Digital has to be part of our new economic battle plan

AS lockdown continues to ease, the battle to rebuild, reshape and improve Northern Ireland's economy is about to begin.

For two months, broadband and software apps have helped to keep the economy alive, connecting businesses, customers, educators and students. Like never before, we have experienced its benefits and now we can clearly see all its potential use for our future.

Digital Northern Ireland 2020, a study commissioned by Invest NI and published just before the crisis, had already extolled the benefits of digital investments for countries, their economies, for services available and for everyone's quality of life.

Almost every sector stands to gain, including foreign direct investment. But we need to quick.

What's also needed, it accepts, is that leadership in this area and for essential collaboration must take place across all sectors to exploit the opportunities available. The time for that is now.

To be fair, Northern Ireland scores fairly in the digital stakes and it is a recognised home for a vibrant range of companies covering technology, software development and the creative industries.

But as we look ahead, and as our economic strategy and plans increasingly focus on digital, we will need more infrastructure to cope with a rapid rise in digital demand.

Fortunately, there are already a range of initiatives under way but which will now need much greater focus and effort to either bring them forward or ensure they are delivered on time.

Take Project Stratum for example. Designed to deliver a broadband boost for up to 100,000 rural homes and businesses unable to get superfast broadband speeds, the procurement for this £165m project was launched last July and contract award is set to be announced in the next few months. At the same time, commercial investment in other areas continues apace.

Openreach has expanded its network to more locations, underlining the fact that Northern Ireland is actually doing quite well compared with other UK regions.

However, despite the wider economic investments, it's really at a micro level where our economy will benefit most. Businesses need to interact with the technology and exploit the opportunities as part of a new drive for innovation and productivity gains.

While there will be an increased focus on bigger digital businesses, small, entrepreneurial businesses will remain the backbone of our economy.

For these, they should leverage the benefits of broadband and ensure their telecoms network is fit for the future and that they can embrace Cloud technology to give the capacity and flexibility they need to grow.

In short, it is the integration of information, computer and mobile technologies into a company's overall business strategy, which provides a better experience for everyone.

The benefits are huge. Embracing digital telecommunications will ensure your customer's information needs are always accurately met, your staff are skilled and flexible to changing requirements in a more productive environment, while the data you collect along the way means performance tracking is easy.

It also permits a more flexible workforce which can work remotely at any time and it keeps them on side.

The concept of ‘going digital' is a simple one, and does not require any major investment. In fact, it may well save you money and future proof your business long into the future.

As the economic reset begins, the Executive's new economic recovery plan should also shine some light on the approach to be taken and I expect the digital sector will feature strongly given its resilience in recent months and its future growth potential. The time for change is now.

:: Eric Carson is co-founder, owner and chair of Rainbow, Northern Ireland's largest independent supplier of telecommunications services

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