UK tech has long had global reach. But, through 2020, the world has changed rapidly - pushing the country to think differently about connectivity, trade and digital commerce. Now all tech leaders need a truly international growth outlook.
In this report, the context in which international digital tech trade is taking place, countries best placed to trade with, and global tech competition are presented to get to grips with ways in which global tech opportunities can be unlocked.
A series of rankings are presented that show where there might be ripe opportunities to trade internationally. These rankings are determined by factors that contribute to the attractiveness of a place for doing business, with an emphasis on trade in digital tech products and services.
The report finds that the UK was the 5th greatest digital tech services exporter in the world, at £23.3bn in 2019, sitting behind India, the USA, China and Germany in the global rankings. This position is driven by a relatively high number (7,497) of high growth exporting tech companies in the UK, many of which are yet to realise their full exporting potential.
UK digital tech services currently export a much greater value of goods than they import, generating a significant trade surplus of 55% in 2019. This compares favourably to the average trade surplus among the top 57 countries globally, which is 48%. UK digital tech trade surplus has increased by 68% over the last four years - from £8.7bn in 2015 to £12.8bn in 2019 - now just behind the Insurance sector (£16.9bn) and Financial Services (£43.4).
The report also shows that the US was the biggest importer of global digital tech services in 2019, valued at £34bn, followed by Germany at £33bn and China at £21bn. India, Japan, and Brazil have seen the biggest growth in the level of tech services they import - by 29%, 24% and 17% respectively between 2018 and 2019.
The UK is a natural home for many scaling tech businesses, and there are a proportionally high number of scaling tech businesses located here that are already well-established in delivering domestic tech services. The UK is also third in the world for the number of UK tech unicorns, and number one in Europe. These factors give us a strong conviction that UK founders, government and industry leaders should all be gearing up to double tech exports by 2025, in the aftermath of both the pandemic and Brexit. By doubling exports, UK tech could contribute an additional £23bn to the economy per year by 2025 and move up the ranks to become a top global exporter of tech.
This report should be seen alongside our Unlocking Global Tech event in London Tech Week 2020. Together they can accelerate internationalisation of UK digital tech companies, products and services - setting the scene for growth through the 2020s.
Thanks to StartupBlink for the use of their premium data in constructing the Global Opportunities Index.
- UK digital tech exports are currently projected to grow by 35% by 2025, resulting in an additional £8.15bn worth of tech exports - £31.45bn by 2025
- The UK is the 5th greatest digital tech services exporter in the world at £23.3bn in 2019, behind India, the US, China and Germany
- Trade surplus (the gap between exports and imports) for digital tech was up 68% over the last four years (2015-2019) - in 2019 there was a trade surplus to exports proportion of 55% in the UK, higher than the global average of 48%
- The UK is second in Europe for global tech services exports behind Germany
- Digital tech services exports dipped from 2018 to 2019, a fresh imperative for UK tech companies to maintain and build international trading relationships to build back better from Covid-19.
- Singapore and Brazil are the fastest rising global opportunities for UK tech businesses to trade with
- The US tops the charts with the greatest opportunities for UK tech companies to trade
- Asia Pacific and North America are regional top opportunities for UK digital tech firms
- UK tech companies should aim to double digital tech services exports by up to £23.3bn per year by 2025
Global tech exports
Setting the global tech scene
The UK is punching above its weight for digital service exports, but has a way to go to catch global leaders like the US and India.
Figure 1 Digital tech services exports by country (2015-2019)
Source: ITC, 2020
UK exports of services to Europe increased by 17.6% in 2018, from £80.9 billion in 2017 to £95.2 billion. This was driven by increases in UK service exports to the EU, which increased by £10.1 billion to £72.6 billion, largely because of increased exports to Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Austria.
Looking at all service exports (excluding travel, transport and banking) made by UK companies, we see that Europe has traditionally been a major destination. This trend continued in 2018, with UK services exports to Europe accounting for 51.4% of the total.
By geographical region, the Americas continued to be the second-largest destination for UK services exports in 2018, accounting for 27.8% of the overall total. Exports to the Americas increased by 12.3% in 2018, from £45.9 billion in 2017 to £51.5 billion. The United States (US) was the largest contributor to this increase, rising by £5.2 billion to £43.4 billion.
In 2019 the UK was the 5th greatest digital tech services exporter in the world behind India, the USA, China and Germany.
