Sync NI Magazine Summer 2022

Page 1 Summer 2022


CME Group 06 Apex Fintech Solutions 12 Allstate 32

 I never fail to be

impressed by the sheer calibre of our industries, made up of resilient, agile and innovative businesses and workforces  Eileen Montgomery

Digital Innovation Commissioner, Innovation City Belfast

Innovation & The 10X Economy: Building for the future 14 eir evo: A successful workplace transformation is essential to growth 22 Imperva: 5 steps to developing an innovation-led culture

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Welcome to the summer edition of the Sync NI magazine Foreword

Eileen Montgomery


Digital Innovation Commissioner, Innovation City Belfast

s we enter the second half of 2022, I am delighted to introduce this edition of Sync NI Magazine as Digital Innovation Commissioner. Just a few months into the role, I am appreciating more and more what an incredibly exciting time it is to be involved in innovation - in particular, the opportunities around digital innovation.

Part of this goal is to maximise the £1 billion Belfast Region City Deal investment, with projects such as the Global Innovation Institute (GII) and Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) leading the way in creating transformational change within our economy, creating high value jobs and offering opportunities for upskilling.

The government’s recently published paper on the UK Digital Strategy made it clear. Our economic future, prosperity and ability to compete on a world stage are all reliant on continued and growing success in digital technology. Access to super-fast internet, strong cyber security capabilities and worldclass academic institutions leading innovation in science, are all critical building blocks.

Despite significant challenges around global inflation, political instability and a lingering impact from the pandemic, there is an air of optimism and a renewed energy across our city.

In Northern Ireland, we are playing our part. I never fail to be impressed by the sheer calibre of our industries, made up of resilient, agile and innovative businesses and workforces, as exemplified first-hand throughout the COVID pandemic when digital innovation solutions were implemented quickly and effectively across the region. Digital innovation is integrated into all aspects of our lives; from the basics such as the way we work to the way we order groceries, through to accelerating world research in sectors such as MedTech, RegTech, and GreenTech. Having a secure Digital infrastructure that enables people to access the connectivity and services they need is a priority initiative for us, this will also ensure that Belfast retains its competitive position as an attractive location to invest. Innovation City Belfast (ICB) is a unique partnership comprising seven anchor institutions, united in our mission to make Belfast an economic powerhouse for Northern Ireland, and we make no apologies for our ambition to drive the next wave of the digital innovation surge.

Belfast is well-known for its great lifestyle and it is home to a strong foundation of talented, passionate and enthusiastic people – a powerful combination. However, those aren’t the only reasons it’s a great place to do business. As a region, we are punching above our weight in many sectors, such as cyber security, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing and R&D, but as far as FinTech goes, Northern Ireland pretty much tops the tables. Belfast is one of the top destinations in the world for FinTech investment, as well as new FDI software development projects. The sector contributes £392 million to the Northern Ireland economy, and there is much more where that came from, as we continue to implement the projects and innovations brought by the Belfast Region City Deal investment. An unbeatable combination of assets has fuelled the growth of Northern Ireland, including world class talent, highly competitive operating costs, research excellence and more, and in my role as Digital Innovation Commissioner with ICB, I strive to build on this even further. The decade of opportunity starts now, and through embracing digital innovation and collaboration, we can harness this opportunity, attract further global investment and secure Belfast’s position as a world leader in innovation.

About Sync NI Sync NI is proud to be the voice of Northern Ireland’s vibrant technology and business sector. The Sync NI website and magazine brings readers the latest tech and business news, views, jobs and events in Belfast and beyond. Sync NI Contacts Editorial Phone: 028 9082 0944 Email: Advertising & Partnerships Phone: 028 9082 0947 Email: General Enquiries Sync NI Rochester Building 28 Adelaide street Belfast BT2 8GD Phone: 028 9082 0944 Email: Online: Copyright No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyholder and publisher. Sync NI accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of contributed articles or statements appearing in this magazine and any views or opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Sync NI, unless otherwise indicated. No responsibility for loss or distress associated to any person acting or refraining from acting as a result of the material in this magazine can be accepted by the authors, contributors, editors or publishers. Sync NI does not endorse any goods or services advertised, nor any claims or representations made in any advertisement in this magazine.



Inside this edition 06 Q&A with CME Group’s Andrew Connolly 08 Beyond environmental Impact – the multi-pronged benefits of green innovation

24 Innovating within the manufacturing sector. AI, robotics and automation 28 Why go it alone when you can collaborate?

11 Belfast Met joins Innovation City Belfast partnership

30 An innovation case study and 5 lessons learned

12 Q&A with Apex’s Robyn Andrews

32 Allstate: More than insurance technology - an innovation driven enterprise

14 eir evo : A successful workplace transformation is essential to growth

36 Paul Black reflects on 50 years of Alpha 38 The case for deliberate innovation

17 Q&A with PWC’s Laura Hagan

40 A 10x economy: How Applied fosters innovation through openness

18 Core Systems: The transformation software has made to the corrections industry 20 Mastering innovation: when size isn’t everything

42 The Global Innovation Institute: A tremendous opportunity for our economy

22 5 steps to developing an innovation-led culture

44 Smart City Belfast














Q&A with CME Group’s Andrew Connolly CME Group is one of the world’s leading derivatives marketplace that enables clients to trade futures, options, cash and OTC markets. It is has a major operations hub in Belfast. Sync NI speak to its head, Andrew Connolly q CME Group will shortly celebrate its 10-year

anniversary in NI. Having worked at CME Group for nearly 10 years yourself and now heading up the business in NI can you tell us a little about how much the business has grown and evolved during this period?

When I joined CME Group back in October 2012, I was the 19th hire into the office in Belfast and now we have around 300 employees here. It's just incredible to think of the journey we have gone through, as the teams have evolved, grown and matured, not just in technology but also in non-technology areas as well. We now have local teams in finance, legal and marketing, too. It's been wonderful to watch the office diversify from being a mainstream technology hub and evolving into a more integrated office of cross-discipline, multi-skilled professionals.

q Prior to CME Group you spent over 14 years in

the field of technical infrastructure and operations before becoming CME Group’s UK Senior Director for Infrastructure and Operations. I'm imagining no two working days are the same. As the head of the Belfast office, I interact daily with our local teams, as well as the ‘follow the sun’ global teams, so together we are supporting, planning and idea sharing to help advance technology and product development, in partnership with the business liaisons and product managers.

A typical day could be meeting with stakeholders across the office to ensure their needs are being met. Or meeting with technology sponsors to ensure we are aligned and evolving for the future of the business. It's all about making sure our colleagues here are empowered to be able to innovate and bring real-world solutions to our markets, in addition to bringing technical innovation to the forefront of what they do. The daily diversity of tasks the Belfast office undertakes is what makes my role so interesting. In any given week

we could be launching a new app, migrating to a new technology platform, managing the applications for patent innovations or giving a presentation to schools or universities. I also work with external organizations to in a bid to ensure the pipeline of talent we require both now an in the future is available, so yes, every day is different on many levels.

q What would be the key challenges you face? You

mentioned talent and it's a problem that everybody seems to be struggling with currently, do you have a unique perspective on that? I probably wouldn't say unique. Our industry is facing the same challenges as others. People are moving from one role to another, and certainly within CME Group we are expanding our capabilities and supporting internal mobility, as well as increasing hiring externally to bring in the best talent that we possibly can. At present, the Belfast market is just very buoyant. Certainly, it’s challenging, but we also seek to diversify the routes we utilise to secure talent. We have a very healthy early career pipeline of talent with the higher-level apprenticeship scheme in addition to internships and a focused graduate program that we are working to expand.

q Tell me a little bit about the most rewarding aspects of your current role.

For me, it’s absolutely the people. I find working with my colleagues and developing the talent we have here to be an incredibly rewarding aspect of my role. Watching people evolve through their careers and grow, and subsequently provide benefit back to the business, is certainly inspiring. Having said that, I should also stress that the evolution and innovation that we do here in Belfast from a technology perspective is equally rewarding. CME Group is amongst the technology thought leaders in the fintech industry. That industryleading position links with the people aspect: the inspired colleagues innovate and drive their own careers



good pipeline for talent.

q When you recruit individuals that

display an aptitude for technology are there pathways for them to develop and continue to upskill?

At CME Group, we're very keen to upskill our people. We have a proven track record of growing and developing our workforce and we invest very heavily in them. Training is offered in our core business as well as soft skills and technology. In the fastest growing areas of technology, such as cyber security – our training opportunities and skills development is a magnet for attracting some of the key talent in this area. There are opportunities to gain training and qualifications to remain current, which may not be available in other companies. We are also very adept at encouraging internal mobility across our teams, affording fantastic opportunity to learn new skills in different parts of the business. alongside the growth of the business.

q When you pull a team together,

what are the characteristics that you look for in the individual, even at the hiring level?

First, it’s about the structure of the team: what already exists, what’s required, and what new elements do we need to introduce, because any team needs diverse skills. If you have a team of very similarly minded engineers, you may not get that advanced functional output. If you have a more diverse team, more ideas are generated and inevitably the innovation is much higher. Different ranges of skill sets and experience are important. More experienced engineers working with entry level colleagues can generate fresh ideas, as inquisitive minds challenge the established processes and shift boundaries. Trust is another element that I believe is hugely important. By giving people trust and margins to operate within, they

have a place to stretch, experiment and cultivate with the benefit of a supportive environment where they can learn and develop their confidence.

q Is there room in your teams

for individuals from non-STEM backgrounds? What do those roles tend to look like?

