20 November 2018

S5M-14807 Digital Industries

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-14807, in the name of Kate Forbes, on developing Scotland’s digital industries for our economic future.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I will start by declaring that I am a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and a professional member of the Association for Computing Machinery. As far as history is concerned, the Association for Computing Machinery is perhaps the most important of those organisations, because at a meeting of the ACM on 9 December 1968, Douglas Engelbart demonstrated a system that, as well as having windows, hypertext, graphics and videoconferencing, showed the first mouse in action. There is a video of that demonstration that can be viewed on the internet.

The Government’s motion talks about the need to harness the public sector and the private sector, so it is worth revisiting the history of how we got here. The public sector played a very important part in the digital developments that we benefit from today. Tommy Flowers, who was an engineer at the Post Office’s Dollis Hill laboratory during the second world war, used his own money to develop the first electronic computer. He scrounged a huge number of electronic valves and produced a computer for use at Bletchley Park, against the recommendation of the person who was running the place. In doing so, he contributed enormously to the war effort. The commercial company that was J Lyons and Co tea shops produced the first commercial computer, which ran its first transactions in 1951. The history that is encompassed by the motion has involved the public and the private sectors working together on a long-standing basis.

Digital ways of expressing data have been around for a very long time. It was Leibniz who, in 1679, came up with the binary system, and it was George Boole who, in 1847, introduced Boolean algebra, which underlies much of the work in this area. The first digital electronic circuit was installed in Edinburgh in 1868—it was a telegraph circuit that connected the Bank of Scotland’s head office in Edinburgh to its office in London. Incidentally, the bank installed its first telephone in 1881; the board said that that could be done only on the strict understanding that it would not be used to conduct business.

I hope that the line of the Government’s motion that says that

“a combined focus by government, the wider public sector and private sector is the most effective way of improving the digital capabilities”

is relevant to some of the remarks that I have made so far.

However, let us move on to today and the important things that we must do to deliver the modern world in which everyone can benefit from the adoption of digital technologies.

We know that about 2 per cent of our workforce are employed in the digital economy. We heard from James Kelly about the gender discrepancy that exists in the industry. Although he was right to say that, it is interesting that when I started in it in 1969, the balance was more or less 50:50. What seems to have happened is that, when the BBC Micro computer was launched in 1981, parents gave it to the sons in the family. We can see from the graph that, a couple of years after that, the gender bias moved dramatically towards men. Sometimes there are cultural issues at play, as well as Government policies. However, women will be very welcome in the industry, and I hope that they will join the more than 60,000 people who are working in computing in Scotland today.

The important thing is to get the infrastructure in place. However, Mike Rumbles wants us to cut the Government’s implementation period for the R100 programme from 549 days to 334 days—the delivery schedule that Mike Rumbles wants. That would be quite a substantial downdrop. We cannot simply squeeze projects into smaller spaces, without taking risks. The non-commutativity of time and effort applies to the project.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con): Will the member take an intervention?

Stewart Stevenson: I will just finish this wee bit, then I will take an intervention.

If it takes six hours for a gravedigger to dig a grave, that does not mean that six gravediggers can do it in one hour.

Edward Mountain: I am somewhat confused. It was quite clear in the Government’s programme that R100 would be delivered by the next election. That is what the Scottish National Party stood on at the most recent election. In fact, that is what the First Minister was saying until January this year. It was not until Fergus Ewing changed his position, which happened in about March, that the First Minister changed her position, which was in about July, if I remember rightly. I think that people in Scotland are expecting R100 to be rolled out by May 2021, as we were originally promised. I do not understand what the obfuscation is about. Perhaps Stewart Stevenson can explain it to me.

Stewart Stevenson: Edward Mountain should consider that it is better to set a realistic timescale in the light—

Mike Rumbles: You were elected based on it.

Stewart Stevenson: I hope that colleagues will forgive me: I am not rebutting a single word that Edward Mountain said about previous intentions. I am making the substantial point that rolling out to the last 5 per cent is a huge programme to undertake and we need the right amount of time to get it right. Any Government that fails to deliver on a project that it has set out will quite properly find itself in a difficult position.

Presiding Officer, you have generously given me a little time back, but I will not overegg the pudding. There are 120,000 or so homes in Scotland to which we must deliver R100, but it has correctly been said that the infrastructure of communication is merely the scaffolding upon which we can build the propositions that deliver value. Getting people who are not digitally capable up to a different place in society through libraries, public spaces and the education system, and converting private and Government business to digital delivery are also part of what we must do.

I look forward to my superfast broadband being delivered by fibre. If the last 5 per cent is by fibre—as, I guess, it will be—we will be ahead of the cities for the first time. Fingers crossed.


Stewart Stevenson
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