Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

A Titanic leap into the 21st century

Dr Norman Apsley outlines the crucial role that Northern Ireland’s Science Park will play in in our presence on the global ICT stage

Cutting edge: Work carried out at Northern Ireland’s Science Park in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter leaves us well placed to exploit ICT opportunies

It would be easy to become depressed at the moment with the constant talk of austerity, budget cuts and our nation’s debts.

It is at such times that leaders must keep people focussed on the long-term upturn, the light at the end of the tunnel. If we can just get through the ‘hard step’ immediately before us, we can return to good times.

It was with great relief therefore that I heard the economist, Gerard Lyons, suggest on the BBC World Service, that the world may be in a 20-year “super-cycle” of growth, essentially powered by the increasing wealth in commodities of the BRIC nations and the desire in those countries to spend the wealth to attain the standards of living of the West, hopefully without the side-effects. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped West will be doing all it can to reduce costs of both government and commerce to keep its economies efficient and productive.

So if that’s the case, what has Northern Ireland, which has little by way of commodity, got to sell to them and how to do we get it there? The answer is, of course, knowledge and its products. The principal route to market is by the most used three-letter acronym of the 21st century — ICT, or Information and Computer/Communication Technology. There are few under the age of 30 who would be without their smart phones and laptops and who don’t expect to be in touch with their friends (or their shops, music, books and videos) 24/7 and from anywhere in the world.

From an economic point of view, I am pleased to say that the Northern Ireland Science Park and Titanic Quarter have been in the vanguard of Northern Ireland’s presence in the global ICT markets, enabled by investments in connectivity.

For 20 years or so, different administrations have recognised the potential and invested in a fibre network around most towns and cities which is the envy of many countries. The latest addition, which went live this year, was Project Kelvin, which provided a second junction in the north west, to the open access ring round the six-county towns. A recent report suggested that more than 90% of businesses can now, if they wish, access lit fibre offering essentially infinite bandwidth. The Kelvin fibre connects Northern Ireland directly to the information motorways serving North America and Europe on the east-west axis and southwards to Africa and India. Once perceived as the edge of Europe, we should now think of ourselves as at the centre of everything.

One of the great FDI successes of the past 10 years has been in professional services, especially in financial fields, all dependent on good connectivity for their sales effectiveness. Northern Ireland has been begun to lead in some aspects, to develop new algorithms into software codes and to implement them into companies including Citi and NYSE technology across the Atlantic, or Polaris and L&T Infotech in the East. Rantec, a young company on the Science Park, is really playing with the big boys by using the mathematics of chaos theory to provide the rules for an automatic £100m currency hedge fund; who says Ulstermen are risk averse?

Good connectivity should bring data centres to Northern Ireland. On their own, they don’t offer many jobs but where the data is, there is the potential for value. Thanks to long-term programmes at the University of Ulster in data mining — the mathematics and science of getting information in and out of data — a number of new companies, like Datactics and SophiaSearch, have spawned with offerings to help the corporations of the world make the most of all the data locked away in hard discs across the globe.

You can’t think of computer data these days without worrying about security. Fortunately the engineers at Queen’s University’s ECIT Institute on the Science Park have been worrying about it for us and won a very prestigious contract from the UK’s Technology Strategy Board to be the National Centre for Secure IT, CSIT. Under this aegis, they have been developing a range of new technologies of international interest and getting these into the marketplace.

It is impossible to over-estimate the speed with which things change in today’s world. A few years ago as part of the NI Science Industry panel, MATRIX, advising the DETI Minister, measured digital media activity in NI and was discounted as insignificant. Repeating the exercise this year, and thanks to some ex-pats who had returned from Hollywood and Pinewood successes, NI is now on the map for film and TV, blockbuster animation and computer games production and post-production.

I have just touched the surface of what’s going on today. A complete picture would need to include low-carbon energy, connected health, low-carbon transport and medical devices. Did you know for instance that the portable defibrillators kept in the White House and in Air Force One come from Heartsine Technologies on Airport Road West? I firmly believe human beings the world over will buy these high-tech goods and services that we are able to provide and that, at least for the first half of the 21st century, we should be able to pay our way and earn the lifestyle to which we are accustomed.

We just have to get over the ‘bad step’ to get to the light.

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