Views and announcements

Belfast’s booming innovation sector sparks ideas and drives investment for Northern Ireland

  • Clare Guinness, Innovation District Director at Belfast City Council, speaks about some of the upcoming projects being developed here, as well as why it’s essential for Belfast to strive for net zero.

    Sell, Sell, Sell 

    Not a minute before time, the five innovation projects in the Belfast Region City Deal programme of investment are coming to life.  

    Some, like Studio Ulster at the Giant’s Park in Belfast’s North Foreshore, are already in construction, and others are coming very close to that important milestone. Whilst there’s been a long germination period, remember, we are still very much at the foothills in respect of realising their full value and potential in economic terms. 

    Doing so will require attracting private investment and building much-needed revenue streams. Some of the additional capability is being added ahead of the buildings themselves, allowing us to forward sell the opportunities. For instance, Ulster University has already constructed a mini virtual production facility to showcase some of the technology that Studio Ulster will introduce at scale.  

    Selling and business development skills are now just as important as the tech and digital skills underpinning these flagship projects. We need sales pitches that are precise and targeted towards those industries who not only require the capability, but also have the R&D budgets available to invest with our universities to unlock the financial returns. Drawing out the complementarity between the City Deals also requires careful consideration and targeting.  

    However, being considered does not equate to being slow – lead times require us to act and act swiftly, so that we can identify demand, stimulate interest and start to build a pipeline in this development stage - so that when the centres are complete, they are well on the way to operating at capacity. The ultimate validation for any product or service lies in the market’s propensity to pay for it.  

    Digital Catapult appears to be in the final stages of having the much-anticipated Design Smarter Digital Twin approved. This development has the backing of both City Deals and private capital from several other parties. It will bring terrific additional capability, making multiple cross-sectoral applications beyond high value manufacturing and transport possible. 

    Specific Vs agnostic 

    Being a non-techie, there are times I find this world of new technology super complex – and downright baffling.  

    Put simply, some of our tech capability is specific to particular uses and sectors, while others have multiple applications.  

    Specific might be digital biomarkers to identify early who might benefit from curative cancer treatment, whereas agnostic might be something like software engineering - which is just as applicable to FinTech as it is to MedTech. The distinction is particularly useful in a place of our scale, as we clearly want to open as many doors as we can with a discrete number of true strengths.  

    We must be agile in utilising and combining our strengths to gain maximum impact, rather than focusing too much on aligning sectors with capability. Much of our capability in cyber, AI, engineering, and data analytics have cross-sectoral application. 

    Big opportunities 

    City Deals and Digital Twin aside, there are a few specific initiatives where we need to grasp the nettle.  

    One of the single biggest challenges Belfast faces over the next decade is achieving net zero. Carbon budgeting has started, and commitments have been made. Belfast’s share of the global carbon budget  is 14m tonnes until 2050. With a run rate of 1.5m tonnes per annum, the budget will be exhausted by 2030. To remain competitive, we must act to decarbonise our city, otherwise we risk being a carbonised black dot on a green investment map of the future. 

    There are strategies and hopefully soon there will be more policies on the topic, but it’s implementation initiatives that will actually make it happen.  

    Plans to create a Net Zero Tech Park in Titanic Quarter is one such initiative that could make a big impact on both our economy and our environment.  

    Titanic Quarter is already home to Queen’s University Belfast research centres, Titanic Exhibition Centre, SSE Arena, Belfast Met, Catalyst and the Titanic Hotel. It is close to the port, the airport and the city centre. Greentech companies like Catagen and Artemis Technologies are based there, as well as some major industrial giants like Harland & Wolff and Spirit Aero.  

    There are people living there too and many more residents to come, with the build of Loft Lines (778 private, affordable and social homes) underway. Titanic Quarter has numerous advantages, not least a substantial waterfront and a rich maritime heritage - but it has even more than that! Most of this area is under the sole control of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, making it the perfect place to test and demonstrate new (green) technology. The roads, the pavements and much of the real estate has a single landlord.  

    That was part of the reason why Artemis Technologies relocated here. This single ownership and control also helped to secure the recent Innovate UK autonomous vehicle trial (Project Harlander). This multiplicity of uses brings national complexity to a micro geography and is unique in a UK context.  

    We have the potential to become a truly global hub – a living lab where green products are designed, demonstrated, tested, and manufactured. Working with key stakeholders including Belfast Harbour, Titanic Quarter, Queen’s University, Ulster University, Belfast Met, Artemis Technologies and Catagen, we are establishing how best to make this area a pioneering place for the green economy – to not only decarbonise Titanic Quarter, but also to grow NI’s green economy and attract investment via “green-shoring”. This isn’t just an economic imperative, it’s social and moral too.  

    Creating jobs in the green economy, and providing sources of sustainable, affordable energy will be hugely beneficial for our citizens and our industry. Titanic Quarter’s success could be replicated across the rest of NI and beyond. It’s of course not all about Belfast, but we do need to recognise it as the economic driver for the region with 50% of the business base and 63% of employment. 

    Supporting our manufacturers to reduce carbon throughout their supply chain would see the Net Zero Tech Park positively impact all Northern Ireland and democratise the deep tech capability for SMEs who are the backbone of our economy. Helping to grow indigenous companies, whilst continuing to attract scale through targeted FDI would see the Net Zero Tech Park become a catalyst for prosperity, improve our planet and create opportunities for our people. 

    From an economic perspective, NI being the gateway to GB and European markets is a huge advantage. Commercially, speed to market will always be a major determining factor in returns achieved. Add to that securing the investment zone designation - which was announced in the last budget - and you start to see how the NI plc pitch is becoming even more compelling. Restoration of the Assembly is a pre-requisite of delivery and success.  
    In closing, a nod to one of our great literary innovators, George Bernard Shaw: “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them.”  …The time to act is now. 

    This article appears in the summer edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here

Share this story