Business

Five steps to put digital at the heart of?Northern Ireland's?recovery?

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IF, at the start of this year, you'd have told me that I was going to chat with friends and family?via Zoom, I would probably have asked you what Zoom was.??

I certainly wouldn't have guessed that I would have ministerial meetings, museum tours?and even?CBI member meetings?on the platform.??

But the world has been turned on its head in the last six months, and the use of technology in our day-to-day lives has skyrocketed.?

Technology and innovation have proved to be lifelines for businesses throughout this crisis. A recent?Be?The?Business?survey found that more than half a million firms have changed or are altering their operating model, and many are even introducing new services in response to the pandemic.

From?sportswear?manufacturers switching to making?PPE?to pubs switching to al fresco dining, almost every business around the country has tried something new.?

Covid-19 has demonstrated the ingenuity of?Northern Irish?businesses, but we can't take that progress for granted. The?whole of the?UK has long under-invested in innovation, and although the crisis may have spurred investment in the short term, it will be much harder to continue that in the future as businesses face reduced cash reserves, squeezed margins and a highly uncertain economic climate.?

That's why we need a new plan to put technology and innovation at the heart of the economic recovery. The CBI's latest report?-?Building a world-class innovation & digital economy?-?sets out five big ideas on how the UK economy do just that.??Fortunately for Northern Ireland, we are already making good strides on a couple of those big ideas.??

First, the need to go for gigabit. Accelerating the roll-out of future-proof broadband so that no matter where you are, you'll be able to get online.?Fundamentally, your postcode shouldn't determine your ability to start a business from your kitchen table or have remote GP appointments. Prioritising rural investment and modernising the rules to get shovels in the ground quicker must be at the top of?politicians'?list this year.?

Second, let's upskill on digital. We need a world-class skills system that prepares people for jobs in technology and innovation and helps companies hire people with the skills needed to build back better.??

A?2019 CBI NI report –?Opportunities?Available –?highlighted?the huge challenge our region is facing when it comes to supply and demand mismatch for?digital skills.?Prior to the pandemic, our report found that 95% of firms surveyed expected their digital needs to increase within the next three to five years.?

With around?130,000?people in?Northern Ireland?lacking?basic digital skills?and?a?high demand for advanced skills such as software engineering -?a step change is now underway to address these shortfalls.??

Speedy?development of?accredited programmes for digital upskilling that match?NI?firms'?needs?and highlight the range of digital careers available?is now a top priority and one that industry, the NI?Executive?and local education providers are addressing. ?

In addition, Belfast City Council has recently announced a newly appointed digital innovation commissioner, Jayne Brady, who has developed a strategic framework for future economic growth underpinned by digital innovation. This appointment and leadership bodes well for Northern Ireland's digital transformation journey.

Third, increase innovation investment. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to see R&D in real-time action, from vaccine development to the ventilator challenge. But the crisis has also depleted the coffers for business innovation and firms have had to press pause on much of their R&D.

The?UK Government?and local Executive?can step in to give businesses and universities the confidence and capability to restart their innovation projects, for example by offering more incentives for business R&D.?

Fourth, let's reset how we think about regulation of technology in the wake of Covid-19. The?UK Government must invest in the institutions that will chart our digital future, ensuring that regulation tackles online harm and artificial intelligence is developed to the benefit of everyone.?

Finally, accelerate adoption. There is now a real opportunity to build on rapid technology adoption to create jobs?across Northern Ireland. The move to more digital solutions when the outbreak began was a global phenomenon. Microsoft Teams alone saw a?staggering?increase of 31 million active users in just one month.??

We urgently need to close the gap with the world-leading nations on innovation. National and local government must take a leading role to join up, scale up and simplify support to accelerate the uptake of new technologies.?

I don't know how many of my meetings next year will be virtual and how many will be physical; but I do know that if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that technology and innovation will help us to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. ?

:: Angela McGowan is CBI Northern Ireland director?

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