Posted on Tuesday 11 December 2018 by Ulster Business

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John Mulgrew looks at what major IT elements Belfast and the surrounding regions could get out of a potential £1bn City Deal

When it was formally announced that the Government would put forward £350m from the Treasury towards a finance pot worth up to £1bn for six councils as part of a new City Deal, it’s obvious that IT, innovation and manufacturing technologies would be high on the list.

The Belfast Region City Deal will see a series of projects and schemes taking place across, Belfast, Antrim and Newtownabbey, Mid and East Antrim, Ards and North Down, Lisburn and Castlereagh, and Newry, Mourne and Down.

And with that, a series of major IT initiatives are being outlined, many in collaboration with Ulster University and Queen’s University, in a bid to grow and expand Northern Ireland’s credentials on a global scale.

“Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University have collaborated extensively to develop proposals for global centres of innovation excellence in key growth sectors in which world-leading expertise in our universities can be leveraged by businesses to create breakthrough technologies, products and services,” the City Deal proposal says.

And it adds that a deal “requires a catalyst that will drive forward investment in research and development and help embed a culture of innovation to act as a driver for increased productivity”.

The councils took their case to Westminster at the end of October, and following that, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced the Treasury’s commitment. The rest of the proposed funding will come from matched finance from Stormont, with the remaining from the councils.

And if they pull it off, they are predicting as many as 20,000 new jobs could be created.

DIGITAL HEALTHCARE

In a bid to further grow and develop Northern Ireland’s position on the international healthcare market, the City Deal proposes creating a branded cluster of medical device and technology companies that “through a supportive and collaborative eco system of co-location and working will build the size and value of the sector”.

The centre aims to attract and develop businesses across a range of areas, especially in the areas of cardiology, diabetes, respiratory and stroke.

It says that a key aspect of the proposed cluster is the partnership working with scientists and companies with the existing pilot clinical lab at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Also in the pipeline is the ‘i-Reach’ project. Led by Queen’s University, Ulster University and partners from the life and health sciences sector, those behind the City Deal say it sits within the umbrella of an “emerging health innovation NI concept which seeks to bring a unified ‘front door’ for external investment into the health and life sciences sector”.

DIGITAL PARTNERSHIP

It is proposing a “physical and digital environment” to allow the academic research community, tech entrepreneurs and industrial partners will come together to address key challenges in business and society through the application of the IoT (Internet of Things) and data science.

Those behind it say it will support a common approach to big data sourcing and management, including early adoption of prevailing industry standards and codes of practice for secure and ethical use of data.

There are also plans for a ‘global innovation institute’. The plans say it will draw together the skills of several areas of Queen’s University – which includes electronics, communications and information technology, health sciences and food security – to “anchor and support the creation of a Global Innovation Quarter in Belfast”.

MANUFACTURING TECHNOLOGY

According to those behind the City Deal, the will operate at the interface between academia and industry “accelerating new technology developments through the innovation phase and ensuring that real industrial challenges based on market need are solved through collaboration with the best university research”.

Queen’s and Ulster University have developed an ‘advanced manufacturing innovation centre’ concept, that will “become the springboard for manufacturing innovation within the region”.

CREATIVE INDUSTRIES

Northern Ireland has already proven itself on the big and small screen, but there has been a strong move towards growing that further still. Aside from NI providing the facilities and backdrop for most of Game of Thrones, there’s also been the development of the Belfast Harbour Film Studios.

Part of the City Deal plan involves boosting that position, with a ‘screen and media innovation lab’ bringing together “transformative production, studio and R&D facilities”.

SCIENCE PARK

Elsewhere, in Mid and East Antrim, plans are under way for the transformation of the former St Patrick’s Barracks site in Ballymena into a new science park – Integrated Industrial Inspiration and Innovation Campus called i4C.

It’s being proposed that each council area will have some form of innovation hub, which will be directed towards business development.

CONNECTIVITY

Aside from specific schemes, infrastructure and connectivity improvements are part of the plans. That includes improvements in fibre-optic and mobiles broadband connectivity.

It comes as mobile network EE, part of the BT Group, announced that Belfast is among six cities across the UK which have been chosen for the first phase of its 5G launch.

“Our 5G trials are going well, giving us valuable insight into both the performance of the new technology and the challenges of upgrading sites with this new equipment,” Marc Allera, chief executive of BT’s consumer division said. “We’re confident that we can bring 5G to the busiest parts of Belfast and the UK in 2019.”

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