Views and announcements

Smart City Belfast

  • Written by Deborah Colville.

    Sync NI caught up with Deborah Colville, Head of the Smart Belfast programme and Innovation Manager with Belfast City Council, to find out more about the Smart Belfast programme.

    When Belfast City Council established its Smart Belfast programme in 2017, we did so for several reasons. First and foremost, as the civic leader for Belfast’s long term plans, the council recognised the outsized influence that digital technologies will have on the future of the city and its economy.

    It was clear to our leadership team that if our city institutions didn’t factor the impact of digital innovation into their plans, then Belfast would be in danger of missing a plethora of opportunities.

    This debate is usually focused on the impact on our economy; and particularly the impact that digital innovation is having on jobs, skills, business and on different sectors. Of course this aspect is incredibly important. Technologies such as the internet and mobile are already a force for change in the Northern Ireland economy and we need to be proactive in our response. The current Northern Ireland 10X Economic Ambition is, in part, the Northern Ireland government’s response - and is to be very much welcomed. Its authors clearly recognise just how important and dominant digital innovation is likely to be over the coming decade, as a whole swathe of even more disruptive tech begins to reach maturity. And Belfast City Council will continue to engage with the Northern Ireland Government on its strategies and implementation plans to achieve the 10X Economic Ambition

    However, the Smart Belfast programme makes the case that we shouldn’t stop at thinking about the economic consequences of digitalisation. We need to broaden our scope and consider the much wider impact digital tech is having across our society and particularly its implications for our future city.

    For example, Belfast is currently developing its next Local Development Plan to provide a framework to support our economic and social needs over the next fifteen years. In a world where computing power doubles every 18 months, 15 years represents many generations of digital evolution. One certainty is that the future will be radically different and extremely difficult to plan for. Our city leaders and planners need to be as familiar with the implications of Moore’s Law as software engineers are. Our urban economy, our urban infrastructure, the way we live our lives in the city, are all likely to be impacted by these rapid changes.

    With this in mind, Smart Belfast is about working with other city partners to answer three main questions:

    1. How do we collectively foster the conditions for all sectors of our economy to better grasp the opportunities offered by digital innovation?

    2. How can we mitigate the very real challenges that digital disruption will generate in our society?

    3. And how can we harness digital innovation to directly address some of the big ‘wicked’ issues facing Belfast?

    During the Covid lockdown, we explored with local companies, organisations and individuals how Belfast collectively might address these questions and where best a ‘Smart Belfast’ programme could add value. We also spent time considering how other places are grappling with this agenda. And there is some hugely interesting work happening in cities such as Helsinki, Barcelona and Bristol, where this ‘whole city’ approach to digital disruption is being adopted.

    Our approach – which we recently published as the ‘Smart Belfast Urban Innovation Framework’ - is about harnessing the city’s existing strengths in areas such as world-class research, innovation and tech start-ups and, with some very carefully targeted investments, seeking to encourage collaborative innovation between business, universities and government in ways that grow our economy and, at the same time, contribute directly to major urban challenges.

    There is strong evidence that the model works. In its initial four years, Smart Belfast has delivered a joint ‘pipeline’ of collaborative projects with over 40 SMEs and our universities, attracting over £10 million of investment into Belfast.

    A few recent examples include:

    - Working with SMEs to test supportive technologies for older people who want to live independently.

    - Encouraging planners to adopt Machine Vision and AI technologies to gather data for designing better infrastructure for active travel.

    - Using space satellite data, GIS and IoT technology to map localised traffic pollution.

    - Working with inner city communities on digital innovation to create local entrepreneurship opportunities arising from the regeneration of Belfast’s Maritime Mile.

    - Using big data and machine learning to explore the impact of Covid on the city centre economy.

    - Trialling a community currency to reward citizens for using our parks and open spaces.

    - Using low-cost IoT sensors to better understand recycling behaviours

    - Exploring the potential of AR technologies to transform our city centre visitor experience.

    Each of these projects, and others like them, have directly encouraged local SMEs to invest in R&D, whilst at the same time building Belfast’s capacity to innovate and prepare for change.

    We are now working to dramatically expand our approach. With funding from the Belfast Region City Deal, backed by co-investment from the private sector, we are establishing a ‘Smart District’ in the heart of the city centre. The district will marshal resources and practical help to make it much easier for companies and researchers to develop and test innovative urban services in a supportive real-world environment. This ‘urban sandbox’ aims to greatly reduce the usual barriers to product and service development in a complex city centre environment.

    We are working with local partners to invest over £30 million to bring next generation advanced wireless connectivity within reach of city partners. The mobile industry has committed to making Belfast one of the first UK cities to offer 5G services. We want to enhance this with targeted investments to greatly accelerate this ambition; supporting the exploitation of such networking to develop new wireless services and delivery models. Advanced Wireless networks will have a dominant role to play in the coming decade as a strategic connectivity technology for such verticals as advanced manufacturing, connected health devices, and the digital creative industries. We want Belfast to be recognised as one of the UK’s leading cities for developing and testing innovative 5G-enabled use cases and business models.

    We are working with City Deal partners to establish a £55 million ‘Digital Innovation Challenge Fund’ programme. Over the next year we will be designing a number of funding mechanisms as part of this programme. These will invest in the growth of some of the city region’s most exciting new companies. And making funding available to encourage our best SMEs and researchers to work collaboratively with the city officials on urban challenges such as mobility, decarbonisation, our future tourism offering, and the future nature of our high street.

    Later in 2022, we have plans to pilot Belfast’s ‘Citizen Office of Digital Innovation’ (CODI). CODI will offer a ‘digital citizenship toolbox’ aimed at equipping citizens with the right tools and information to participate directly in shaping the technologically-enabled city. Working at a community level, CODI will utilise creative and interactive methods to explore relevant topics such as co-design, citizen science, the Internet of Things, AI and data science, privacy, and smart cities. We want to make sure that the technology is at the service of the citizen and not the other way around.

    Technology must be seen within the larger vision for the city - within the context of shared economic and social outcomes. It’s important for cities to harness their own unique mix of talent and resources. A Smart Belfast is only as good as our ability to engage with our universities, our local businesses, our innovators and our communities. This can be a virtuous circle – the city gets the opportunity to

    co-opt the innovative ideas of business and academia – while businesses have the opportunity to develop their next product or service in a supportive environment.

    To find out more about Smart City Belfast click here

    About the author

    Aoife is a Sync NI writer with a previous background working in print, online and broadcast media. She has a keen interest in all things tech related. To connect with Aoife feel free to send her an email or connect on LinkedIn.

    Got a news-related tip you’d like to see covered on Sync NI? Email the editorial team for our consideration.

    Sign up now for a FREE weekly newsletter showcasing the latest news, jobs and events in NI’s tech sector.

Share this story