The MATRIX panel, led by Professor Damien McDonnell, has challenged Northern Ireland to put more effort into the introduction of new, more advanced technologies.
On present trends, with present policies, Northern Ireland will remain as one of the poorer regions of these islands.
The economy attracts new investment in the sectors where Northern Ireland already has a good reputation.
These happen, too often, to be sectors with only modest degrees of innovation, high degrees of reliance on existing skills, and regeneration by replacing older businesses with more that are very similar.
Significant ‘gear changes’ or ‘technology bursts’ are needed to shift the trajectory of economic change. Is this not simply a restatement of the current ambitions of Ministers, politicians and economists?
Two reasons suggest that that is fallacious. First, it is not working adequately and shows no signs of generating major improvements.
Second, more of the same is a prediction that future achievements will be little better than those in the past. If there is serious intent to do better, then there must be serious behavioural and policy differences.
Northern Ireland is not yet really serious about becoming a more advanced economy, a knowledge-based economy, an economy with world class training and skills, and a supportive public and social infrastructure that meets (and beats) international rivals.
The report of the Science and Industry panel, imaginatively termed the MATRIX programme, has looked at the future ‘technology to market’ possibilities and now asks the key stakeholders to work together and implement the conclusions of five groups of local experts, drawn from business, universities and government.
The big leap is to encourage, incentivise, bring together, and enhance the shared objectives (and shared benefits) for people who might normally focus on their different, narrower objectives, exclud
ing participation in a wider community support role.
MATRIX is about the delivery of a series of innovations which can lift local performance to the best world standards. MATRIX is not easy to explain, implement and convert into a dynamic process of change. Yet, MATRIX is not just a challenging framework; it is a core requirement for the future of this area.
Not to implement MATRIX would be a missed opportunity and an unforgivable act of neglect.
Lest faint hearts should prevail, Ministers, civil servants, agency officials, academics and business managers should be given a clear message: these proposals need your active involvement.
Standing aside, waiting for others to move, would be a dereliction of responsibility.
Each of the five MATRIX panels conducted a wide ranging and competent review of developments within their remit. As ‘horizon reviews’ they are unique.
The following priorities were suggested.
Life and health sciences: opportunities in personalised medicine and home-based care
ICT sector: move from bespoke application software to packaged product software
Agri-food sector: differentiated functional foods, innovative process and packaging, enhancing customer knowledge ... multifunctional land usage
Advanced materials sector: application of biomaterials, nano-structured materials and multifunctional materials composites and computational science (into the other sectors)
Advanced engineering (transport) sector: opportunities in environmentally optimal products: design for safety and security: use of lighter stronger and more affordable materials etc
The products and concepts are imaginative, advanced and not readily grasped by lay readers.
That may be a weakness but, more significantly, it is also a strength. The follow-through will lift the ambitions and achievements for the local stakeholders.
The MATRIX panel has lifted the horizon and set ambitious objectives. Arlene Foster, Minister for the Economy, must now give the required leadership to get results. Further assessments and wider consultation will seem like delay and prevarication. This is an urgent challenge: passive, generalised support will not do.