Absolutely, yes. Across the office, we have multiple roles that wouldn't be from a typical STEM background. For example, we have a lot of folks in legal as well as HR and marketing. There are always opportunities available to people beyond those with IT degrees. Even within technology itself we're still looking for talent and applicable experience, and it doesn't necessarily have to be from a STEM background. You've got a lot of inherent talent within Northern Ireland because of the great education and hard work of the people. Plus, there are the Assured Skills programs that are focused on converting folks who have may have come from a non-STEM background and those certainly have proved to be a

q Finally, as the Fintech sector in NI

continues to gain global recognition, what do you think are the key drivers for this and is there any more we can do to safeguard NI’s standing in global Fintech?

Certainly, the talent pipeline is one of the things we must continue to evolve and deliver. The talent from universities and the Assured Skills academies are areas we need to continue to invest in, given the success these programs have had. We also have such a reputable fintech industry in NI that we should be attracting back those who left seeking roles overseas, as better opportunities are now firmly established right here. We do run the risk of over subscribing our talent pools as we are a small nation, but the talent that we have here is undoubtedly world class. From a local NI perspective what we bring to the table is experience and a particular mindset. I think our personality is very amenable as we get on great with folks in other areas of the world, whether it's the US or Asia. We are very good at pulling those geographic areas of the business together effectively.



Beyond environme impact – the multibenefits of green innovation Sync NI caught up with MOF Technologies to find out more about the benefits of green innovation


e have all heard about the recent reports from the IPCC which categorically state that unless the world changes its approach to how we treat and respect the environment, then we face a very bleak future. Powerful storms, flooding, wildfires – an alarming picture that we are all acutely aware of. We know that something must be done, and fast, and that a key part of the solution will be found through climate tech innovation. However, while the importance of innovation in combatting climate change cannot be understated, there’s more to it. The environmental gains are undeniable, but green innovation is

not solely for the planet - it’s for good profitable business, strong economies, and a better society for all.

Business gains

The greatest impetus of business change is the threat to profitability and, often, the most powerful voice in this regard is that of the consumer. Now, with society fully aware of its environmental impact, the expectation of customers, employees and stakeholders puts added pressure on leadership teams to ‘do better’ and embrace green decision making. Take innovation stalwarts, Apple, for example. After COP26,



had stopped using a brand that they believe were guilty of such, and 52% reported they were “keeping an eye” on the brands they consume. Such is the power of the consumer.

ental -pronged

Economical gains

Climate technological innovation is not just a good business decision, but it can benefit the wider economy by stimulating growth. For a new piece of green innovation to gain traction it first and foremost needs to have a positive climate impact, such as minimising greenhouse gas emissions. However, it also needs to be better than what’s currently being used in its place. This often means gains in efficiency. These efficiency improvements lead to higher productivity, meaning more goods or services are produced and delivered. Wages then increase with business profitability and the economy grows.

Societal gains

Apple launched 10 new projects to bring renewable energy to communities across the world, from the Philippines to South Africa and even to North American Sioux tribes. They pledged that by 2030, every Apple device would have a net zero climate impact. True to their word, Apple doubled their number of suppliers who use 100% clean energy and aims to have 175 suppliers do the same by 2025. “We are infusing our values into everything we make — moving closer to our 2030 goal of being carbon neutral up and down our supply chain and across the lifecycle of our products, and ever advancing

our mission to build a more equitable future”, said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. That same year, Apple’s sales increased by 33% and profits by 65%. Consumers respect companies that use and uphold sustainable and ethical decision making and are already beginning to distance themselves from brands who they believe are responsible of “greenwashing”, which is conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about the environmental soundness of a company’s operations or products. A survey conducted in the UK found that a fifth of adults

The impact of eco innovation for society runs deep. Scientific and technological innovation is recognised as the catalyst of modernisation and shown to be the most crucial factor for societal progress and development throughout history. Research shows that general wellbeing is inherently linked to innovation. Living standards rise alongside innovation and our aforementioned economic growth. When it comes to developing countries, digital technologies and innovative solutions are helping to combat issues such as sickness, poverty, and hunger. Further innovation-driven benefits to society (and the wider economy) include the opportunities brought by a buoyant job market. Jobs are created in response to the growing demand for innovations from fast growing industries, further boosting the global economy. It is estimated that the world economy could double in size by 2050 due to technological improvements. Belfast company, Andor, matured into one of the world’s most innovative companies in the photonics industry, they now



employ over 400 staff between their Belfast offices and those in Japan, China, Switzerland, and the US. Beyond job creation, improvements in quality of life are intrinsically linked with green innovation. For example, carbon capture technology like Nuada, will reduce CO2 emissions from our atmosphere and help to improve overall air quality. Yet, the greatest detriment to quality of life that we are currently facing is a global temperature increase of 1.5°C. The IPCC are adamant surpassing this will result in irreversible damage to society and our planet as a whole. Innovation in climate technology will be key to ensure that we do not exceed this ominous milestone, avoiding climate catastrophe and mitigating its already damaging effects.

Environmental gains

As mentioned, the main aim of climate innovation is of course to support the environment, and it’s already proving instrumental in maintaining hope for reaching our climate goals. For example, through government funding in innovation, the price of solar and wind energy has significantly dropped, bringing our 2030 goals closer than before. However, while a transition to cleaner sources of energy is paramount, focus also needs to fall on cutting emissions from hard to abate, but necessary, industries. As it stands, carbon capture, utilisation and storge (CCUS) is widely regarded as a key player in tackling emissions from high pollutant industries such as cement and steel manufacturing. However, the IPCC is quoted as saying that “the deployment of carbon capture lags severely behind the schedule required to meet global climate mitigation targets”. This is where further innovation is required. Traditional amine solvents are currently the go-to method for capturing CO2 but require extreme amounts of heat to extract carbon dioxide and, as such, come at insurmountable cost to the

 Author

business. If a plant decides to modify existing framework to incorporate amine solvents, this redesign will prove extremely expensive and time consuming. All in all, these traditional carbon capture methods have been deemed commercially challenging. Herein lies MOF Technologies’ area of expertise. Knowing the importance of finding a low-energy solution to enabling wide adoption of carbon capture, we’ve spent a decade researching and developing just that – a super-efficient MOF- (Metal-Organic Frameworks) based carbon capture system, designed specifically for critical, but high polluting, industries like cement production. The MOF filter in our units is what makes all the difference, bypassing requirements for the excessive heat used by other solutions, thereby slashing energy use by up to 80%. MOFs are sponge like materials with some of the highest capacity for CO2 known to man and with our team of materials scientists and engineers, we have been able to pair MOFs with mature technology to create our Nuada carbon capture system. For this type of technology to make a

Dr Conor Hamill

Chief Operating Officer, MOF Technologies

real impact in our fight against climate change, it needs to be commercially viable and practical so that it makes business sense to adopt it. The huge energy savings are already a great selling point, but the Nuada system is also modular meaning it can be retrofitted to existing plants without expensive installation costs or redesign. This reduction in CAPEX, OPEX and overall cost of capture, opens the doors for the mass adoption of carbon capture at a time where it is sorely needed.


Climate Innovation is key and, coupled with ambition, will pave the way for fundamental change in Northern Ireland, providing a greener, more sustainable economy. Climate technologies will prove transformational, not only in achieving our Net Zero targets but in improving the quality of life for the citizens of Northern Ireland. By embracing the 10x vision, a decade of innovative, technological advancements could see Northern Ireland position itself among the small, advanced economies of the world. It will require a collective effort, from government, industry, and community leaders but its goal is one that could shape the world for future generations to come.



Belfast Met joins Innovation City Belfast partnership Belfast Met tells Sync NI how it has joined Innovation City Belfast (ICB) to help the partnership champion the skills agenda as it drives the city forward as a global destination for innovation


ocated in the heart of the Innovation District, Belfast Met becomes the seventh anchor institution in ICB which also includes Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.

GreenTech and beyond.”

Commenting on the growth of the cohort, ICB Chair and Queen’s University Belfast Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Greer said: “The addition of Belfast Met to ICB is a welcome and a natural step forward for the partnership, aligned with our mission of driving collaboration, bridging the gap between education and industry, and harnessing the growth in sectors such as FinTech, Health & Life Sciences,

Professor Ian Greer added: “Significantly, they provide a direct link between skills requirement and skills delivery, helping build a pipeline of talent and enhancing the city’s credentials on the international stage. Supporting the digital skills pillar of the £1 billion Belfast Region City Deal, Belfast Met, alongside our other key partners, enables inclusive innovation via pathways to

The latest expansion of ICB means they are now partnered with three key tertiary academic institutions focussed on cultivating the innovators and skills for tomorrow.

jobs in the growing digital economy.” The college, which has four campuses situated across Belfast, will bring 30,000 new students to the Innovation District from September, coming at a pivotal time as businesses and industry leaders seek to drive vitality back into the city post-COVID. Belfast Met’s curriculum is designed to reflect priority growth areas identified for Northern Ireland, such as emerging technology and advanced manufacturing and engineering. Louise Warde Hunter, Principal and Chief Executive, Belfast Met added: “As

a leading partner in the Belfast Region City Deal, the College will deliver a series of interventions to support vital skills, employability, apprenticeships and careers enhancement, which in turn will underpin significant capital investments in innovation, tourism and regeneration over the next 10 years." In addition to Belfast Met, the ICB partnership comprises Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour, Catalyst, Queen’s University, Belfast and Ulster University with Invest NI as an advisory partner. Follow Innovation City Belfast Visit online Start Planet NI

   @ICBelfast



Q&A with Apex’s Robyn Andrews Sync NI sat down with Robyn Andrews, Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist at the Apex Fintech Solutions Belfast office, to talk about how she cultivates the talent needed to carry out the company's innovative vision


ver the last two decades, Northern Ireland has firmly established itself as a global leader in fintech and cyber security. Bolstered by a combination of world-class talent, highly competitive operation costs, a focus on research, and a robust infrastructure in a low-risk, pro-business environment, Northern Ireland's financial sector is booming.

q Apex Fintech Solutions celebrated its

second anniversary in Northern Ireland. You've worked there for one year and are responsible for recruiting the talent in the Belfast office. How much has the business grown and evolved during this period?

