As an industry, the digital sector is a relatively young one. Yet, in Northern Ireland, as much as anywhere else, it is fast moving, progressive and growing at a terrific rate. In spite of its obvious scientific base, the arena is one reliant on collaborative, social and, crucially, human processes.
For Northern Ireland, the sector — centred, mainly, in Belfast and Derry~Londonderry and comprised, mostly, of software companies and output — has fostered employment during an otherwise bleak recession, inserting high paying jobs into the market. It has also marked the region as an industrial hub for production, within the UK and beyond.
Michael Noble is CEO of Momentum, Northern Ireland’s ICT federation. It works with government, educators and its own member companies to enhance the industry here. In his view the importance of the digital world is founded on a simple premise: ‘Software and digital technology covers everything now, every second of your waking day, maybe even every second of your sleeping day.’ This influence, along with the business it generates, he says, is only likely to increase. ‘We’ve enjoyed enormous growth in the last number of decades. That is set to continue.’
While the likes of Citibank and the New York Stock Exchange provide much of the employment for local professionals, Noble is quick to point out that the bulk of the companies are smaller outfits working in many different areas, away from the more traditional financial services IT support. ‘Digital encompasses everything, from app development and web design, through to software solutions for farmers, medicine and pharmacy. You name the activity and there’s probably a company in Belfast providing solutions for that field.’
Viewed in a strictly mathematical context, the evolution of the industry is as impressive as the range of areas to which it is essential. As Noble underlines, digital technology had little to no presence in Northern Ireland 30 years ago. Now it employs approximately 30,000 people. That translates into a growth rate of 10% per year for the past three decades. Currently, the sector contributes £1.5 billion to the economy. ‘We’ve only just started on the digital revolution,’ says Noble. ‘That’s set to continue for at least a generation. In fact, it might even accelerate.’
In partnership with Invest NI and the Department for Employment and Learning, Momentum promotes the Bring IT On initiative. This seeks to engage with young people, encouraging them to explore digital careers, education and training. The need is there says Noble. ‘Most of the jobs that we have are very highly skilled and highly technical. They require a great deal of competence to access them. That’s good because they get paid accordingly as well… There is more work out there, more solutions to be had, than there are people to provide them.’
Indeed, large events such as Derry~Londonderry’s CultureTECH festival signal the clear goal of opening up this important, if somewhat obscure world to the general population. Establishing a connection with the next generation is incredibly important. ‘What we’re about’, says Noble, ‘is talking to them and showcasing the really exciting stuff that’s done locally. They may have the impression it’s nerdy and geeky, they may have the impression it’s only done in Silicon Valley. Those things aren’t true. We do a tremendous amount of work here in blue chip and smaller organisations, selling worldwide and doing really creative, imaginative things.’
The digital wave is always innovating and ever adapting. There is much on the horizon, says Noble. One Belfast-based company is exploring ways of streamlining the process of reading and interpreting human tissue samples. By removing the inevitable subjectivity of individual pathologists, the accuracy and speed of the associated reports should develop exponentially. There is, he suggests, a time in the not too distant future when the ‘internet of things’ will see a diverse range of machines and systems communicating with one another to increase efficiency. Shopping, air conditioning and even the flow of traffic will all benefit from sophisticated — though cheaply made — micro technology.
This is heady stuff and it is impressive to discover that Northern Ireland is at the forefront in many respects. Noble believes that local businesses stand out from England, Scotland or Wales thanks to particularly close ties with North America. ‘Most of our lines are going west’ he says. He also cites the country's location and its productive, inquisitive, trained workers as major attractions for companies, of any size, establishing themselves here. ‘As far as worldwide is concerned, we have a lot of advantages,’ says Noble. ‘We are natively English speaking and English is the language of computing. We are very fortunate to have overlapping time zones with most of the Asian markets and North American markets… We can have their problem solved before they even know about it.’