Future-proofing our infrastructure in this digital age

In a rapidly changing world, we can be certain of one thing, digital technology is central to economic growth today and it will be even more critical in the economy of Northern Ireland tomorrow.

Investment in digital infrastructure improves employment, productivity, innovation and regional competitiveness. Without investment in high-quality digital infrastructure including full-fibre broadband, Northern Ireland will cease to be competitive and will fall further behind Great Britain, Ireland and others.

In recent years, despite the political impasse locally and instability nationally, Northern Ireland has made good strides in securing funding and progressing towards the roll-out of full-fibre through a range of projects. These include Department for Economy’s Project Stratum, the various phases of the Local Full Fibre Network progressed by councils as well as the Infrastructure Enabling Fund with investment to be delivered through the Belfast Region City Deal.

Investments such as these, whilst very welcome and needed, can be considered as a minimum requirement for Northern Ireland. Through the National Broadband Plan in Ireland and the Reaching 100 % Programme in Scotland (where Analysys Mason have estimated that every pound spent brings benefits of up to £12), we can see at close quarters the significant investment other governments are also making which will support future growth of digital communication and digital services and provide a significant boost to their economy and international competitiveness.

Northern Ireland’s infrastructure strategy and plans are not keeping pace with changes we are experiencing around us. For the most part, we continue to build for the needs of today, not tomorrow. All elements of our infrastructure will be increasingly affected by this move to the digital age. The opportunities (and threats) presented by digital technology on our future infrastructure requirements are too great to be side-lined for another day.

Future-proofing is required in our investment planning in areas such as transport, where autonomous vehicles and other Smart initiatives require fibre or 5G connectivity for their development. Concepts such as Mobility as a Service which are being progressed elsewhere must be considered in progressing large investments such as the Belfast Transport Hub. By ensuring these issues are thought through on a cross-department, integrated way, we can avoid wasting taxpayers’ money on investments that may soon prove obsolete, or worse still, frustrate the realisation of digital benefits.

Cities such as Belfast and Derry~Londonderry are progressing smart cities agendas to reap the benefits of technology and sharing data between organisations, however issues such as access to the infrastructure owned by other parts of government can at times make progress challenging. Smart cities projects by their very nature spread benefits across multiple stakeholders and therefore issues around funding and governance can be complex.

Given all of this context, the cross-cutting impact of digital technology on all of our infrastructure demands that we take a cross-departmental and organisational approach.

At KPMG, we believe that the governance around Northern Ireland’s investment plans should build on the recommendations in the UK Industrial Strategy to strengthen partnerships between the public sector, private sector and academics to positively challenge our investment and infrastructure plans right across the Northern Ireland public sector. By leveraging the expertise that exists within the private sector and academia in key areas affecting our future infrastructure needs in a digitally connected world, Northern Ireland would benefit from an approach similar to those in the United States and New Zealand where infrastructure advisory panels have been set up with cross-sector expertise offering new perspectives and solutions to complex problems facing our infrastructure planning and investment. It is with this forward-looking approach that we can deliver the right infrastructure to support the Northern Ireland economy of tomorrow.

For further information please contact: Chris Rainbird, Director, Deal Advisory
T: 028 9089 3739

Stephen Wallace, Associate Director
Deal Advisory
T: 028 9089 3734

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