We initially started as an expansion of our existing technology departments across the PEAK6 business groups, with Belfast being the first office outside of the United States. As part of the company's strategic plan, the most significant growth area in the technology and operations space has been Apex Fintech Solutions. We have expanded to over 90 people in our Belfast office and have many more opportunities across our teams as we continue to grow. A year ago, we hired our first non-technology team to support the clearing and operations sides of the business. We also have teams comprised of margin analysts, client experience middle office specialists, and operations specialists within banking, treasury, and wealth management.

q What do you think are the most important attributes of a successful team, and what characteristics do you look for in a team member?

We look for people who are not afraid to disrupt

the status quo. People who are looking for something new, something better, something worth their remarkable talents. We hire extraordinary talent who understand how to work as a cross-functional team, are positive and collaborative, and who possess a keen understanding of the latest tech stacks and technologies. Our environment is one in which every voice is heard and where there is no such thing as a stupid question. It doesn't matter where your name appears on the company organization chart — everyone works toward the same goal.

q Many companies have commented

on the need for greater diversity in the workplace, including upskilling people from non-stem backgrounds. What opportunities exist with Apex for people from non-STEM backgrounds?

I've worked in IT recruitment for more than five years, but I didn't come from a STEM background. I've learned about SDLC and technology through working closely with tech people. We like to focus on the person and their ability to learn. There are many transferable skills from other areas of study that can significantly benefit the fintech industry. We just hired seven recent graduates, five of whom have different degrees and have worked in various other fields, including physiotherapy. One person had a chemistry degree and then went on to do a master conversion course in software development. Apex is known for not being satisfied with the status quo. We have a huge focus on learning and development. Everyone is encouraged to take courses and work with their managers to



create their career paths. If you're in a non-technical role but would like to make the switch, it's entirely possible and achievable.

q Are any two days the same in your role, and what do you consider the most rewarding aspects?

With growth plans across all of our technology and business operations teams, I work on a variety of projects from crypto to esports to onboarding clients. Talent acquisition is not only about finding someone whose skills fit the position but also finding someone who matches the company culture and will flourish within it. It's rewarding to watch new hires succeed, grow, and prosper. It's quite a dynamic role, recruiting, hiring, and developing new talent. I focus on networking and building relationships across the business and strengthening our brand in the local market. It's important to communicate who we are, our mission, and our values to attract top talent. It’s fast-paced, exciting work in a supportive and collaborative environment. No day is the same.

q Finally, as the fintech sector in NI

continues to gain global recognition, what do you think are the key drivers for this, and is there more we can do to safeguard Northern Ireland's standing in global fintech?

Both Apex and PEAK6 recognize Belfast as one of the top fintech locations of the future and seek to bring this world-class talent to the industry. Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University offer renowned degrees in finance, computer science, and software engineering. By partnering with these universities, fintech companies can access the latest expertise in next-generation development.

Robyn Andrews, Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist, Apex Fintech Solutions

Investing in Northern Ireland and the universities is crucial to enable people from all walks of life to invest in their futures and continue to build up Belfast's tech workforce.



David Beatty , Business Development Lead for Workplace Solutions at eir evo, discusses how a successful workplace transformation is essential for a business to grow


espite the challenges that lie ahead, it’s impossible to read the Department of the Economy’s 10x strategy and not feel energised by the areas of strength and the possibilities within our reach. It is time to embrace far-reaching innovation and build upon what sets us apart. No one can argue against the vision to deliver improved outcomes for all including a more flexible work environment as a key pillar to 10x, but many businesses may be intimidated by the pressure to technically evolve, seeing it as a journey filled with insurmountable challenges. But that evolution of the workplace is more than possible - it’s nearly inevitable once business leaders grasp that the enabling tools are here, they’re mature, and they deliver huge competitive advantages in exactly the areas that keep their management awake at night. That includes everything from the Great Resignation to the spectre of cyber attack. Let’s look at some of the challenges businesses face, and how companies can better position themselves to win competitive advantage - starting with their working environment.

“How can we improve job satisfaction and productivity?”

Companies of all sizes are figuring out how to move forward in the hybrid work world. According to a recent Hays NI survey, 85% of NI employers are expecting to recruit this year but, with the Great Resignation, power has shifted firmly away from employers. More and more, employees are looking for workplace wellbeing that facilitates good worklife balance. Some may expect to work up to three days a week at home, and many are leaving jobs if their wishes aren’t respected. Companies can meet this challenge by ensuring they have the right cloud services that allow

eir evo: A suc workplace tr is essential t

ccessful ransformation to growth



genuine productivity regardless of employee location, all the while protecting their people and assets. Does your organisation still store most data on site, with security measures that were built for office-based working? If so, your pandemic-era workarounds probably weren’t ideal, with employees using fragmented, and insecure methods to access and share information. It’s time to implement fit-for-purpose systems that offer genuine flexibility, ultimately increasing productivity and improving job satisfaction. Cloud platforms such as Digital Planet, (eir evo’s own private cloud platform), Microsoft Azure and Office 365 with links back to all major SAAS and PAAS providers will allow your people being able to work from anywhere and collaborate using solutions such as unified communications (UC) or Microsoft Teams without introducing security risks. Everyone wins – and business growth will follow. It’s worth mentioning here that, although Microsoft Teams has millions of users globally, few businesses have exploited its full capabilities. If you’re already using it, having a partner to help you navigate its potential can be invaluable.

“It feels like we have too much technology already – how can we rationalise?”

Think of technology overload on employees as digital friction. It’s tiring and frustrating to log into multiple systems and go through fragmented processes just to find and use information. During Covid, there was a huge proliferation in systems and apps, increasing this friction, and many companies have a sprawling and fragmented IT estate as a result. It may be time to clean your house. If your people use different tools to make phone calls, send chat messages, videocall or collaborate on documents, your



organisation could be ripe for migration to an environment which brings all these together in one application. Solutions like eir Collaborate UC and Microsoft Teams means there’s no need for office desk phones or mobile phones when these collaboration tools can handle calling, chat, and meetings in a single app and are encrypted for security. Familiar applications like Microsoft Word and Excel can also live in the same environment, with Office 365. It’s the digital equivalent of walking into a single superstore: everything you need is inside, without going back out the door each time you want to do something different. How much time would your people save if they didn’t need to dip in and out of various systems - each with its own login and password - multiple times every day?

“How can we overcome employee reluctance to automation?”

The nature of workplace transformation is fundamental change, and processes that are manual, paper-based or repetitive become ripe for evolution. But these may be some of the longest standing, best understood systems and processes among employees. It’s no surprise that people may be concerned if there’s talk about digitisation. What if people’s jobs are lost in the march towards modernisation? These fears are understandable. But in our experience, automation doesn’t take people’s jobs. When you digitise manual tasks, you improve job satisfaction for everyone, including frontline and factory floor staff. Instead of paper forms (which they or a colleague later must manually transcribe into electronic format), they can use one app on a phone or tablet. They’re inputting essential information directly, so it can be used for business intelligence right away, across the organisation. Remember that automation is never about taking jobs: it’s about giving your

 Author

David Beatty

Business Development Lead for Workplace Solutions, eir evo

people more time to focus on satisfying aspects of their work, not on timeconsuming tasks that are better done by machine.

“If we use more technology, are we more vulnerable to cyber attack?”

No organisation sets out to become a victim of cyber attack, but the unpleasant truth is that cyber criminals are innovating. They’re finding new ways to exploit our human and digital vulnerabilities, and they prey on fragmentation. If your business uses a variety of applications to collaborate and process information, that’s a larger attack surface to target. Conducting your essential business inside one digital workspace means it’s easier to secure and manage than a fragmented IT estate. Data security is paramount, and our teams of highly trained security experts will ensure all of your security needs are met. It’s based around the understanding that there is no longer any physical or digital perimeter to the office – the data itself must be secured. Establishing the identity of all users is essential: is that person who’s trying to login really who he says he is? That’s where innovations like passwordless security such as facial recognition come into play.

We work with businesses to implement safeguards like multi factor authentication, and we help make sure that regulations, policies and compliance are all correct. We also work through our 24x7x365 managed Security Operations Centre, where we can monitor everything in your environment from apps to file access to network activity. This lets us identify usage patterns of concern, which can be the first hint that someone is attempting an attack. Every organisation who handles information will become the target of cyber criminals at some point. The secret is to have the best defence and the earliest warning so that attackers don’t succeed.

Partnering for success is central to the 10x economy

The way we live and work in Northern Ireland is ripe for transformation. At this moment, we stand at an inflection point that’s just as critical as the development of the steam engine, or the transition from horse and cart to motorcar. Making that transition boldly and with confidence is essential to survival. The reason that information technologies are so central to the 10x vision is that companies who transform the workplace really do have a competitive advantage. They can get closer to customers, and do it faster, than businesses who are stuck using yesterday’s systems and approaches. At eir evo, we’re qualified and experienced in helping companies make the transition to a truly digital workplace. We have the largest Microsoft practice on the island of Ireland, we can help you to get the most from these solutions, optimise your cloud migration, improve your cyber security, examine opportunities for automation, and enhance your critical communications so that you’re set up to compete and win without introducing new risk.



Q&A with PWC’s Laura Hagan

Sync NI sat down for Q&A with Laura Hagan Student Recruitment Manager at PwC PwC is one of the largest tech employers in NI. How many students are you looking to employ across the business in the coming 12 months? Each year will differ depending on business need. Our student target hires for this year in Northern Ireland is over 100 across all departments. It will include everything from our school and college leaver programmes, summer internships, and placement students, including hires for other projects where there is a business need.

Obviously, PwC is much more than an auditing business and has opportunities across many different divisions – can you tell us a bit about the range of roles you are looking to recruit for? Yes of course as we’re so much more than an auditing business. Actually, we have really exciting opportunities across the entire business to suit a wide range of candidates and their career interests and aspirations. These include positions within Technology, Tax Deals, Consulting, and within our Operate business.

