Why Edinburgh must 'redouble aspiration to become data capital for Europe'

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Edinburgh’s status as a global hotspot for the data and artificial intelligence (AI) sectors is on the rise, but stiff competition from key hubs such as Amsterdam and Dublin means that the Scottish capital must “redouble the aspiration to become the data capital for Europe”.

That’s the conclusion from new research by Accenture, the business services heavyweight that specialises in information technology services and consulting. While Edinburgh has set the aspiration to become a “data capital”, the study finds a need for clearer objectives that rally industry support and “deliver the city’s true potential”.

Edinburgh’s drive to become a data capital for Europe was one of the ambitions of the Edinburgh and South-East City Region Deal. To achieve that goal, in 2018, the UK and Scottish governments announced a collaboration with six local authorities and the city region’s universities, colleges, businesses and third sector, including a £661 million data-driven innovation (DDI) programme to harness the area’s strengths in digital technology and enhance its data capabilities.

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The Accenture research shows that in comparison with other cities in Europe, Edinburgh is consistently rated highly on its data and AI capability, ranking within the top five to ten cities, according to a range of criteria. However, in the absence of a single, consistent set of international benchmarks, a definitive pathway toward becoming the “leading” city is hard to define, the firm concludes. In response, Accenture argues that there is a need to “elevate the ambition” to deliver leading status by capitalising on the Scottish capital’s connectivity with specialist hubs for life sciences, manufacturing, cybersecurity and public sector innovation, which are all data driven. Truly establishing a “reciprocal, interconnected arrangement” with the centres of excellence in Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and St Andrews would create a unique environment to share and amplify knowledge and expertise, the firm said, and create a “stand-out” position for Edinburgh and Scotland on the international stage.

David Caskie, joint managing director for Accenture in Scotland, said: “One of Edinburgh’s strengths is that its data capabilities exist within a strong national strategy for promoting digital and tech, and alongside other centres striving for excellence where data is critical. To maintain and increase the levels of inward investment that support Edinburgh’s data aspirations, the city’s connectivity with these other specialist hubs should be emphasised. A way must be found to bring the separate hubs and their communities closer together in a meaningful way. Thereafter, Edinburgh should redouble the aspiration to become the data capital for Europe, with a clear set of benchmarks that can be loudly promoted to organisations worldwide.

“For those living in Scotland and working in Edinburgh, to be a data capital for Europe is an aspiration within reach – a goal worth pursuing. The turmoil caused by the unforeseen global events of the past three years has undoubtedly hampered progress but the opportunity for Edinburgh and Scotland to take such a lead remains compelling.”

In comparison with the major centres of Dublin, Amsterdam and Stockholm, Edinburgh ranks well on the number and quality of its universities offering AI and data science degree courses and exceeds both Dublin and Stockholm in terms of published research, consolidating a world-leading academic reputation, according to Accenture. Graduate retention is also known to be better than in Amsterdam. The demand for data skills, measured in the number of job postings on LinkedIn, is higher than Stockholm, equal to Dublin, but less than Amsterdam. Across Europe, Edinburgh is one of the cities driving demand for AI and data science professionals, the research observes.

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Mark Byrne, head of applied intelligence for Accenture in Scotland, said: “In an increasingly competitive talent market, the development of the right skills and their availability is, and will continue to be, a major factor for Edinburgh to fulfil its ambition. Our research highlighted a clear case for the business community to collaborate more closely with education providers. Taking a more active role in the development of data and AI skills, through participation in curriculum and courses development as well as providing business insight, coaching and work experience, will help to create a cohort of work ready university and college graduates who stay in Edinburgh and Scotland.”

David Caskie, joint managing director for Accenture in Scotland, says the city’s connectivity with other specialist hubs should be emphasised. Picture: John Need MediaDavid Caskie, joint managing director for Accenture in Scotland, says the city’s connectivity with other specialist hubs should be emphasised. Picture: John Need Media
David Caskie, joint managing director for Accenture in Scotland, says the city’s connectivity with other specialist hubs should be emphasised. Picture: John Need Media

The firm commissioned Ipsos Mori (Scotland) to undertake the research, which consisted of two stages - a desk-based review of previous research, data sources and other publications to understand the data and AI landscape in Scotland, along with in-depth qualitative interviews with businesses that have a strong data presence in Scotland, or that might consider having one. The comparisons with Dublin, Amsterdam and Stockholm also highlighted areas that require additional focus.

Edinburgh attracts strong investment into its digital sector and is a hub for AI start-ups, but it has some “catching up to do” with other European cities. And while Scotland’s capital can boast an “exceptional” network of academic institutions, research centres and business support agencies, it does not have that “lighthouse” or global leader in the data space to elevate the city’s status on the world stage, in the way that Dublin is the European headquarters for Facebook and Google, and Amsterdam hosts the annual world summit in AI.

Byrne added: “When we consider the number of AI start-ups, we see that Edinburgh, while strong, trails other leading cities. We also found that making the city more attractive to growth companies was seen as a significant factor in elevating Edinburgh’s (and Scotland’s) credentials as a technology hub.”

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