Belfast Telegraph

Angela McGowan: Danske Bank's chief economist gives an overview of Northern Ireland's digital sector

Ahead of her address at Scrum 2014 conference Angela McGowan, Danske Bank's chief economist, gives an overview of Northern Ireland's digital sector

By Angela McGowan

The 'digital sector' is a catch-all name for companies involved in activities such as software development, data communications, IT services, creative media and other forms of technology provision. It is widely recognised that the digital sector is a huge contributor to economic growth and contributes to an economy's overall technological progress and innovation.

Digital technologies have taken the world by storm in the last two decades as mobile web access, social media and ever increasingly sophisticated devices allow us to access people, information and even money instantaneously. Such technologies have transformed our lives, allowing devices to become our 'new desktop', giving us more control of where and how we work.

During the economic crisis this sector remained very resilient. On its own, the information communication technology (ICT) sector in Northern Ireland is worth about £1bn to the local economy and currently employs around 21,000 people. In addition, technological advancement and communication innovations in the digital sector have also spurred on the productivity and output of virtually every other sector in the economy.

In the health sector for example, technological advances have allowed for better diagnostics, connectivity and knowledge sharing. Indeed, just last week the Financial Times reported that NHS surgeons have embraced 3D printed implants for hips, facial surgery and dentures to save the health service both time and money. There is no doubt that the digital sector will continue to transform how we do things and the way we work in the years ahead. This year wearable technologies such as fitness bands and Google glasses were added to the mix and we can expect this sector to evolve even further, innovate and be at the heart of all successful knowledge-driven economies around the world.

However, like all sectors the digital sector can only thrive when the conditions are right. Northern Ireland is fortunate to have a competitive cost base, high living standards and great infrastructure. But skills are critical too and as yet a sufficient flow of local school-leavers and graduates that are proficient in IT skills has still not materialised.

To truly capture the massive opportunity that the digital sector presents us with, the entire public sector needs to fully adapt to the digital age. In particular, Northern Ireland's education sector appears to be the slowest one to adopt the various technological advances that are available to it. With this sector facing cuts of £94.4m in cash terms next year, the adoption of video learning, educational apps and online courses will be imperative at the primary and post-primary level.

Furthermore, when the education sector adopts and fully utilises the digital advances that are available to it, we have a much better chance of motivating local pupils to gain those critical IT skills that will provide them with job opportunities and also raise our economic game.

Momentum (the representative body for Northern Ireland's digital sector) published a digital action plan in June. This plan plots a course of action which would build on the undeniable success of the digital sector and aims to bring the teaching of coding to all school pupils from the age of eight. Such a move which would be a hugely beneficial to the economy and would make the creation of a further 20,000 new jobs an achievable target.

• The Scrum 2014 conference takes place on Thursday at Belfast Metropolitan College on Titanic Quarter Campus.

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