What are the various pathways available to students who are interested in working at PwC?

We have a whole host of opportunities for students to join us. These range from our Summer Internships where students get to experience what life at PwC is really like, our undergraduate work placement opportunities for students who need to complete a placement as part of their degree, and our school and college leaver opportunities straight from A-level. We also offer degree apprenticeship programmes. This option is ideal for students keen to continue their studies, and who also want to gain first-hand experience of, and working in a professional services environment. Throughout the year we host many virtual and in-person events. The topics of which are varied, covering: insights into our different business areas, details of our programmes, as well as valuable hints and tips on our application process.

All events include the opportunity to meet our people and ask any burning questions. A full description of all our initiatives and opportunities is available on our careers website.

What sort of opportunities exist for students who would like to explore an internship?

We offer a range of different internships which are a fantastic way for students to get a glimpse into the organisation and see what a career with us could look like. Our paid summer internships across different areas of our business range from four to six weeks. We also offer an 11-month undergraduate work placement for those students who are required to undertake a placement year as part of their degree course.

What sort of career development programs can new PwC recruits expect?

When new starters join the business, they are all assigned a career coach and work buddy who will support them in their goals and career development through mentoring, regular catch-ups, and carefully outlined goal setting. Our online career development platform, Vantage is another online resource offering many e-learns and career development training. We actively support students’ continuous learning and development, and in a number of our roles, students can also gain professional qualifications.

What would you tell students who may not necessarily come from a STEM background?

At PwC we welcome applicants from all degree disciplines, in fact we encourage it. We have many joiners who come from a variety of backgrounds, all bringing with them different perspectives and valuable skill sets. On our careers website, we have valuable online resources to help students navigate their career journey. Our Career Uncovered tool enables students to better understand the areas of our

Laura Hagan, Student Recruitment Manager, PwC

business they might be best suited to, while our Employability Hub offers extensive advice to any students going through an application process. As well as offering advice on wellbeing and the type of skills employers are looking for in a candidate. Very often the business representatives at our events come from non-STEM backgrounds. This really helps those prospective students see that no matter what they are studying, they too can have a career with us, and how the skills and knowledge they already have are just the start.

PwC’s new Merchant Square office is one of the most impressive modern working spaces in Belfast – what features impressed you most?

It's definitely a fantastic office and a diverse workforce. Being right in the city center is a huge plus - we're close to all the attractions and it's a really dynamic working environment with lots of perks. One of the best features is our wellbeing area which is what we call a work-free zone where we really encourage all staff to visit to rest and unwind. There are weekly yoga and exercise classes as well as massages, reflexology, and physiotherapy. Psychologist and manicure appointments are also available.



Core Systems: The transformation software has made to the corrections industry Sync NI sat down with Patricia O'Hagan, CEO at Core Systems and recent winner of the Outstanding Women In Tech Award, to learn more about how the company’s software has helped to transform the corrections industry


ore Systems is a local software company, founded by Patricia O'Hagan and her husband 20 years ago. The company develops software that is used in the corrections industry. The primary focus of the software is to support people throughout their journey within the justice system. The software aims to help not only prisoners but the staff and the people that interact with them too.

Patricia first started out her journey while she was doing work for local prisons. In doing so she realised that there were a large number of different systems to manage all aspects of a prisoner's life which were still paper based. Patricia notes: “It was like technology hadn't touched the systems at all.” This inspired Patricia to start her journey. She saw that there was an opportunity to make things better by

connecting the prisoners directly to the information that they were entitled to get through technology. Patricia explains: “In that environment, people tend to have all their choices taken away from them. They lose the skills they need to go back into society, they lose hope. I really wanted to enable them to get more involved in those choices and give them the skills they needed to be successful back in the community. So it was very much


driven by trying to transform the prison industry so that people had a better experience and better outcomes as a result of that.” The software that Core Systems have developed over the last 15 years has been prisoner focused. Recently, they have brought all that knowledge together and started from scratch again to build a product called Pathway.

people lost all those opportunities and that was a great accelerator for what we do. To look into prison services and think about using digital platforms to deliver services like education, health care and communications. We're trying to give them a real life experience of the things that you and I do.”

In addition to this, the software also allows prisoners access to services and information. For example, they can make a choice about their food, choose a meal from the meal options and place an order for the tuck shop.

Patricia says that the pandemic accelerated the company’s future plans for their software. She explains that throughout lockdown prisoners were isolated in their cells and this was having a negative impact on their mental health. To combat this, Core Systems developed software to help with communications, so that prisoners could communicate more effectively with the outside world and talk with their family and friends. They could also have a session with a therapist or health professional. In addition to this, the software also allowed them to have a session with the teacher remotely from their cell.

Patricia adds: “I think most importantly, we're getting into the area of self help and education, where people can access education programs or vocational skills and pick up those skills while they're in prison. People are locked up in their cells between 12 and 23 hours a day. To do education, traditionally, prisoners would have to go to the classroom in the prison and they’d be lucky if they got that once a week. With COVID and lockdown,

Patricia has seen first hand how the software they have developed has helped those who have used it. She explains: “I was at a conference last year and there was a guy presenting and he worked for a company that we provide tech to. He said that he was in prison last year, and he named the prison where our technology was. He started doing some of the education and learning while he was locked up. He

Pathway is a secure platform that the prisoners and staff have access to which enables a number of things to happen. It allows the staff to communicate with prisoners. It also allows prisoners to keep in touch with family and friends, all digitally, through text, voice or video.

felt so good about himself that he started helping the other prisoners. He then became a tutor to the other prisoners. When he got out of prison, he actually got a job working for our partner as an industry specialist, because he understood the journey of the people in prison.” Patricia tells us about another time when she was attending a community interaction event. The event was for young people and she was asked to attend to talk about the tech sector. Patricia recalls: “We have some of these young men in the room and we give them a presentation. Then one of them said, I've used your system and I said: How did you use that? He said, to keep in contact with my mum. She was in prison at Hydebank.” Patricia recalls what an amazing feeling it was to see how her software had helped this young man stay in touch with his mother. Core Systems is made up of a team from diverse backgrounds and there are a number of pathways into a career at the company. One of these pathways is through the foundation degree technology course. Patricia explains: “Firstly, applicants do a four month placement. If this works out for them and us we would keep them on and they would work part time with us through their whole degree.” Patricia adds: “At the end of that degree they’re always very successful, they always get firsts, and


it's because they've got so much real life production knowledge.” Another route the company has is through QA. They recruit applicants on aptitude, but again, put them through an internal training course. Patricia adds: “So we have recruited a number of people who were students at the time, in different disciplines. If they had an aptitude and a desire to come into the IT sector, as QA engineers, we put them through our internal training program. Then at the end of that they become a trainee QA engineer and then develop further.” Patricia says that they have recruited people from a range of different backgrounds and this is vital to their company. She adds: “They could be studying anything, maps, business, anything at all. We've had people who were in hospitality and retail. People who did geography, a historian, all sorts of people.” 20 years later, the company and the team at Core Systems are constantly expanding and developing. Patricia concludes: “The main thing for us in the company is the alignment of values, that the people we hire care about what we do. That is worth so much more than people that come to us for other reasons. Increasingly, people are coming to us because they want to make a difference and help people.”



Mastering innovation: when size isn’t everything Sync NI speaks with the team at Expleo to find out more about why size isn’t everything when it comes to innovation


nnovation can often be misunderstood. It is not always a big bang idea that gets people talking. It can be small, incremental changes that may even go unnoticed. The impact, however, can be huge. For Amazon, the seemingly simple invention of ‘1-Click’ ordering transformed the company from a bookseller to the world’s largest online marketplace. Big or small, innovation is the continuous striving to be better; a constant push to make the customer’s journey easier and more seamless than what competitors are offering. Each innovation breeds more innovation and fiercer competition across all sectors, from retail and financial services, to automotive and aerospace. Expleo delivers technology and engineering services to businesses in Northern Ireland and across the world. In doing so, it must relentlessly stay ahead of the latest trends, offering innovative solutions and ideas to businesses, supported by investments in people and technology. The company leverages emerging technologies including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and edge computing, while adopting new processes to advise, and lead, in what is an unprecedented time of great change. “We use a company-wide approach to innovation, which encourages everyone in the organisation, regardless of their role, to contribute,” explains Tony Wright, Solutions Architect, Expleo. “It involves a combination of macro innovation – executive-led, strategic initiatives – along with lower risk, micro innovations, which encourage ideation from staff and teams on the ground.” Wright explains that these innovations stem largely from problem identification and solution development. Expleo sees problems and challenges every day across all sectors and is committed to investing to provide leading-edge solutions. “We are aware that not all the initiatives we foster turn

into successful outcomes or implementations,” says Wright. “And that our culture should not penalise these concepts or stifle the people behind them. The reality is that some ideas will not succeed. Equally, the reality is that without these ideas, we cannot encourage creative thinking and foster bold innovations.” A major issue that continues to grab the headlines is the global IT and digital skills shortage. Research from Expleo’s Business Transformation Index 2022 Ireland report shows that IT skills shortages are negatively impacting the business plans of 56% of enterprises in Ireland. An alarming 77%, meanwhile, say that talent shortages are a top barrier to digital transformation. “These are concerning statistics,” says Wright. “Delivering innovation hinges on having the right talent and skills, coupled with the best processes and technologies. The types of skills required to bring technological innovations to market quickly are often scarce, which threatens the exponential pace of change that we have been seeing over the past number of years. From our own monitoring of the market, we are consistently seeing that skills in the engineering of software, data, performance and automation are in short supply.” Again, innovation can play its part in solving this issue. For instance, AI technology can help to more accurately match candidates with open job vacancies and recruitment departments can leverage Robotic Process Automation (RPA) to scrape large numbers of CVs and process these more efficiently. Predictive analytics, meanwhile, can help companies to proactively target potential candidates via social media.

