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Digital sector will help Northern Ireland recover from coronavirus crisis

Diane Dodds


Diane Dodds

Diane Dodds


Diane Dodds

Covid-19 has sent an unprecedented shock to the global economy. Those countries who adapt best will have an advantage in grasping the opportunities that emerge as a result of such massive disruption.

I recently published my economic recovery plan and identified the key areas where I think we can be global leaders.

As one of the key areas, the digital sector currently underpins virtually every other sector and has the potential to grow rapidly in coming years, providing more and better paid jobs.

Here we already have a growing digital sector of around 1,700 companies and 20,000 workers.

It is a highly skilled sector, with around two-thirds of new workers expected to need at least degree-level qualifications over the next decade.

In 2018 GVA for the digital sector in Northern Ireland was £1.2bn - representing 3% of all economic output.

NI has a strong record in financial technologies, legal tech, cyber security, artificial intelligence and the provision of digital services. We need to build on this success.

The recent FDI intelligence report on European Tech Cities of the Future ranked Belfast in the top 10.

Our digital strengths are visible across the region.

From First Derivatives in Newry to Learning Pool in Londonderry, there are excellent examples of highly competitive digital companies winning business internationally.

NI has attracted foreign direct investment on the basis of the excellence of our skills and infrastructure, with companies such as Allstate and Citi.

There are also large indigenous companies such as Kainos and it is exciting to see so many new tech companies growing as a vibrant start-up scene develops.

I want to see companies seize opportunities in these areas - and others like 3D printing and automation - as we all adjust to new and more innovative work practices.

Digitalisation and access to data are key strategic issues being considered as part of the development of Northern Ireland's new energy strategy, which is developing the pathway to decarbonise our energy mix.

The energy system of the future will be increasingly 'smart', with data being gathered and used to better inform consumers, run the networks more efficiently and in turn, cost-effectively lower our carbon footprint. This can provide opportunities not just in data analytics and software development, but also for cyber security.

Developing the skills base of our young people is also central to our economic success.

ICT and digital apprenticeships are available at our universities, further education colleges and private training providers through the ApprenticeshipsNI and Higher Level Apprenticeship programmes.

They offer the opportunity to gain quality training and a recognised qualification, ranging from level 2 to level 7, while in paid employment. Queen's University's Centre for Secure Information Technologies is the national Innovation and Knowledge Centre for Cyber Security Research. It has become the centrepiece of a burgeoning cyber cluster, with a range of international companies investing there attracted by the strong pool of talent.

My department has also partnered with the Open University to offer free training courses for furloughed workers and others who lost their job as a result of Covid-19.

The course options include digital literacy and cyber security. Improving the digital skills of our workforce will enhance our competitiveness and increase productivity in the long term.

I am confident if we build on these excellent foundations NI's digital cluster can be a cornerstone of growth and prosperity which can transform our wealth and wellbeing as we rebuild our economy.

In the first of a series of articles for Business Telegraph, Economy Minister Diane Dodds outlines the importance of Northern Ireland's digital sector post Covid-19.

Belfast Telegraph