Data: Britain’s oil gusher

Britain is the Saudi Arabia of the data economy, says Matthew Lynn. It can thrive outside the European Union.

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London's "silicon roundabout": leading the world in the data revolution

Data is, at least according to some experts, the new oil, the essential raw material that drives the global economy. It is fuelling a global technology boom and transforming whole industries, and as more and more of it is collected, that will only accelerate. But which are the leading countries in producing the stuff, the digital equivalents of Saudi Arabia? A study in the Harvard Business Review has some surprising results. The world's leader is, perhaps inevitably, the United States, but Britain is now in second place, and some other relatively small economies are turning into world-beaters and that has significant implications for the way the global economy will develop over the next couple of decades.

The new GDP

The US, with its vast technology giants, wealth, huge population and sophisticated infrastructure, was always likely to lead the pack. But the rest of the list makes for surprising reading. Second-place Britain is followed by China, Switzerland and South Korea. Japan might be the third-largest economy in the world after the US and China, but it ranks 11th on this measure. Germany does even worse in 13th place, a measure of how poorly a country that was a global leader in the first and second industrial revolutions has done in the third. The Czech Republic is in tenth place, and Sweden and Australia also make it into the top ten.

How we can exploit our good fortune

Second, it puts our fevered debate about Brexit into a different context. We might be leaving an industrial trade bloc, and views understandably differ on how much of an impact that will have on our economy. But we are leading a digital one, and that is not such a bad outcome. It is interesting that the remaining 27 EU countries don't have a single member in the top-five data producers. Leaving the EU may lose us some industrial trade, yet it might win us a lot more online. It is easy to guess which of the two will grow faster, and generate more wealth, over the next couple of decades.

The priority for the UK is to drive home its advantage. We should be upgrading broadband capacity, pushing our mobile operators to install 5G networks, and perhaps most importantly of all keep easing regulations to allow digital technologies to flourish (for example, one of the best moves we could make after leaving the EU is to scrap its ridiculous GDPR regulations, which have hit small start-ups especially hard). For investors, the message is equally clear. Just as it would have made sense 100 years ago to invest in the countries that produced the most oil, so right now it makes sense to invest in the countries that generate the most data. That means the US, Britain, China, and perhaps Switzerland and the Czech Republic as well. But steer clear of relative laggards such as Germany and Japan because economies that don't produce enough data aren't going to grow.

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