Innovation on demand

Often, innovation happens quickly and is in response to problems and opportunities that are surfacing in real time. As part of its commitment to supporting businesses with their innovation strategies and


process implementation, Expleo has evolved the concept of providing access to specialists as and when businesses need them – at short notice and for short periods of time. “The shortage of specialist skills has the propensity to smother innovation,” says Wright. “But it is also true that specialist expertise may only be needed at key milestones during a project. Therefore, it doesn’t always make sense to hire in-house or have experts permanently available. In response to this, we have introduced a highly flexible on-demand sourcing model, providing highly-skilled industry and technical experts who can accelerate innovation for our global clients and the wider market.” Wright explains that this ondemand service can reduce budgets by using engineers only when needed, while also supporting the critical stages of a project. This new shared-services model augments the more traditional modes of professional services engagement and increases the value delivered to Expleo clients. In turn, the company is enabling the release of new innovative products and services, from augmented reality (AR) solutions and IoT platforms, to industrial monitoring systems processing millions of signals per hour. What has transpired is that these on-demand specialists and teams have created a culture of low-budget, low-risk micro innovation that focuses on incremental changes that make a big impact; one that acts as a catalyst for further innovation. “You could say that it drives innovation within innovation,”


says Wright, while adding that it is also helping to address the challenges in the domain of User Experience (UX) and accessibility of software. Accessibility of software applications has become a legal requirement for government organisations over the last few years and this is likely to extend to the private sector in the very near future. Aside from it being a legal requirement, making applications accessible to all is ethically correct and inclusive. It also makes good business sense as around 20% of the population have an impairment that impacts their use of software applications. “At Expleo, we have been evolving our accessibility services within the specialisms offered by the on-demand delivery model,” says Wright. “More recently, our teams have worked to provide specialist accessibility expertise with a client designing innovative mobile applications for education. Our on-demand accessibility specialists were able to advise and audit the accessibility of the application and its clever AR technology using not only certified and trained UX experts, but also real-world users on real devices with real impairments such as blindness and Multiple Sclerosis.” At the heart of it, this is what innovation is. It’s about solving problems and overcoming challenges through culture, processes, people and tools. It’s about flourishing and thriving at all levels, from small wins to large-scale change. Getting that combination right will not just provide one innovation; it will set off a chain reaction of innovations within innovations.



 Author

Gary Skelton

Northern Ireland Site Lead, Imperva

5 steps to developing an innovation-led culture

Sync NI caught up with Gary Skelton, Northern Ireland Site Lead, at Imperva to discuss the five steps to developing an innovation-led culture


s a cyber-security company, innovation is an essential part of what we do. Every day there are new vulnerabilities being found, new threat actors coming onto the scene, and new challenges being posed by customers. We are constantly reacting to these developments to help keep our customers secure. And, as a proud part of the Northern Irish tech sector, the need for innovation is doubly important to us. Northern Ireland’s reputation for talent and creativity is a key reason why the region has been transformed into one of the most important tech hubs in Europe, and it’s fantastic to continue to see foreign direct investment flow in to support growth across the country. But creating and maintaining a culture which encourages, and champions innovation can be a challenge. There is no silver bullet for creating such an environment, but there are some key steps that can be taken to make the task that much easier.

1) Interview for innovation

Building an innovative team starts with bringing in the right

people, people who can mesh together and drive creative friction rather than unproductive tension. Some of the most important qualities we look for in hiring are candidates who are curious, willing to take sensible risks, and who can approach problems in different ways. One of the best ways to develop creative friction is to prioritise diversity as part of the hiring process. As an example, many teams benefit from having a mixture of introverted and extroverted people, and this needs to be considered as part of the interview process. Hiring managers will want to see problem solving skills from all candidates, but some will do better thinking on the spot, while others do their best work when given a few days to go away and consider their approach. Building in different types of problem-solving challenges can allow everyone the chance to show their full talents, resulting in a more diverse team. These benefits are even more pronounced when hiring employees from non-traditional backgrounds, or those with alternative skills to the ones already in the team. It’s amazing how people with skills that are apparently not relevant to a company's current tech stack can offer new perspectives and


breakthroughs to knotty problems.

2) Keeping the cream of the crop

Once you’ve hired good people, the next step is making sure that they stay, which is especially difficult in a market as competitive as Northern Ireland right now. If your hiring practices prioritise curiosity and problem-solving, then one of the most important things to do is make sure that your teams understand why the work they’re doing is important. Curious people are rarely motivated to work on a project because their manager told them to do so. They want to understand why they’re being told to do something. And taking the time to clearly communicate the purpose and strategy behind the work is often beneficial because, once they see the logic, innovative talent tends to come up with even better solutions. Closely related to this is ensuring that individuals know that they’re not operating alone and that there is a whole team there to support them - something that has become even more important in the hybrid era. Very few people are able to produce their best work if they feel disconnected from colleagues, both physically and emotionally. However, as the pandemic moves on, there is an opportunity for Northern Irish businesses to recast hybrid working. By providing a generous budget for home office improvements - as we have at Imperva - the shared office can be reorientated more towards collaboration, freeing people up to work wherever they want, however they want. If they need solitude to concentrate, there is a full set-up home office for their use. And when problems require a more dynamic, collaborative approach, the office can be that creative space.

3) Understanding the system

A crucial part of giving people the

platform to take smart risks and be creative is removing the fear that they’re going to be singled out or shamed for making mistakes. Instead, innovative companies shift the focus away from individuals, and towards the larger systems. This is a far more productive approach because, in almost all cases, problems aren’t just the fault of one person, but arise because of a flaw in a complex system. By examining issues at the systemic level, e.g. through the methods like the ‘5 Whys’ pioneered by Toyota, it’s far easier to identify root causes and design robust counter-measures to prevent similar failures in the future. And, while this approach doesn’t obviate individual responsibility, it does allow businesses to shift away from a ‘blame culture’ and towards one where employees feel more empowered and free to experiment. This is particularly true when the approach is modeled by executives as it sets a tone which filters down throughout the rest of the organisation.

4) Communicate the goals and expectations

One challenge with ‘innovation’ is that it can become a buzzword in some scenarios. If left undefined, it can mean everything to everyone, so a vital step in creating an innovation-led culture is to make sure that everyone, from C-Suite down, understands the types of problems that are being tackled, and how progress will be measured. Getting agreement on metrics, especially, is fundamental because not all changes will be positive initially. Creative growth - whether it’s through trial and error, research, or process changes - often takes time and things can sometimes get worse before they get better. These teething troubles can often be seen as ‘wasteful’, if they aren’t dealt with head-on from the start. However, if everyone in the business understands the goals and expectations


of the innovation process, there is likely to be far less pushback and more internal championing of the progress that is made, which can result in a virtuous cycle of great innovation.

5) Make haste slowly

Finally, there is the question of how to make sure that innovation is directed and purposeful, which means really listening to customers, understanding their needs and considering their constraints. Deep listening is important for two reasons. The first is it builds better customer relationships and delivers usable solutions. If a customer is having system resource issues and needs something lightweight, developing a new all-singing, all-dancing offering isn’t going to be the answer. The second is that it can unlock patterns which aren’t always initially obvious, especially to customers. In many cases, individual customers don’t have the full context, leading them to only bring you half of the problem they’re asking for a faster horse when what they want is a car. But by building in additional time for employees to think and reflect on the problems they’re solving, there is often the opportunity to fix a problem that customers didn’t even know they had by offering a bigger, more overarching solution.

Eyes on the prize

Every company talks a good game about valuing innovation and innovative people. But developing the right environment for creativity to flourish freely depends on a host of interconnected factors. From the C-Suite down, there has to be a culture which prioritises autonomy and diversity, where everyone feels able to share ideas and collaborate to come up with the best possible solutions. These five steps are by no means exhaustive, but they can go a long way to making any business more inventive and competitive.



Sync NI met with Colin Spence, Director of Derry based FAST Technologies to discuss their 2021 joint venture with Magherafelt-based Bloc Group and creating a manufacturing innovation powerhouse


AST (Factory Automation & Systems Technologies) currently develops bespoke technical solutions for a global client base including Unilever, Caterpillar and Seagate providing ‘best-in-class’ manufacturing and automation and are paving the future for companies advancing in Industry 4.0. Alongside Bloc Group, these two highly innovative, export-focused manufacturing operations which excel in design and engineering are developing the technology that will shape the future of manufacturing both locally and exporting this expertise throughout the world generating new growth and opportunity across the Northwest of Northern Ireland.

Bloc Blinds and FAST Technologies announced a partnership in Oct 2021 – what were the obvious synergies between the two businesses? The level of joint expertise which this relationship brings in terms of ‘best-inclass’ manufacturing and automation helps form long term growth strategies for FAST.

As a solutions provider to the wider business market we have a proven track record in the application of automation across all sectors and industries, and together with the Bloc Group, we will take this expertise to the next level,

Innovating with the manufacturi sector: AI, robot automation

hin ing tics and


ultimately helping organisations streamline and enhance their business processes and operations. Given the current climate of supply chain challenges, labour and skills shortages, this is a critical need on a global scale. The obvious synergies between Bloc and FAST will underpin the continued success of both brands and offer great economic potential globally. Ultimately we are two locallyowned organisations sharing a common culture and philosophy. FAST increased export sales by 110% by expanding its growth into US and Europe and are expected to grow by 45% over the next 18 months following joining forces with the Bloc Group. The bespoke automation and Robotics systems that FAST can provide offers huge opportunities to businesses looking to improve and enhance their operations systems and processes.

