The Matrix project is aimed at building a more enterprising industrial community in Northern Ireland
The Matrix project, prepared by the Advisory Science and Industry Panel, is an ambitious attempt to build a more enterprising industrial community in Northern Ireland. The strengths of the most advanced businesses have been identified and can be used in a series of business linkages to further develop internationally competitive businesses.
Central to the Matrix report, published a year ago, was the recommendation that industry-led innovation communities (IICs) should be established.
The concept is easily expressed, effective implementation is more difficult. In a relatively small regional economy with a heterogeneous business community, creating an internal mutually supportive matrix of business interests calls for a new paradigm.
A successful Matrix approach is an inescapable part of building a more internationally competitive business community in Northern Ireland. Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, stresses the importance of this approach: “What we are doing is setting a road map for the economy for the next five to 10 years.
“If we want to be a competitive global player, then we have to do the necessary collaborative work between industry, academia and ourselves (in government). In the past people have operated in their own sectors. If we work together we can become competitive.”
The Minister has announced four government actions to enhance the role of the IICs. |They include:
1. The establishment of a Government Innovation Gateway designed to simplify access to official support and tailor it to the multiple and more complex needs of consortia. It is a ‘first stop shop’, not a ‘one stop shop.’ However, the intention is to reduce bureaucracy and make support more efficient and manageable.
2. Government departments, including Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI), Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Invest Northern Ireland are to explore fresh options on how they assess research and development (R&D) and Innovation projects. This will explore the potential to fast track financial support by using a portfolio approach to the assessment of risk.
3. In broadening the sources of technical and academic expertise, the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) has agreed that the further education colleges, as well as the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, will align their support to the needs of industry at the preliminary phase of IIC proposals.
4. Public procurement methods will be adjusted to specify public sector contracts in ways which encourage innovation. A pilot approach is to be tested by DETI and DFP.
These government actions illustrate that much of the Matrix agenda needs to be delivered through the self-interested actions of businesses. Government is facilitating the processes but relying on the motivation of businesses which come together in IIC format.
Maurice Maxwell, head of the Belfast Office of the European Community, sees Matrix “as a marvellous first step to allow Northern Ireland to exploit the potential offered by the current EU Framework Programmes with sources of funding and access to specialist advice on R&D and Innovation through EU-wide networks.”
Professor Damien McDonnell, chair of Matrix, views the response of Arlene Foster and her department as encouraging and well considered. “They have really got it that Government’s job is to create the right kind of environment and the infrastructure.
“The minister has done all that we would ask her to do. In addition, the minister has tasked us to look in some new areas. I could not ask more from her.”
Professor McDonnell cited the Banbridge based Global Wind Alliance (GWA) as an example of an IIC at work. The GWA is described as a virtual corporation drawing in diverse specialist companies supplying the wind energy sector. Already 14 companies (six from Northern Ireland) have signed up.
GWA chairman Clifford McSpadden believes that the virtual corporation is a good example of Matrix in operation and, additionally, that the new arrangements announced by DETI are appropriate to help them. “We are looking for the right members to grow the organisation. We need key players to lead as prime contractors and then a strong supply chain behind them.”
Extending wind energy networks is attractive but the approval processes can be slow. “In Ireland, the UK and across the world, despite the obstacles, investment in wind energy is happening. While it can be frustrating and difficult, we must persevere.”
Is there one particular improvement that he would like to see? “The speed at which we get things done: this market is going to grow either with us or without us. Northern Ireland businesses have showed their credibility in this international market place. We are as competent as anyone else.”