Innovation is the key as we focus on growing the economy
2020 was a tough year for all of us, but the roll out of the vaccine has brought a new sense of optimism that things will get better. As we look towards a time when we can ease restrictions again, it is important that we plan for recovery.
Our retail and hospitality sectors will reopen to customers eager to reclaim normality. Our position as a go-to destination for tourists from across the world will be restored. Our business and industry sectors will return to well-established markets and develop new ones.
Every job is important and I will endeavour to protect the economic fortunes of everyone across Northern Ireland. However, as a small economy we must focus on the sectors where we can be genuinely world class; clean energy, digital, advanced manufacturing, and life and health sciences.
Just as local business demonstrated resilience and creativity by adapting to keep their staff and customers’ safe, the global economy is transforming too as we emerge from the pandemic. We must be ready to capitalise on the opportunities emerging from the disruption.
In my view, innovation is key to our recovery and to our future success. It is through innovation that new technologies allow us to stay connected, work remotely and service clients all over the world.
It is innovation that allows us to develop new medicines, treatments and ways to stay healthy. It is innovation that allows us to improve productivity, efficiency and stay competitive with emerging economies.
Innovation drives progress, improves living standards and helps the economy grow. Our reputation for innovation is one of which we can be very proud. We need to capitalise on this - and on our highly-skilled workforce - to support recovery and to create jobs and wealth across Northern Ireland.
I want to strengthen the link between economic growth, innovation and wider societal wellbeing.
Innovation is at the heart of our new Energy Strategy. We look to make Northern Ireland a leader in clean energy by developing new technologies in carbon capture and renewables.
Also, Northern Ireland is developing as a centre of excellence for the hydrogen economy based in Belfast and Ballymena.
We have a world-class reputation in plastics and polymers, composites design and manufacturing, precision manufacturing, and specialist joinery and fit-out. We will identify other opportunities and technologies likely to emerge over the next decade to ensure Northern Ireland maintains its competitive edge.
The digital sector has remained resilient and it underpins virtually every other sector of the economy and has the potential to grow rapidly providing more and better paid jobs.
Northern Ireland has a strong record in financial technologies, legal tech, cyber security, artificial intelligence and the provision of digital services. I want to see companies seizing opportunities in areas like 3D printing and automation.
High-tech companies from across the globe continued to invest in Northern Ireland during the midst of the pandemic. They remained attracted by our highly skilled workforce and our leading role in innovation in areas such as cyber-security and artificial intelligence, clearly demonstrated by the recent FDI intelligence report on European Tech Cities of the Future ranked Belfast in the top 10.
Carebox is one example of innovative technology. A local company who invested in R&D to create an in-home care solution designed to support older people with virtual care and medication. Carebox operates in tandem with a patient’s own TV to provide medication reminders and direct access to their next of kin or a virtual care assistant.
The company has also deployed a host of additional service innovations and support throughout the pandemic. Investment like this will help companies accelerate growth internally and build resilience beyond Covid-19.
It has often said that steam power and electricity was the driving force of innovation in the 19th century, the internet and affordable travel drove growth in the 20th century and that fibre broadband and 3D printing will be one of the greatest advances of the 21st.
Project Stratum will transform the broadband connectivity landscape for many citizens and businesses in rural areas by bringing next generation broadband services to premises currently unable to access speeds of 30 megabits per second or greater.
I have also identified the life and health sciences sector as a priority sector. We have a vibrant academic community, globally renowned companies and a uniquely integrated health and social care system.
We have the ideal environment for cutting-edge healthcare R&D and innovations. The Health Innovation Research Alliance Northern Ireland is driving and supporting ambitious growth in this sector.
In parallel to all of this is of course recognising the importance of our people in seizing the opportunity. Developing the skills base of our young people is critical to our future economic success. We need to ensure we have the right people, with the right skills at the right time to fit with the innovation and growth within our economy.
The capability of our firms to be innovative depends on us having a high-quality education and training system which gives people the knowledge and skills necessary to get fulfilling and productive jobs.
I will continue to boost opportunities for people and employers through our Assured Skills Academies, Skills Focus, apprenticeships and training programmes. I want to reverse the downward pattern of investing less in skills.
Innovation across all areas of the economy is key to the long-term plan to deliver higher paying jobs, a highly skilled workforce and a more regionally balanced economy.