Having worked at FAST Technologies over the last 14 years what would you say has been the most impressive technological development within the company during this time? There have been so many technological advancements, the pace of technology has been incredible and can be seen all around us from the electrical and electronic products we use daily to the cars we drive, we have even designed and built production lines where robots make the robots that cut your grass!

Industrial Robotics, autonomous mobile robots and collaborative robotics are mesmerising to watch and continue to impress me, but for me collaborative robot is right up there. Collaborative robots, or cobots, are a new incarnation of manufacturing robot designed to work alongside humans rather than in their own space. They're just as effective as their larger counterparts, sometimes more so, with the added benefit of sharing workspaces with humans. Maybe in the


future, we'll replace the majority of our workforce with robots, allowing us to introduce a better balance to our work and life, provide opportunity to pursue creative endeavours or other hobbies and offering opportunity for upskilling employees and higher paid jobs. For now, however, the best we can hope for is smaller robots that we can work alongside.

Colin Spence, Director, FAST Technologies

Can Northern Irish companies truly compete at a Global level in manufacturing bespoke automation and Robotics systems?

FAST Technologies already has automated systems making products for our clients globally so yes, it is possible. We are a passionate little country and passion is everything! Skills without passion are worthless. We need to develop a cohesive ecosystem of passion to innovate, with the appropriate skills training, collaboration and infrastructure to support – we can definitely compete, and with continued focus, I am optimistic for the future.

Is there any manufacturing process that cannot be automated?

We can expect automation on a scale unlike anything we’ve seen before. Few jobs will be completely untouched by AI and robotics. You may think that elements of your job are so complex and nuanced that they couldn’t possibly be done by a machine. As recently as five years ago, it would have been far-fetched to envision replacing truck drivers with automated



vehicles. Today, it seems almost inevitable. Perhaps our biggest blind spot with respect to digital disruption is that we’re unable to imagine the new jobs that technology creates and the opportunity there is for future employment in these new roles. Although slightly before my time, if we think back to the early days of the personal computer revolution in the late 1970s, the best minds in the business couldn’t imagine how omnipresent personal computers would soon become. And certainly, nobody envisioned the legions of jobs that would emerge in entirely new categories opening up a world of opportunities for employees.

NI was once at the centre of the industrial revolution – are there any long lost industries that could return to NI with the aid of automation? We must look to the future! The rise of advanced manufacturing will open up more opportunities for NI businesses, labour shortages, especially in manufacturing industry, are a constant concern and automation can address this. It is providing solutions for companies and helping our companies survive and compete so that we can meet current demand, be more efficient enabling expansion and increase the potential for exports. Let’s consider Denmark as an example, despite having a much smaller working

population than the UK, Denmark is the fourth most productive country in the world, while the UK is ranked 17th. This success is underpinned by the economy’s mass adoption of new, flexible automation technologies, such as cobots. NI needs to adopt this mindset, quickly!

What aspect of the future of automation excites you most? The exciting part for me is that future automation will actually improve our work experience and if we do it right we can create a symbiotic relationship between human and machine.

Workplace safety for example is one area that automation can really make an impact given 8090 % of accidents in the workplace happen due to human errors. This is something sophisticated automation, robotics and AI video technology can prevent in predictable work environments. Automation can also handle a lot of mundane, boring tasks that humans do not want to do ultimately creating a much

better work life balance and a happier work environment.

How important are our universities when it comes to developing the manufacturing technologies of the future?

Firstly, we as engineers need to market our sector

better, starting with our future engineers and their parents! Engineering is a job for life with excellent career prospects that can provide a great work and life balance. It all starts at our schools who need a strong focus on STEM. Our Universities and FE Colleges need a combined Manufacturing, Automation, Mechatronics, Software and Robotics course offerings at all levels. There needs to be the capability and opportunity for the colleges and universities to outsource significant syllabus content and modules to industry partners that can provide hands on practical experience with the latest Industry advancements and hardware. We currently are engaged with the Ulster

University locally and NWRC to develop and tailor an engineering program that can produce competent students that ultimately will help deliver the 10X vision for NI. This will be enabled alongside the development of our FAST Academy with our industry partners and customers providing the bespoke training and sponsorship for students to drive capability and our combined future growth plans. I am a strong advocate of the Fraunhofer model in Germany where Industry focus groups drive research and proof of concept development via the universities. The Fraunhofer delivers what the economy needs: innovation, which is one of the most important factors in achieving commercial success. To maintain an edge in a competitive global market you need to understand your customers’ needs, deploy the very latest technologies, and respond quickly to market developments. To facilitate our own extensive growth plans, we have launched our FAST Academy, targeted at those interested in STEM subjects and with a view to progress their career in mechanical and electrical engineering. A pipeline of skilled individuals is integral to our global growth strategy, and we are currently recruiting. There will be more opportunities with Fast Academy in the months and years to come to help us facilitate our global growth plans.


The quack’s mighty and the tech matters Find your next tech role




Why go it alone when you can collaborate?

Katy Ho, Head of Innovation - Emerging Ecosystem Building, Digital Catapult

Katy Ho of Digital Catapult looks at the reasons why tech companies shouldn’t overlook collaboration opportunities through partnership and technology experimentation programmes, accelerators and similar initiatives It isn’t all about showing you the money

Tech innovators are often attracted to accelerator programmes by the prospect of associated funding. Yet beyond the obvious benefit of cash or credits to support your scale-up activities, there can be huge power and value in working within a collaborative environment or partnership. For example, accelerator programmes for technology start-ups and scaleups are time-limited programmes designed to support the activities of a cohort of technology entrepreneurs and innovators, and usually culminate in a pitch or presentation to investors or potential customers. While many will focus on innovation and development within a specific technology area, such as artificial intelligence, an increasing number of opportunities are bringing together government, academia, growing enterprises and large businesses to create cross-technology

innovation ecosystems for exploring and addressing key issues, anything from cyber security to achieving net zero.

Gain access to expertise and mentorship

Collaboration can connect you with technology experts, researchers, and innovation managers, as well as the industry sponsors looking for solutions to specific real-world challenges. Working with people who are experts in their field – whether that’s 5G, augmented reality or manufacturing supply chains – can enrich your team’s individual and collective knowledge, enabling you to gain valuable insights and upskill your team members. Tech gurus can help you get past sticking points or challenge your ideas to help you pivot in new and exciting directions. Marketing and commercial specialists can help you shape up your

go-to-market plans, develop your value proposition and refine your pitch to help you win new clients more easily. Industry experts can give you the inside track on their ways of working, challenges, and emerging market opportunities. And never underestimate how much working alongside motivated and talented peers can have a positive impact on you, your team, and your project.

Gain access to state-of-the-art and innovative tech

Many programmes enable you to access physical and digital resources that would otherwise be out of reach, such as more compute power, or specialist labs and testing facilities. Others enable you to test and try new innovations as part of your own solution development. There may be unexpected opportunities for synergies within your cohort, and the chances are that you’ll form alliances and connections that can last long into the future, for mutual benefit.


Put your business under the spotlight

Collaborative programmes often culminate in a showcase or pitching event of some kind, typically to an invited audience of investors or potential customers – a rare occasion when a carefully selected group of interested people are brought together for you in one room, especially for your benefit. These events offer you a stage from which to pitch your concept or demonstrate your solution to warm prospects, and also present you with valuable networking opportunities on the day and afterwards. There can also be associated award schemes that will highlight your work and attract interest from a wider public audience. Preparation for such an event requires rigorous pitch refinement and rehearsal, and so having objective and supportive mentors can help you to maximise your chances of success on the day and in the future – another advantage of working in a collaborative environment. “The opportunity of doing a deal, and having a contract, whether it’s a pilot to start with, or a longer-term relationship over time is incredibly powerful,” says Jeremy Silver, CEO of Digital Catapult. “You can prove that your solution can scale. Other investors can see your early-stage business has got the

mature management, and the sophistication of technology, to work with a large corporation. It’s therefore likely to receive further investment off the back of that collaboration.”

Industry needs your help

In late 2021, Digital Catapult surveyed 100 UK manufacturing leaders, and found that 73% included collaboration with start-ups as part of their long-term business strategy. And 92% of those who have already worked with startups would do so again. Companies are looking to technology to help them reduce operational costs, grow their businesses, and become more competitive in a global market. Successful proofs-ofconcept or prototypes can deliver significant commercial advantages for challenge-setters and the start-up or scale-up they elect to work with. For example, the Made Smarter Technology Accelerator saw start-ups successfully develop cutting-edge solutions for industrial giants that included Sainsbury’s, Babcock and BAE Systems. While joint projects between start-ups and larger corporations enable the sharing of knowledge, insights and best practice, they also give big business an opportunity to access creativity and skills that they don’t always have in-house. After all, collaboration works both ways.

Belfast-based Ampliphae ( is one of the participants in Digital Security by Design (DSbD), a UK government-backed initiative to address the issues caused by cyberattacks, and provide an opportunity for enterprising developers to explore new secure applications. Ampliphae’s SaaSGuard products help enterprises to discover, assess and mitigate the risks associated with use of cloud-based SaaS applications. DSbD is supported by a consortium of world-leading tech industry partners, academics, research institutions and UK government agencies, including Arm, University of Cambridge, Google, Thales, University of Edinburgh, Hewlett Packard, University of Oxford, Innovate UK, Microsoft, University of Manchester, Linaro, Kings College London and the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Through its Technology Access Programme, UK-based companies can use innovative technologies to uncover security vulnerabilities in their own systems before they become a problem, and share findings that could influence the design of future computer systems. Tech companies of all sizes are invited to trial and experiment with Arm’s Morello SoC and demonstrator board based on CHERI – a new instruction set architecture developed by the University of Cambridge that can eliminate most memory safety issues in C and C++, and that can be applied with minimal changes to an existing code base. For more details, visit




An innovation case study and 5 lessons learned Andrew Foreman, Digital Enterprise Advisor at Version 1, discusses the lessons he has learned throughout his involvement in various innovation projects

 Andrew Foreman Author


recently joined the team here in Version 1 to help clients with Enterprise Architecture and IT Strategy development. Already I can see there is no shortage of innovation and transformative delivery across the teams in Northern Ireland. We are doing some fantastic work with local clients (more on that shortly) and I have been really impressed by the Version 1 approach to innovation. It is much more delivery focussed than when I first got involved with the innovation process. I’ve learned a few lessons over the years and they look something like this… A couple of jobs ago, before working from home was as popular as today, I was a public sector IT senior manager with my own office and wall-to-wall whiteboards. I headed-up the Business Liaison Team which meant engaging with business stakeholders and being the first point of contact for new IT requests. Anything big or interesting I put on the whiteboard titled “problems looking for solutions”. I was also the technical Enterprise Architect. As such I would regularly engage with internal IT teams, academia and technology vendors pitching their latest tech. The interesting things that came out of those conversations I put on a whiteboard titled “solutions looking for problems”.

