Sense of security: Belfast playing a pivotal part in UK’s cyber journey

ICC Belfast, which has just hosted the UK’s flagship cyber security event, CyberUK 2023
ICC Belfast, which has just hosted the UK’s flagship cyber security event, CyberUK 2023

THROUGHOUT April Northern Ireland marked the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. And with it came visits from globally significant political heavyweights, all of whom experienced modern day Belfast as a city with a hard-earned and new-found status as a city of potential. A city primed and geared for international investment.

As President Biden made his address at University of Ulster’s new Belfast campus, another state-of-the-art venue, ICC Belfast, was busy preparing for the UK’s flagship cyber security event, CyberUK 2023. The National Cyber Security Centre’s decision to host in Northern Ireland is significant, but from an industry insider’s perspective it’s unsurprising if you consider the trajectory Belfast is on. It’s no secret that the city is becoming a centre of excellence for cyber security.

My CSIT colleagues and I were thrilled to have played a part in bringing CyberUK 2023 here, alongside Belfast City Council, Tourism NI, Visit Belfast and our purpose-built convention centre ICC Belfast. From the outset we all recognised the value of demonstrating that Belfast can host an event of this scale, sophistication and obvious sensitivity. And in doing so we have helped promote Belfast’s position as a hub for cyber security, and our city’s impressive capability to accommodate flagship business events.

Belfast provided the backdrop for more than 2,000 delegates to celebrate the huge benefits having a secure and open digital future will bring to democratic societies, but also to consider the potential threats to our national and economic security interests. One of the challenges that kept presenting itself was examining how we can secure a resilient digital future. To do this we need access to the best talent, skills and expertise. A specific question being are we nurturing talent to future-proof the industry?

In 2009 when Belfast set out to incubate and grow a world leading cyber security ecosystem, few people took it seriously. In that time, CSIT lead the foundation of a research-lead cyber security community that has brought on partners from government, industry, entrepreneurship, and the venture capital community to create a vibrant ecosystem that is driving societal and economic impact regionally, nationally and internationally.

This is made up of 2700 cyber security professionals, employed by over 100 companies with cyber security operations, ranging from start-ups to multinational corporations who have established themselves here. The ambition is that there will be 5,000 cyber security professionals here by 2030.

CSIT has raised the bar in how academic institutions should work closely with governments, industry, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists to deliver significant societal and economic impact. We have forward-thinking leadership in this industry, and fortunately the public sector has adopted this ambition too.

As a member of the NI Cyber Security Steering Group, I know key stakeholders are working tremendously hard to co-ordinate and prioritise the industry. The opportunity is undeniable after all. The 5,000 cyber professionals target is a UK Government Commitment which is already bearing fruit.

In February this year, CSIT secured an £18.9m investment, including £11 million UK Government funding through the New Deal for Northern Ireland, to help develop an employment pipeline and provide collaborative research and development opportunities through the creation of a Cyber-AI Hub of impact.

Successfully hostingCyberUK 2023 will help us to maintain an important narrative around our shared successes to date, and it will also allow us to deliver the next wave of impact for Belfast, to highlight our untapped potential for further investment in our infrastructure, and build a wider coalition of partners across the academic, industrial, government and investment communities who believe in the strategic vision.

Cyber security is now such an integral part of every digital transformation work programme. The safer we can make our businesses here at home, the safer we make our economy, and the more attractive we continue to be to other territories who can benefit from our skills. Recent weeks have certainly given me a great sense of security as we look toward the next 25 years.

:: David Crozier is head of strategic partnerships & engagement at the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) at Queen’s University Belfast