Tim Brundle, Ulster University, talks about the findings of a report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy into the creative technology sector in Northern Ireland.
Almost 175 years ago, the Colleges of Ulster University were founded upon the need for education and training in art, design and in the service to society. Today, the University is in the top UK quartile for research, one of the most entrepreneurial universities in the UK and a leader across the island of Ireland for academic excellence in the creative arts and support for the creative industries. I was therefore honored to be asked by Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy to produce a report examining the creative technology sector in Northern Ireland.The Northern Ireland Science-Industry Panel, entitled ‘MATRIX’, brings together industry, academia and government to examine the technologies and industries that will influence our local economy, making policy recommendations to establish competitive advantage. I am proud to be a member of this Committee and to advance its recommendations.
When MATRIX undertook our study into the Digital ICT sector in 2016 we found that the creative technologies were a discrete sector with unique characteristics and close interdisciplinary relationships. We saw that this sector had a similar potential for growth as the Digital ICT sector and a number of similar characteristics, particularly in the way it is both an industry sector in its own right, but also enables and underpins other sectors. However, we recognised that the support the sector needed to fulfil its potential was quite different. We therefore felt that the Creative Technologies merited their own report.
Over the course of the creative technologies study I engaged with business leaders, academic bodies, government and representative associations, both locally and nationally. I listened to the needs of businesses and formed a view of the characteristics of creative technology businesses, as well as the specific needs they have and the barriers they face.
The output was not a technical report – instead, it seeks to identify the opportunities, skills and support available to the sector and show how best the creative technologies can grow, collaborate and evolve. For the purposes of this study the creative technologies are characterised as businesses using digital technologies in a creative way. Immersive technologies, user experience, games and animation fall within this definition and form the scope of this study.
There is an extraordinary level of productivity within the creative tech sector – Gross Value Added (GVA) in the technology subsector of the creative industries in NI rose 60% 2009-2013, compared to 15% for the whole creative industries sector and 5% for all NI industries. This is a remarkable trend and one which shows that creative technologies have the potential to play a major role for economic development. There are currently 44,000 people working in the NI creative economy, representing 5% of the total NI workforce.
The burgeoning games industry here ranges from pure entertainment to the development of apps which gamify healthcare and the development of immersive games in VR. Animation skills in Northern Ireland offer significant potential for export growth, particularly in 2D episodic shows. There is an increasing focus on User Experience (UX), reflected by the development of Ulster University’s new Interaction Design and UX skills are in great demand from fintech, life & health sciences and other software development businesses as well as from government, as it develops its digital by default services.
Finally, the growing cluster of immersive technology companies now operating in Northern Ireland is strongly focussed on the development of content for virtual and augmented reality and the recently formed Immersive Tech NI within Ulster University is helping those companies and individuals to define Northern Ireland’s capability and to provide a platform for further exploration of immersive technologies. And with the UK Government Industrial White Paper focussing on immersive technologies in its ‘Audience of the Future’ challenge fund, there will be real opportunities to create the next generation of products, services and experiences.
Twenty years ago, Michael Porter was writing in the Harvard Business Review on the subject of clusters, stating that in the future there will not be high and technology sectors, only high and low technology businesses, and that those companies that did not embrace technology would soon find themselves uncompetitive in the global marketplace. Today, the same can be said of creativity – unless companies embrace the creative technologies they will find themselves uncompetitive in the world of AI and machine learning.
For example, good design and a satisfying user experience improves and enhances any digital product or service and creative technology offers new ways for businesses to market ideas, tell stories, develop concepts and create connections. In addition, evidence shows that creative occupations will be more resistant to automation than most other jobs – indeed, Nesta estimates that 87% of UK workers in the highly creative category will be at low or no risk of automation. So a healthy creative technologies sector will support sustainable growth across all technology sectors.
What I learned from our engagement with these businesses is that there are very specific interventions needed for this sector to thrive. This study makes many recommendations and while some of them will appear to be minor in nature, the benefits they would offer the sector would be significant. The characteristics of the sector means that it has historically been able to draw funding from a range of bodies providing specialist creative, technological or business support. While these interventions have obviously been welcome, the funding landscape for this sector has become highly complex. A streamlined support framework with a single point of contact for businesses and clear signposting to available and appropriate support is therefore recommended.
The current low levels of collaboration in the sector also need to be addressed and the most effective way to do that is through clustering, which will help break down barriers and provide support to small businesses as they work, trade and train together. The recommendation of cluster creation and support has been made in many reports, both regionally and nationally. Northern Ireland has yet to seize this opportunity, but with creativity forming a major focus for both NI and UK industrial strategies, there has never been a better time to do so.
Finally, we need to acknowledge the fast paced nature of the sector, where new hardware and software is being developed every year, and make sure that the education and skills development opportunities on offer are appropriate to requirements. We must appreciate and encourage the relationship between technology and creativity at every stage in education – From primary schools onwards, we must ensure that there is access to the right resources, that teachers are confident in delivering training and that skills development can be packaged and offered in a way that suits the individual.
This is a sector which will flourish if it is supported and represented. The Northern Ireland creative technology sector has the talent, the innovation, the drive and the confidence required to succeed. It needs government to recognise its unique characteristics and requirements – if what has been achieved in transforming our cybersecurity and Film & TV sectors in recent years could be replicated across all creative technologies, we will truly be able to fulfil the Programme for Government aim of a more innovative, creative economy.