Belfast Telegraph

Why becoming a digital state will help Northern Ireland retain our home-grown talent

By Ann McGregor, CEO, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry

With so much emphasis on ‘digital transformation’ today, we often focus on how private and public sector organisations should evolve to offer better experiences for customers. Yet to think only in these terms means we miss the opportunity to discuss how whole regions and even countries can capitalise on becoming digital states.

It’s something that all geographies should aspire to. There is particular benefit, however, to smaller countries. With lower populations and perhaps less profile as independent entities in their own right, being able to make their digital mark is a new way of setting out their stall on the international stage. Take Estonia, a poster child for digital states. Named by Wired as ‘the most advanced digital society in the world’, it has invested heavily in delivering super-fast connectivity and seamless digital services. This has dramatically increased its attractiveness to outside investors, tourists and new citizens, allowing the country to define itself in a way unthinkable 30 years ago.

It’s an example to all countries and regions, and one that I believe Northern Ireland must consider.

We’re at a crossroads in our history – the convergence of digital technologies disrupting how we live, work and play, the confusion of Brexit and hard borders, and the post-Troubles regeneration is feeding into a melting pot that, if stirred correctly, could unlock new opportunities for our economy.

Not just certain sections of business or public service but give people across the country the same opportunities as anyone else. Historically, we’ve raised children, educated them, and then seen them leave to ply their talents across the water. Becoming a digital state would radically alter that pattern, drawing them back or stopping them needing to leave in the first place.

The digital challenge

That’s not to say that it’s a case of simply plugging in a few more routers. We are faced with deep seated structural challenges to overcome. A recent report by public services technology business Civica, ‘Strengthening Northern Ireland’s digital identity’ found that almost 25% of citizens believe public services do not currently make good use of digital technology to enhance their lives. In fact, no government body was ranked higher than the private sector when it came to citizens’ view of who best used technology. The report also found that only one fifth (20%) of Northern Ireland’s citizens believe the region can be recognised worldwide for offering superior digital services.

When we look at our education system, the current cap on the number of students our world-class universities of Ulster University and Queens University can take on hampers the amount of tertiary education that we can offer locally.

Keeping students in the country is critical. Those that go abroad for university are less likely to return, with Department for the Economy figures suggesting that two-thirds of students who leave Northern Ireland for university are not returning.

While maintaining the cap keeps fees down and supports students from all backgrounds, we need to weigh up what the longer-term costs to both individuals’ and the region’s economic potential is.

It isn’t just in higher education that we’re shackling ourselves, however. A lack of funding is hampering how schools can deliver much more technology-based teaching at an earlier age, giving students an introduction to the skills and knowledge they need to unlock more learning and earning opportunities later in life, particularly in key STEM subjects.

The public sector as a whole is a huge part of Northern Ireland life, employing over a quarter (27%) of our working population. There’s a huge opportunity there to affect that change in daily life if government organisations were to go fully digital – unfortunately, the sector is highlighted as struggling with digital transformation.

The raw opportunity

Whilst there are hurdles to overcome, we have massive potential. With 55% of our workforce under 40, we have one of the youngest populations in Europe. We also have significant smartphone coverage, with 80% of the country owning a smartphone, irrespective of age.

At the same time, we can offer a high quality of life. We have inexpensive housing, access to global businesses and an enhanced level of connectivity. This combination makes us an attractive place for entrepreneurs to start up, combining lower operating costs with access to an international audience. Organisations such as Catalyst Inc and Invest NI, along with initiatives such as the Digital DNA awards, are making it more and more attractive to do business in Northern Ireland, whether as a start-up or established enterprise. This combination is having significant results: Invest NI’s figures show that Belfast is the world’s top destination city for fintech development inward investment projects. This success has led to almost 900 international companies employing around 100,000 people setting up in the region, which is also world-renowned for cyber security, medical research, engineering and mining.

And that’s before we look at tourism in the region – a billion-pound industry driving millions of visitors and their income to our cities and countryside, with over £500 million invested by the private sector

The stage is set, therefore, to add a seamless digital experience. If we can find a way of delivering services to the entire population (including the 12% with no internet skills), we will go a long way to keeping them in Northern Ireland and feeding that talent into our economy.

Bringing it all together

We need to bring the mass of the public sector together with the dynamism of our private sector. By fostering collaboration, we will be in control of our future and not reactive to market forces.

Turning our raw potential into realised opportunities

There are challenges to Northern Ireland becoming a truly digital state, most significantly retaining our home-grown talent. Yet we have the raw potential, knowledge and resources to kick start public sector digital transformation which will speed up our ongoing progress making Northern Ireland an attractive place to grow up, learn and work.

At a time of economic and political unrest, being able to stand out on our own unique merits is critical to Northern Ireland’s future success. This can only be achieved by combining our public sector power with the deep knowledge resting in the private sector.

Download a copy of Civica’s latest Changing Landscape Northern Ireland report to find out how you can help accelerate the region’s digital journey at


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