UK digital tech services exports have risen by 25% from 2015-2019
Figure 2 Change in UK digital tech services exports from 2015-2019
Source: ITC, 2020
From 2018 to 2019 however, there was a slight dip in the export figures, from £23.9bn to £23.3bn. In 2019 UK tech companies achieved record VC investment, at £10.1bn, and a rise in high value tech scaleups (those companies valued between $250mn and $800mn) - the emphasis for these companies is likely to be initially on achieving domestic scale, and driving international expansion - which may not have yet been captured in export statistics. The export figure is therefore well positioned to rise into 2020.
Digital tech exports were amongst the top services exports in 2019 - behind Financial services, Transport and Travel
Figure 3 UK service exports by sector (2015-2019)
Source: ITC, 2020
Whilst the digital tech economy is a bigger employer than sectors like Hospitality (1.3m), Construction (1.9m) and Financial Services (1.2m), exports of digital tech services have remained less that those of Financial Services, Travel and Transport over the last five years. This suggests that there is domestic growth in tech that hasn't yet been reflected in global expansion. Therein lies an opportunity for UK tech companies to capitalise on the scale they have achieved in the UK and Europe, and exploit their competitiveness. Unlike some global counterparts, many UK tech firms that have achieved scale will likely have developed products and services in highly competitive, and relatively saturated markets. Cultural differences and market dynamics will of course have to be taken into account in the exploitation of a product outside of the UK. Many of these factors, including cultural difference, are articulated in the Global Opportunities Index.
Digital tech services exports are growing, but are still significantly lower than Financial Services and Insurance
Figure 4 Change in services exports in the UK (2015-2019)
Source: ITC, 2020
According to recent projections (Oxford Economics, August 2020), digital tech is currently on the path to boosting exports by an additional £8.15bn, bringing total digital tech exports to £31.45bn by 2025.
The UK has a high number of scaling and established tech businesses, an opportunity for further international expansion
In 2019, the UK has second in the world for high growth scaling and established tech businesses, primed for international trade, with nearly 7,500 firms that have the potential to export their digital products and services globally. These companies likely have a focused on domestic and European markets, yet there is a significant international trade opportunity that they could capitalise on. The UK is therefore well positioned to be able to expand exports of digital products and services over the next five years, using record levels of venture capital and world leading support resources to grow global market share.
For international expansion, countries like Brazil, Japan and India, with a large business population, and relatively small export focus will offer opportunities with reduced global competition.
Figure 5 High growth startup and scaleup digital tech businesses exporting globally
Source: Pitchbook, 2020
Global tech imports to India have risen by nearly 30% over the last year
Increases in digital techs service imports indicate an opportunity for UK firms to export to these nations. India tops the charts for import changes from 2018 to 2019, with a 29.4% increase. Despite India being known as a nation that excels in exporting services, there are opportunities for UK firms to sell into this burgeoning market. Tools to enable effective and safe data driven decision making, including cyber security solutions and the application of Artificial Intelligence tools may be ripe opportunities for trade with India.
Table 1 Top 20 global digital tech importers (2016-2019) by % change over 2018-19 in import levels
|Importers||2016||2017||2018||2019||% change 2018-2019|
Source: ITC, 2020, including OECD, World Bank, UNCTAD
Global tech opportunities
Looking ahead at where global opportunities lie for UK digital tech service companies to boost exports, Tech Nation has created a Global Opportunities Index with StartupBlink that ranks the top 25 countries in order of which are the most attractive countries to do business with.
The USA and the UK are first and second in the world respectively for digital tech trading opportunities. This is driven by UK online retail and e-commerce sales, which were valued at £688.4bn (which also includes domestic sales) in 2018 - more than 8x that of France, with £82bn. For UK tech companies, Singapore and Brazil are the fastest rising global opportunities for trade, climbing 5 and 17 places respectively in the country rankings for global tech opportunity between 2019 and 2020.
The rankings are determined by factors that contribute to the attractiveness of a location for doing business, with an emphasis on digital tech products and services. Variables such as infrastructure, access to talent and education levels, ease of doing business, regulation, language and consumers are weighted and aggregated to give a sense, for each country, of the opportunity for trade.
Table 2 2020 Top digital tech trade opportunities by country
|2020 Rank||Country||Change on 2019|
Source: StartupBlink, 2020
Singapore and Brazil have achieved the highest increases in the rankings, with five and seventeen places climbed respectively
Brazil has long been lauded as an emerging economy to watch (think BRIC - Brazil, Russia, India and China). But whilst China and India have blossomed - and barriers to entry for UK companies have sprung up, Brazil continues to have untapped potential for international tech trade. A population of over 210mn people, and close to 150mn internet users make Brazil one of the top markets by consumers globally, and despite GDP per capita being three times less than that in the UK, it has been climbing steadily over the last decade. Brazil offers UK digital tech companies an opportunity to develop solutions for a growing market - infrastructure is developed across major cities, Sao Paolo, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, and Porto Alegre to name a few.