Lesson 1: Keep a track of problems and solutions

They say that necessity is the mother of invention so keeping track of all the business problems alongside potential

Digital Enterprise Advisor, Version 1

solutions seemed to make sense. I still make a note today when I spot a potential client problem or a new technology that may be useful in the future. Of course, there wasn’t a direct mapping between the problems and solutions on my whiteboards. The problems all seemed so business specific and granular, and the solutions all looked so technical or irrelevant. A bit of innovation was needed to try and marry the items on one board with those on the other, and it wasn’t a job I could do single-handedly. I needed collaborative innovation. At some point in time the whiteboards got full. Then it got interesting.

Lesson 2: Collaborate with everybody

The whiteboards worked well. People commented on them when in my office and offered their own views and ideas. But it didn’t really scale. The whole thing needed to move beyond my office walls. We decided to host an innovation forum. Dozens of business stakeholders from different departments were invited to an off-site workshop. All had problems looking for solutions. The IT team provided them with everything they needed for innovative creativity; caffeine, sugar and loads of solution ideas.

Lesson 3: Make it interesting

The IT department had created a quick-fire process, where each of the tech “solutions looking for problems” were


summarised into a single-slide, 60 second proposition. We had about 25 and they included things like image recognition, machine learning and predictive analytics. Each slide provided a synopsis of the technology and a case study of its use in a different sector along with the potential benefits. After each 60 second pitch we got the audience to vote in real-time with a score from 1 to 7. It was fun and ran a bit like a game show. Scoring ranged from “1: This technology is useless and would make my job worse”, through to “7: I love it and it would revolutionise my job”. We ran the session and did the presentations. The engagement was great. We got the feedback and compiled the scores. Then it got really interesting.

Lesson 4: OK, so maybe don’t collaborate with everybody

To our surprise the majority of the ideas attained the full range of scores from 1 to 7. What was going on?! How could the ideas be simultaneously brilliant and rubbish? The Myers-Briggs model identifies 16 personality types. In my experience it can be distilled down to just two; tactical and strategic. Tactical people want fixes now. They have their own problems with deadlines, budgets and targets. They’re reluctant to go for something that will jeopardise any of these factors. Strategic people see more of the big picture. Perhaps they are a bit more of a risk taker. They’ll sacrifice fixing a bit of their current problem if it means future benefits or solving other people’s problems in parallel. Now don’t get me wrong – the world needs tactical people. Paramedics, pilots and some of the best project delivery managers fall into this

category. In the case of our innovation forum however it was only going to be a success if the attendees embraced their strategic sides. I remember when challenging an inefficient looking business process somebody saying “we want to be innovative, we just don’t want to be the first to innovate”. I reckon that was a tactical person.

Lesson 5: Don’t just talk about it, deliver it

We used the voting poll to long-list the ideas and used break-out groups to discuss and refine. Notwithstanding the tactical sceptics, by the end of the event we had shortlisted 3 promising ideas to take forward as innovation projects. These involved a combination of technologies to address business problems that were now much better understood. Unfortunately the momentum and energy of the innovation forum was difficult to maintain as we tried to establish the innovation projects. Other (tactical) projects and priorities appeared resulting in resources and budgets being diverted. Short term innovation proof-ofconcepts were rescheduled into medium to long term plans. We did deliver some of these projects (digital image management for example) that offered transformational benefits. It just took a lot longer than I’d hoped. Back then I hadn’t considered the endto-end innovation supply chain. The ideation phase is critical but separation of teams or ring-fencing of resources is needed to make sure that strategic innovation isn’t trumped by tactical delivery needs. Here in Version 1 we have a mature innovation engagement process that considers all of my lessons learned. We have dedicated innovation labs who will collaborate with a client team and demonstrate the ‘proof-of-


value’ that cutting-edge technology can offer. The Innovation Labs are a value-added service that Version 1 provide to its customers to explore innovative technologies and drive customer success. We have experience in emerging technology and even sustainable innovation. We ask for a client Product Owner but otherwise the resources are independent of the delivery teams so as not to distract from tactical delivery. The process was recently used to implement a smart chatbot with an NI Government Department to answer generic FAQs asked by members of staff. The chatbot stored and managed the organisational knowledge in a database and used the same to provide fast and consistent response to any query directed to it. Impressively a backend dashboard gave information about the performance metrics and usage analytics to improve the performance of the bot and provide insights to the internal teams. The Department of Economy’s “10x Economy, a Decade of Innovation” paper provides the direction and encouragement for NICS Departments and NI technology suppliers to embrace new and emerging technologies like this smart chatbot. The guiding principles around making a positive difference and supporting a greener, sustainable economy may not always align with emerging tech. For those of you that were at Digital DNA recently you may have seen Ronan Laffan’s (Version 1 Head of Advisory Services) presentation on delivering Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) in a digital world. It included the remarkable statistic that the annual energy consumption to process bitcoin exceeds the energy consumption of Argentina! I’m really excited to see how Version 1 will work with NICS departments to deliver this decade of innovation.



 Columb Duffy Author

Senior Leader, Allstate NI

Allstate: More than insurance technology - an innovation driven enterprise Sync NI sat down with Allstate to find out more about how they have turned the business into an innovation driven enterprise


llstate has been serving customers in the USA for more than 90 years. Starting as a booth in a department store, it has grown into one of the top 100 companies on the Fortune 500 list in USA, with revenues of more than $53Bn, assets of more than $99Bn, 54k employees and 190M policies in force. Allstate Northern Ireland is an integral part of Allstate and helps keep the technology and financial eco-system of Allstate healthy, competitive, and fit for purpose in a fiercely competitive market. As the largest tech employer in Northern Ireland, we develop some of the most innovative products in the world of insurance, right here on your doorstep. As the world embraced the internet, we innovated to drive changes in our products and solutions and meet ever-

evolving needs. Mobile phones have evolved to be more powerful computers than ever imagined 50 years ago and are now a constant companion for most adults and teenagers. Recognising this emerging trend, we innovated to adopt a ‘mobile first’ approach for all our consumer-facing solutions. Engaging with customers in a way that is convenient for them is important in an ever-changing world. Digital maps of our towns, cities, and countryside were a huge step forward in digitisation of the world in which we live. It took a while for the pioneers to produce enough reliable mapping data, but when it became available to use, we jumped at the chance. We researched and developed technology to use mobile phones as data collectors for how people drive (telematics data) so we could offer our consumers better value for money, tailored to their needs



and behaviours. Using big data analytics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), we can determine from their telematics data how often drivers brake hard, corner fast, accelerate fast, or handle the phone while driving. We use these insights to score their driving behaviours, helping to identify the better drivers that are less risky. Using this score, we reward or discount eligible drivers and improve our competitive prices making car insurance more affordable. Since we started doing this more than 10 years ago, our spin-out company called Arity has collected data on more than 600 Billion miles driven, are now connected to 60% of the drivers in USA, and currently collect data on more than 800 car trips per second. The only constant we can depend upon is change itself, and we have the DNA of innovation in Allstate NI to drive us forward. Our culture of innovation has driven us to be more ambitious as we seek out new opportunities. Our Technology Innovation Research & Development team scans the technology horizons, searching for emerging technologies. We ask how might this technology help us meet our customers’ needs in the years to come, how might Allstate leverage it, and what needs to change for us to be ready to do so. Technologies such as Blockchain, Digital or Self-Sovereign Identity, and low-code/no-code development are just some of those that we have experimented on, created, and explored hypotheses on, and developed Proof-of-Concepts (PoC) for over the years. Innovation is an often-used word, and the meaning could become somewhat unclear as a result. Innovation is simply about changing what we do and/or how we do it, to create new value and/ or eliminate inefficiency. Innovation is essential for survival, as much for Allstate as it is for humankind and

society. Most of our efforts to innovate never make it into the world we live in. It is essential to have a healthy method to deal with the very low percentage of innovations that result in a new or changed product or service. We expect to FAIL in many of our efforts, but every time we do we gain learnings and insights. FAIL – Failed Attempts Instil Learnings Innovation is akin to exploring new lands, possibly where no one has been before you. There are unknowns (you don’t know what you don’t know), risks, hopes, and assumptions. Innovation can be successful by chance, although we have found that a robust repeatable process significantly enhances our chance of success. Resolving the ambiguity, uncertainty, and risks around innovation ideas can be achieved if you take time to ask yourself ‘what needs to be true for this to work?’. Identifying those assumptions, and prioritising

small experiments to test whether they are true, is a high value-adding exercise that allows us to minimise investment in ideas and innovations that might not yet be attainable. This enables prudence and saves resources that can be invested in other innovation efforts rather than spending it all on one. We use this approach at Allstate to get the most from our innovation resources, and avoid chasing ideas that may not yet be feasible, desirable, or achievable. One of the ideas we were able to pursue successfully because we used this approach is described next. Digital Footprint : As our use of the internet has grown, so also has the trail of breadcrumbs we leave behind us. Visits to websites that have tracker cookies or sharing our email address with companies that promise to send us special offers are just two ways in which we share personal details. How many times have we created an account with a new online retailer? How many of those have we forgotten about over



the years? How many times have we reused the same or similar password on those accounts? Our research into this has shown that we might have upwards of 200 online accounts, often using the same passwords. Hackers can hack those online websites, gather our account details and passwords, and often the site doesn’t know until much later. The issue with us reusing passwords is that while the site from which the hacker steals your password might not be a big risk for you, it might be the same or similar password you have used on a more important account. These passwords are often sold on the ‘Dark Web’ and used to hack into other more important accounts you might have elsewhere. Allstate is essentially a company that protects consumers from the uncertainties of life, whether

that is owning/driving your car or owning a home. We typically sell insurance policies; basically a contract saying we will help you recover costs in the event of damage/theft to your property. Essentially we protect people from life’s uncertainties and risks. Your online identity is at risk, as explained above, with our increased digital lives. We have innovated to create a protection for digital identity. Allstate Identity Protection helps you stay safe in the digital world by watching out for you, even when you’re not online. Our R&D developed novel ways to detect your Digital Footprint and to monitor the ‘dark web’ should any of your details get leaked there. This has since been developed into a product feature as part of our new identity protection business – check it out at https://www. allstateidentityprotection. com/digital-footprint

