I was asked to speak at an economic conference recently on the theme of ‘putting digital at the centre of the recovery’ alongside speakers from other sectors which will have an important role to play in building the economy back from the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic.
But digital is not just a tool for recovery or part of the future landscape, it is, in my view, going to be the very foundation of our economy. The degree to which we get it right will determine the success of the whole region.
As such I changed the theme of that talk to ‘the four key ingredients for Northern Ireland to compete and win in a digital world’ because I do truly believe that Northern Ireland has the opportunity to lead the world if we focus on a small number of clusters that are already thriving.
And far from compromising on ambition because of the current economic environment, I think we can actually be more ambitious and should put our collective energy into solving some of the world’s really big, meaningful problems. When Covid-19 is eventually behind us, it is fair to assume that public and private money isn’t going to be invested in things that are ‘nice to have’ it is going to have go into things that will clearly benefit citizens and society.
The four ingredients needed for if Northern Ireland is to respond to the opportunity that offers are focus, alignment, inclusivity and speed.
By focus, I mean concentrating our energy on the clusters where NI can be a world leader. We are a small region so we can’t be the best at everything but looking at the capabilities in our universities, business sector and significant City Deal investments, our belief is that health tech and fintech are the sectoral clusters that can really put Northern Ireland on the map by leveraging the growth we’ve already seen in our capabilities in cyber security and artificial intelligence. This is in addition to green tech, which covers the advanced manufacturing expertise that exists here.
Alignment is about moving away from the old command and control approach to economic strategy to a distributed model of responsibility which is all aligned to maximise the impact different organisations in government, industry and education can have. It shouldn’t be about one body claiming credit if we are all working as one team towards the same goal, speaking with one voice.
Inclusivity is the next key ingredient, because we need to know that the things we commit to doing will benefit the people here. There is some excellent work on ‘Levelling Up’ being done by Belfast City Council and digital innovation commissioner Jayne Brady and there has been a lot of good work done on skills by various government departments and the private sector. The problem is that in the past they haven’t all fitted together.
‘Inclusive innovation’ needs to be at the centre of any new economic strategy. Local and national government intend to spend significantly more on R&D here in the next decade, so I’d argue that we need to focus on those big, long term issues facing society, the things that might take 10 years to solve, such as narrowing the life expectancy gap between the rich and poor in Northern Ireland.
And when new exciting jobs are created off the back of that sort of ground breaking research and more of our startups and SMEs are able to scale up by being part of those opportunities, we have to do more to make those roles accessible and demystify them to a wider audience, with the ultimate goal of helping lift more of our people out of poverty.
The time to do all this is now, that’s why speed is my fourth ingredient. In a world where consumers expect everything on demand, right away, changes in consumer behaviour have already accelerated to the point where instant delivery at the click of a button is the norm. We need decisions to be made at a similar pace, but as a post-conflict society, speed will likely be our greatest challenge.
Northern Ireland’s response to this new reality is less about coming up with clever tech – although we do need to do that – it is about how we work together to push forward and start making an impact immediately. Covid has forced us to find new ways of doing things, some of which have worked really well, so we need to maintain that agility and momentum.
If all those ingredients are brought together, 2021 can be a year where we see real, meaningful progress towards Northern Ireland competing and winning on a global stage.
Steve Orr is chief executive of Catalyst