Ever the optimist, Boris Johnson referenced the moon landing in relation to Brexit in his last column for The Telegraph before becoming Prime Minister. “If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969, we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border.”

“It is time this country recovered some of its can-do spirit. We can come out of the EU on October 31, and yes, we certainly have the technology to do so. What we need now is the will and the drive.” He continued, “It is absurd that we have even allowed ourselves to be momentarily delayed by these technical issues.”

A few days later on 25th July 2019 Labour’s Yvette Cooper asked Boris Johnson a number of times what the technology will be for alternatives to the Irish backstop. He replied that there would be "abundant facilitations," that would avoid a hard border “trusted trader schemes, electronic pre-registering, and all manner of ways of checking whether goods are contraband and checking for rules of origin, and they can take place away from the border.”

What are these technologies and what would be the potential timeframe for introducing them? In April 2019 Sky News saw a presentation drawn up by the then-Home Secretary’s Policy Unit which suggested a range of new technologies could be utilised to create a solution, including blockchain to provide transparency as products move through supply chains, machine learning and automated revenue collection. It said, "If all these technologies are brought together this could allow a seamless collection and analysis of the data needed, and "It would also provide the ability to target interventions away from the border itself."

Sounds good, but it’s all purely theoretical at the moment. There’s nowhere in the world operating this kind of virtual digital border, and any physical border is a potential political disaster because of the highly sensitive history and relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The timeframe is also problematic to say the least. The Policy Unit’s report suggested a realistic deployment date for a multi-faceted technical solution of 2030. The Brexit deadline is 31st October; the deadline for implementing technology would be December 2020. It would be impossible to squeeze a decade’s worth of digital transformation into 12 months, no matter how much ‘will and drive’ you have, or how much resource you’re prepared to throw at it. But what could the government do to speed up the process, perhaps being able to shave a couple of years off that 10-year timeframe?

Everyone experienced in digital innovation and transformation knows the amount of hard work, time and effort it takes to create effective digital services. The first thing would be to look beyond standard suppliers to find the right innovation partners to work with. Only by getting together the very best innovative minds and think laterally would it be possible to find solutions that are not just adequate but seamless. It would require cross-functional teams with expert representatives from every part of the entire customs and immigration infrastructure, as well as the customers that use them, from road haulage firms to individual travellers. And it would need to create the utmost efficiency by using agile processes and constant feedback loops to ensure that solutions work in a way that satisfies those currently pouring cold water on whether it’s actually do-able at all.

Leaving the EU means the UK has to forge its own path in the world after a damaging couple of years in terms of relationships with our European neighbours and the rest of the world. The experience of physically moving goods and people from the Republic of Ireland in the EU to Northern Ireland outside of it has to reflect the UK’s ambition to have a ‘new and exciting partnership with Europe’ (Boris again) and its position as a leader in technology. Then of course there’s the small challenge of getting the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the EU to commit to it…

So will technology solve the issue? It’s worth mentioning that back in June there was a story that the EU themselves were drawing up plans for an ‘IT solution’ to keep trade running after 31st October, though there don’t seem to have been any further details on this, and it was only directly reported by The Sun. In addition, a new independent report chaired by conservative MPs has suggested less complex ‘alternative arrangements’ could be in place within three years, using existing technology, a trusted trader programme, mobile units to conduct checks and Special Economic Zones. Brexiteer conservatives think the latter holds the key to the impassé, but those on the opposite side are saying it’s unworkable and won’t be ready in time, plus it’s already been rejected by business leaders.

One thing we do know is that politics has become impossible to predict. So for the time being all we can do is collectively cross our fingers and hope that when the UK exits the EU effective digital transformation – or possibly something else entirely – can create an acceptable solution.

At BIO we’re experienced in delivering new customer experiences in time frames that keep our project managers awake at night and many have said simply can’t be done. If you’d like to talk to us, drop us a line at makesomething@thebioagency.com

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