Civica Northern Ireland’s Managing Director Mark Owens discusses the next steps needed to build a sustainable digital nation
Northern Ireland is at a ‘digital tipping point’ and stands ready to carve out its new identity in the fourth industrial revolution. While the nation has developed a strong position as a digital technology leader in the UK, with some 128 new start-ups created in Belfast alone since 2016 and some 28,000 employed in the tech industry across the region, new research and insights from our new Changing Landscape report ‘Strengthening Northern Ireland’s digital identity’ highlights the real need for improved digital services – to accelerate the next chapter in our digital evolution.
Connectivity and strong digital infrastructure are crucial to Northern Ireland’s growth, and the government has responded by investing in digital infrastructure projects, such as the Northern Ireland Electronic Care Record (NIECR), with superfast broadband available to support these projects (now available to 85% of premises). However, despite progress with digital initiatives, we undoubtedly still have a long way to go before our infrastructure allows us to reap the full benefits digital technology can offer citizens. As our research finds that 90% of Northern Ireland citizens believe our public services are suitable for digitisation, now is the time to bring public and private sector leaders together to embrace the next stage of our digital evolution.
Keeping citizens connected
As demand for digital grows, addressing our current infrastructure must be a priority to enable the ability to scale-up projects as required. For example, we should be offering free Wi-Fi in public places as standard throughout Northern Ireland, not just in Belfast City Centre. And, with tourism booming, free Wi-Fi is especially important to boost the digital experience of our visitors as well as our citizens, especially as almost 40% of Northern Irish citizens say 24/7 online services are expected as standard.
To do this, we need to use data to better arm our organisations with the insights needed to drive better decision making. For example, by tracking footfall across the most popular tourist destinations, those individual organisations will have a better idea of which attract the most visitors and which elements of the attractions are most in demand. This will allow them to make better informed investment decisions to support continued tourism and ensure the richest possible experience for visitors.
Uncertainty slowing progress
It’s clear that whilst progress is happening regardless, uncertainty – fuelled largely by Brexit – is causing some delays in investment decisions. And, we all can agree that you can’t mention the word Brexit, without thinking about trade agreements. While Northern Ireland trades extensively with its neighbours in the Republic, the ‘wrong’ deal could not only block trading but also crucial areas such as data sharing, which could slow down our digital success. One example of this is the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who we’ve worked with to launch a new Criminal Justice Data Sharing platform which aims to increase system efficiencies and safeguard criminal justice. However, will Brexit place limitations on data sharing which could directly impact the ability of police organisations from across Europe to share vital information about criminals? These are very real scenarios that leaders need to consider.
And this uncertainty isn’t helped by the devolved government, with capital programmes such as Belfast’s Transport Hub delayed as a result. In fact, over half (51%) of the Northern Ireland citizens surveyed in our research of more than 1,000 Northern Irish citizens, stated that a lack of clear leadership and vision from the current devolved government is the biggest barrier to delivering complete online digital services.
Finite number of skilled workers
Furthermore, the need to find, nurture and retain skills is becoming a growing challenge, with high demand for digital services squeezing available resources and large numbers of local talent leaving the region. However, businesses like Civica are helping boost Northern Ireland’s ICT skills base by offering students a scholarship package which combines university knowledge and hands-on business experience. Supported by Belfast Metropolitan College, Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast, the programme offers students a bursary as well as paid summer and industrial placements to complement their undergraduate degree and help fast track their career in the digital space.
In this challenging economic landscape, we have to place digital innovation at the very heart of our nation. Digital-driven change provides a mechanism to achieve further efficiencies through automation and self-service at a time when traditional approaches to savings are becoming exhausted. We cannot let our citizens suffer so the public and private sector must come together to collaborate and share learnings and best practice as well as work in partnership to deliver the digital initiatives that citizens across Northern Ireland want and need.
It has never been more important to embrace new technologies and push ahead with our digital transformation strategy to strengthen the region’s economic and social prosperity.