The United States tops the charts for city opportunities
The States has with 10 cities in the top 25 global cities for international trade, ahead of India and China with 3 and 2 cities respectively at the top of the rankings. As well as understanding the national picture, it is important to understand city by city trade dynamics - especially with countries like the USA, India and China, where there is a great deal of diversity and difference across key cities.
Figure 6 Top ranking cities across countries in the top 20 for international trade (2020)
Source: StartupBlink, 2020
Whilst US and European cities have remained relatively stable over the last year, opportunities for trade with companies and organisations in Asian cities have rocketed. Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Mumbai have climbed up the rankings, now occupying top places. UK companies could therefore consider these cities in discussions around international trade and expansion, alongside the usual candidates in the States.
Table 3 2020 Top digital tech trade opportunities by city
|2020 Rank||City (area)||Change from 2019|
|1||San Francisco Bay||0|
|5||Los Angeles Area||-1|
|7||Tel Aviv Area||-1|
Source: StartupBlink, 2020
Explore the Global Opportunities map below to find international expansion opportunities for your business
Figure 7 Top 20 Global Opportunities - interactive opportunities map
Source: marketselector.net, 2020
Digital tech services exports by 2025
According to Western Union and Oxford Economics, digital tech exports are expected to grow by 35% YoY from 2019 to 2025. This assumes no changes in any other country and a YoY increase in UK exports culminating in doubling of the export figure by 2025 - the conservative figure is 35% increase, and the extreme 'ambition oriented' figure is 100%.
The £8.15bn is an estimate for just digital technology - for context, Financial services exported £63bn in 2019, Insurance £20bn, Construction services £3bn. The change in digital tech exports by £8bn over five years (if all other service exports were to remain static) would be to rise above Transport (£30bn in 2019) but still fall below Travel services at £39bn in 2019.
2019 Telecommunications, computer and information services exports in 2019 were £23.3bn (Sources: ITC, UNCTAD, WTO trade in services database, Office for National Statistics, 2019) projected to grow by 35% from 2019 to 2025 (Western Union and Oxford Economics, 2020)
Digital tech trading opportunities
Using data from StartupBlink and Marketselection.net. The rankings are determined by factors that contribute to the attractiveness of a location for doing business, with an emphasis on digital tech products and services. Variables such as infrastructure, access to talent and education levels, ease of doing business, regulation, language and consumers are weighted and aggregated to comprise the index, to each country a sense of the opportunity for trade.
Data for the Index
The Global Opportunities Index uses four main data sources, explained below.
Data is combined by understanding the relative position of a country, to create a standard set of metrics across variables - so if Australia had the highest figure for educational attainment, it would be 100, and if Nicaragua had the lowest, it would be 1. This is repeated across all 47 variables, including disposable income, internet users, GDP per capita, and so on. The index therefore gives a relative sense of the opportunity available in a given country for the user.
ITC Market Access
- The report uses data from the ITC’s Market Access Map in the index, and in reporting on trade. This data is collected directly from institutions such as Ministries (Foreign Affairs, Finance and Trade), Legislative Bodies, Specialised Directions (Customs Services, Taxes Directions and Revenue Authorities), Permanent Missions to the United Nations and to the World Trade Organization, as well as Regional Institutions.
- The Market Access Map extracts customs duties from the collected official documents. The extracted content is then cleaned, formatted and compiled by the ITC.
- This report uses 2020 data from StartupBlink.
- The data covers 1,000 cities and 100 countries, and results are composed from a variety of sources, including a crowdsourced database of tens of thousands of startups, accelerators, and coworking spaces, among other entities.
- For more information see the global startup ecosystem map at www.StartupBlink.com.
- Data from Marketselection.net was used alongside StartupBlink and ITC Market Access in order to provide information about characteristics of countries and the propensity for UK based digital tech companies to trade there. There are 48 variables included in the data, which was used to create the filterable table for users to assess market conditions. These variables include GDP per capita, tech service imports, internet users, infrastructure, ease of doing business, disposable income, corruption and cultural difference (including language barriers).
OECD, World Bank
- OECD and World Bank data was used to form a relative understanding of tech service imports and exports. This was used in the filterable tool to understand the relative size of markets, and determine the opportunity for UK digital tech companies export to, or trade with these markets.
Note: Digital tech export, import and trade surplus data excludes Ireland. Definitions of digital tech service exports mean that activities such as customer services, call centre functions and administrative support for countries headquartered outside of the exporting nation are included, and would thereby misrepresent the export landscape for the purposes of describing exports of digital tech products and services.