The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Sabina Ciofu, Associate Director at techUK, the UK’s technology trade association headquartered in London. Sabina discussed how techUK works to build common ground with the EU, the importance of sharing values with trading partners, and what drives her work at techUK.
Patrick Grady: How is techUK ensuring the UK remains one of the best places to start and grow a tech firm?
Sabina Ciofu: The UK is the biggest digital economy in Europe. There are some core ingredients for that success, but we’ll need to keep working on the challenges to make sure it continues to be a great place for investment and innovation.
First, the widespread challenge that most developed countries are struggling with and that’s the skills gap. The UK needs to invest in building the right pool of talent and skills for growing a tech firm, as well as in ensuring access to such talent from other countries. Then there’s the question of funding. We need to make sure the UK has the right framework for funding, especially for start-ups and scale-ups. Third would be the regulatory environment for innovation and research and development. Strong consistent regulation that protects consumers and encourages entrepreneurship and innovation is crucial for the future of the sector.
Also, this is going to sound really obvious, but you really can’t have a thriving digital sector without the right infrastructure. We need to make sure connectivity reaches everyone and creates opportunities to learn, collaborate and come up with new ideas.
And lastly, I can’t talk about the success of the UK digital economy without touching on trade. The UK is not a huge country; the growth of its economy depends hugely on its ability to have strong connections to the world which allows the UK growing services sector to export and trade successfully across borders. Digital trade policy is a recipe for success in that area, and we’re very supportive of the government’s focus on making trade policy with digital at its heart.
Grady: How does techUK work to build common ground with the EU, and what is the impact of divergence?
Ciofu: Look, for a tech company, the ideal scenario is that we have the same rules everywhere in the world—how easy would it then be to build, scale up and trade internationally? However, we know we live in a world far from ideal scenarios, in which case the second best option is to work on finding common ground with our closest partners, the European Union strongly among them.
At techUK, we’ve been doing a lot of work to understand the different paths in UK and EU tech policy development. Over the past year, we’ve been holding a series of roundtables in Brussels looking at core digital policies, such as data, competition, or online safety, to understand what London and Brussels are up to in those policy areas and what is the kind of common ground we can build on.
The reality of the world we live in—especially in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine—is that we’ll have to find ways to work together and that ultimately we have a lot more in common than what drives us apart. And while the bilateral relationship may remain tense for some time, I think the G7 has proven to be a very important forum of cooperation, including on tech, trade, and cyber.
Grady: The majority of the UK’s data flows are with the EU. Do you see this changing? How influential is geography for digital trade?
Ciofu: I’m a big believer in the opportunities of digital trade and how the Internet has basically created whole new ways of delivering services internationally. Percentage-wise our data flows will change as we open up new markets around the world with new Free Trade Agreements and digital-only trade agreements. Data flows with Asia-Pacific will increase in the coming years, but I suspect Europe and the USA will nevertheless remain the biggest markets for our technology sector.
Geography for trade in services certainly doesn’t matter as much as it does for trade in goods. But it still matters and shapes the way companies think about scaling up internationally.
Grady: Is it important for the UK tech sector to share values and views on digital issues with its trading partners?
Ciofu: Trade relations are important with both countries we agree with and those we don’t. The value of the WTO Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) negotiations on e-commerce, for example, lies precisely in bringing 80+ countries with different views, laws, and regulations around a table to set baseline global rules for digital trade. Multilateralism may be in crisis, but the optimist and pragmatist in me would say not yet dead. Trade with like-minded countries will always be easier because we share values, principles, and approaches to regulation. That’s why some of the most advanced trade agreements on the planet are among countries that share similar views on digital regulation.
However, the world is not made of advanced economies only. It is hugely important that we don’t allow digital trade policy to widen the gap between developed and developing countries and that we continue to strive to bring everyone around the table. In addition, we should align our trade policy with our development policy to build administrative capacity in developing countries on these matters. The ability to have a broad—as global as possible—alliance around digital trade is what will make it meaningful and successful in the long term.
Grady: You have previously written that people should regularly ask themselves what motivates them to do the work they do. What motivates your work at techUK?
Ciofu: I recently taught a masterclass at UCL, and I introduced myself as a proud tech lobbyist before asking students what came to mind when they heard lobby. You can suspect it wasn’t all nice things! We then spent a couple of hours impersonating all kinds of lobbyists and turns out it’s a bit more complicated a picture than they’ve thought or indeed than I used to think when I was younger.
I love my job precisely because I work on trade and international cooperation. When you think about geopolitics, what is the role of technology and how do we make the open Internet as we know it survives? Who are our partners in that journey? What can we do, as a country, with the EU, with the US, with the Asia-Pacific allies, within the G7, within the G20, at the WTO, at the OECD, set some sensible rules for the digital economy so that technology serves us and our societies, helps our economies grow and protects our planet? Tech can’t do any of that by itself, but people can. I still believe in those international fora and the power of people and countries to come together when and for what really matters. That’s what drives me.