Northern Ireland’s new knowledge economy needs recruits and an annual networking event is set to engage with tomorrow’s workers about the prospect of getting in on the ground floor.
Targeting 16 and 17-year-olds, Generation Innovation is organised by the Northern Ireland Science Park’s NISP Connect offshoot, an independent, non-profit body supporting innovative technologies and the companies producing them. Its stated 20-year goal is the transformation of Northern Ireland into one of the leading knowledge economies in Europe by 2030 and the Generation Innovation project is now in its fourth year of fostering a vital convergence of innovation and creative spirit.
Comprised of students identified by their schools as a young person likely to succeed in the future landscape – every secondary level institution in Northern Ireland was invited to participate – Generation Innovation will see 200 potential impresarios attend St. George’s Market in Belfast for an all-day event on 18th March. According to Claire Burgoyne, project manager at NISP Connect, the experience is aimed, specifically, at an age group ‘on the point of making decisions about their future directions.’ This is, she adds, ‘a good time to plant a seed.
The attendees should expect ‘Free food’ and ‘inspirational talks,’ says Burgoyne. ‘We’re trying to create what we call a network of ambition so that these young people carry on by meeting together, socialising and growing as a group over the coming years.’ The youngsters will hear from a range of successful tech innovators, working with them on tasks, formulating concepts and forging links with those who know what it takes to succeed.
‘Once you’ve been to the event, you’re part of the network and you’ll start to get involved in more opportunities. You can plug into that because Northern Ireland has a great network of people, you’re never two phone calls away from somebody who can help.’
Burgoyne is equally keen to emphasise that this is no series of instructive lectures. ‘We’re trying to describe it as a place between school and the real world, trying to treat them like adults for the night. It is geared totally towards the students, everybody who will be appearing on stage is there to inspire them.’ Participation, then, is vital when it comes to capturing the attention of bright minds: 'You have to get them involved and inspired… get them enthused.’
Enthused about what, exactly? Burgoyne states that Generation Innovation’s concentration is on sparking the ability to invent more than tangible goods. ‘It’s about the production of ideas’ she believes, setting out a useful and important pathway that goes beyond abstract or clever notions: ‘What we’re hoping is that people will realise that, through using their imaginations, they can be unleashed to come up with ideas for products, solutions to problems, company ideas and those products then lead to the development of businesses, which go on to employ people. Northern Ireland will then start to thrive as a result of that.’
This is how the future will look, one suspects, as aspirations shift away from the fields that once represented the pinnacle of success for many school leavers. In Burgoyne’s view it is now necessary to expand beyond those arenas. ‘Some of the more traditional industries and professions have gone. This offers a solution, another path. I suppose that’s why it’s getting such a push from us. It could become a really key sector of growth for this region.’
For the keen talent diviners at NISP Connect, their immediate surroundings represent fertile ground. ‘The head of the Northern Ireland Science Park is a man called Norman Apsley, he’s a physicist, and he’s convinced that there is a nerd gene amongst people in Northern Ireland,’ says Burgoyne. ‘It makes brilliant engineers and creative people who come up with answers to problems. I suppose we’re trying to build on that heritage and say: look, we can still do all this stuff.’
There is creativity in everything, goes Burgoyne’s philosophy. ‘Sir Ken Robinson always talks about how it doesn’t just apply to art or music. It’s in everyone.’ Kids need not feel restricted by, or crammed into, headings marked ‘boffin’ or ‘artist’, she contends, and Generation Innovation has no intention of entertaining to such distinctions.
To that end, a range of experts will be on hand to excite as many of the precocious delegates as possible, from mobile entrepreneurs, software startups and science-based organisations, to film overlords NI Screen.
In an era where initiative is now an outright necessity, this innovation generation is at the head of the queue and raring to go. As Burgoyne suggests, there is scope to make the most of one’s wits, to ‘have the courage to do what you want to do and not follow the crowd. There is so much opportunity for young people, if they have an idea, to just go for it. There’s never been a better time.’
By Matthew Coyle