In early June, Economy Minister Diane Dodds outlined the importance of Northern Ireland’s digital sector in our economic recovery, identifying it as a key area which currently underpins every other sector.
In our future recovery, the Department of Economy is also keen to ringfence, nurture and grow our digital industry which it maintains has the potential to grow more rapidly than other areas and provide better paid jobs.
A report this month by University of Ulster supported this, outlining how digital competitiveness remained a core element of our region’s overall competitiveness and how broadband could enable firms to be flexible in their return to work and lean into the emerging trends that have resulted from the Covid-19 crisis, such as home-based working, learning and healthcare provision.
There are many positive outputs from the impact of full fibre broadband, it said, including greater employment, productivity, innovation and collaboration. Not least, it also highlights the positive impacts on the environment.
The fact is, we’ve known about all of this for much more than a decade, and several government reports, strategies and plans have continued to promote the benefits of digital connectivity for every sector for many years. What’s required now is a real, concerted effort to drive change, embrace new ways of working and ensure we have the infrastructure and technology to drive the change we need and the growth we want.
Covid-19 has forced a real and unexpected shift in the way we work and its impact on every sector. The retail and commercial property sectors remain hard hit and many other areas will begin to experience its effects as the furlough scheme draws to a close.
The challenges faced by Brexit remain large too, compounding uncertainty at the worst time, and heightening concerns among businesses about the way they operate now and how they might in the future. Change is coming and digital skills will also be key.
Northern Ireland’s broadband infrastructure, and the investment we put into it, will be important. However, it’s our SMEs on the ground which provide most of this region’s employment, and it is through their skill, adaptability and ambition where we will see new signs of growth, innovation and success. Governments can only advise and support. Businesses act.
Research currently suggests that existing trends will accelerate as people plan to shop, communicate and work from home much more often when the pandemic ends. As University of Ulster points out, Northern Ireland cannot afford to pause.
A surprise to many, Covid-19 dramatically accelerated companies’ digital transformation as staff moved home to work, adapting quickly to a range of technologies to enable them to continue. Most firms are also now more acutely aware of the digital benefits this new way of working has brought and are looking to take this further.
The top reason that many organisations pursue digital transformation is survival and as the world is becoming increasingly digital, transformation is now key to remaining competitive and staying relevant. Speed, agility, improved efficiency and an enhanced customer experience are all well within reach.
And for many organisations, digital transformation provides a large-scale move away from legacy systems that no longer serve business needs or prevent it from scaling up or growing.
As we move towards sustainability and recovery, digital communications provides a real opportunity for us to look forward, to improve processes and customer relationships and to reach new markets.
Embracing cloud technology, integrating telecommunications systems to enable video conferencing and greater collaboration will be vital in the weeks and months ahead and to take on the challenges which Brexit brings.
To survive the next round, together, we must now renew our ambition for growth, adapt to the technological changes needed to grow and keep well ahead of those who are already on it. Opportunities exist for those ready to seize them.