem I can see greater energy and belief in founders coming through than there’s ever been, so I’m just trying to help some of those to realise their potential and create value in the areas that matter.”
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