Whether it is developing new products or services, changing how we deliver those to the market or communicating with our customers, innovation is an essential enterprise capability. Many organisations in Northern Ireland possess this capability. Anyone that has visited the local conferences such as Digital DNA or BelTech will know that there are many companies in Northern Ireland that are at the leading edge of technology. Leading not just locally, but on a global stage, and right here on your doorstep. Living and working in Northern Ireland enables us to compete globally and work locally. There are many existing and soonto-be globally recognisable brands in Northern Ireland, helping drive toward the shared vision of a 10x

Economy. Technology companies require people with tech and non-tech skills – there’s more to creating and marketing a tech product than programming a computer. Tech industry needs people leaders, thought leaders, people that love to organise projects and get things done on time, and people that can design engaging and effective experiences for consumers. There are many pathways to a successful career in a technology company. We go out of our way to build teams consisting of diverse skills and perspectives. People of different cultural and ethnical background, life experiences and education pathways and genders, are essential to help create products and services that meet the needs of a diverse world and society. Diversity helps enable our Innovation Driven Enterprise.


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Learn more about the firm, and the opportunities available to you:




Paul Black, Managing Director, Alpha

Paul Black reflects on 50 years of Alpha Sync NI spoke with Paul Black, Managing Director of Alpha, as he reflects on 50 years of the company


lpha Managing Director Paul Black started to plan for his company’s 50th anniversary a few years ago. Paul says: “It’s a big thing for a company, Surviving in business, and prospering in business, for that length of time is no easy feat. So it’s something we were all keen to celebrate.” Little was he to know when he started thinking about the anniversary that the small matter of a global pandemic would sweep in. And one of the major changes brought upon by the Covid pandemic, of course, is that it has changed the way we all work. But that doesn’t spell bad news for Alpha. With bases in Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow and now also in Oxford, the company has been well placed to advise client companies on how best

to redesign, re-equip and re-invigorate their office spaces. “The office is still the centre of business life,” says Paul Black. “There was talk at the start of the pandemic about how offices would become almost a thing of the past and how we’d all want to work from home. “But it hasn’t worked out like that. Some people want to work from home, of course, but the vast majority at the very least want a mix of home and office working. And some will always prefer to be office based.” What has changed, though, is the nature of those offices. The look and feel of our working spaces. That’s changing all the time, driven in part by the repercussions of Covid, but also by the pressing need to provide state-of-the-art working environments for staff.



than they’d ever done.” He also took the opportunity during the Covid era to plan for the future of Alpha, and that included the rolling out of a new, simplified and rejuvenated Alpha brand. “The market was a bit confused. We had the Alpha Office Furniture brand, but we also had the 1080 brand and a separate brand name (Matrix) in the Republic of Ireland. We asked our customers and the emphatic answer was that most of them knew us simply as Alpha.”

“The working environment is so much more important these days,” adds Paul Black. “It’s become more important as organisations work hard to entice staff back into office working. But it’s also important as a means of staff recruitment and staff retention. The working environment and facilities are a crucial part of the overall package. The days of the old-fashioned office with as many desks piled in as possible were numbered. “People are looking for a number of key things – quality, spacious surroundings, good wi-fi and good coffee. If they can tick all three boxes, they’re going to be happy.” Alpha weathered the Covid storm better than Paul Black might have imagined when the pandemic first hit. “At that stage, everyone was being sent home to work and we wondered where our future lay as office experts,” he says. “But, after that short initial period, our role became clear. Companies and organisations were going to need our advice and our services more

at ESB’s headquarters off Dublin’s St. Stephen’s Green and the Central Bank’s office elsewhere in the city.

The company worked with the experienced Ian Bennington and his team as Part Two Design in Belfast to come up with a sharp new Alpha logo incorporating the Number 1, which reflects that we are a single, unified company of many facets with a very powerful blend of expertise and knowledge across furniture, fit-out and design. The new corporate identity was officially launched when Alpha sponsored a key category at June’s NIE Networks Business Eye Family Business Awards.

“Organisations are coming to us for advice all the time. The key thing we’re telling them is that, where they used to squeeze in 100 desks, go for 60 instead. Today’s working environments are all about space and they’re all about communal areas.

“The new single-brand also meant that our sales team in Dublin could become an integral part of a £30 million company and not an €8 million division,” Paul adds.

“What we always have to remember is that big office investments are big ticket capital spends for our customers. They’re not something that they embark on lightly, so they want all the advice they can get and they want to get it right. That’s where we come in... right at the start of the process.”

Rebrand complete, the company has just come off the back of a very busy 2021. “We managed to turn a profit in both of the Covid years and that’s quite an achievement for a company in the office marketplace. It’s also a real tribute to our staff.” The headcount across the company’s four British Isles bases has also grown by six to a total of 105. “The future looks very good,” says Paul Black. “We’ve got a number of big contracts running in Ireland north and south as well as Scotland, and the pipeline is looking strong.” Alpha’s teams have just completed a major refurbishment and fit-out project

“People are much more likely to move around a building now and work in different areas, rather than sit at the desk day in, day out. It’s about café areas, rest areas, outdoor spaces, and making space as flexible as possible.”

Paul Black sees a continued return to more pre-pandemic office working levels over the summer months and into the autumn. “I think that, by the autumn, we’ll be back to normal as much as we can ever be. “For Alpha, it’s a case of building on the momentum that we’ve already built up. We’re a strong, outward-looking business and we’ve now got a strong, simplified brand. Change is a good thing, and the change brought on by the pandemic has been good for us. But it’s also been good for anyone who works in an office.”



The case for deliberate innovation Fathom’s Gareth Dunlop speaks to Sync NI about deliberate innovation


f only Einstein had lived 400 years earlier, he would have discovered the theory of relatively centuries sooner and science would be even more advanced than it is now. The logic of that statement is alluring, but it’s not accurate. The reason is because Einstein, like all of us, was a product of his environment and his environment comprised the centuries of scientific knowledge on which his work was founded, regular contact with peers, constant challenge and shared insight. One could argue that Einstein could only express his genius because of the era within which he lived. The recent history of scientific breakthroughs consistently reveals the same pattern. Four astronomers independently discovered and defined sun spots in the 17th century. Two scientists developed forerunners to the electric battery in the 18th. In the 19th, natural selection and genetic mutation had a number of scientists vying for the breakthrough before Darwin won the race. And finally, in the 20th, Einstein only just beat David Hilbert to his most famous theory. In each case the background context of knowledge, competition, collaboration and challenge all combined to bring out the very best in humankind’s ability to innovate. To successfully pursue innovation therefore, we must overcome the misconception that innovation emerges from the ether, as a somehow mystical combination of contemplation and genius. It is not something which happens to people, rather it is something people do. Singer-songwriters might talk regularly about a melody or a riff coming upon them or flowing through them, but innovators talk of the same phenomenon much more rarely, and even when they do there is often an identifiable trigger or context. In short, innovation is a deliberate process. deliberate (adjective) intentional or planned (adjective) or to move, act or think slowly and carefully When the context and environment is right for innovation, it thrives. If we wish to pursue innovation, we define the content

and environment within which innovation thrives, and create them. The process of deliberate innovation explores these characteristics through critical questioning as follows:

q What if we could observe the characteristics of innovation over time and bake them in to a process? q What if we could study the key reasons why innovation flattens or fails within organisations and mitigate risk as part of process? q What if we could set up project rhythms and approaches which enabled not just action-driven phases for outputs, but contemplative phases where no output was expected or necessary? q What if we could create an environment where adults can think and create freely and without judgement, like we used to do when we were children, before creativity was conditioned out of us? q What if we could deeply understand our customers pain with the status quo and marry that up with changes and advances in technology and markets to marry up solutions with novelty and invention? The conclusion of these questions is the process and mindset of design thinking.

Design thinking – from studio to boardroom

Unsurprisingly, design thinking has for decades been a design practice however its recent explosion as a business practise reflects the reality that innovation is much more about deliberate process than it is about unintentional inspiration. Like much new thinking in the world of UX and design thinking there is little new about it. As far back as 1940 James Webb Young, an American advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson and first chairman of The Advertising Council, wrote a book called ‘A technique for producing ideas’. He was inspired to write the book by a junior colleague who remarked that Young regularly came up with great ideas and the young ambitious employee wanted to know if he could share any secrets so he too might think up great ideas.



At first Young thought it was a stupid question and a preposterous concept that somehow creativity could be delivered by writ, but as he reflected on it he realised that for years he had been originating ideas in a specific way but had never stopped to consider his process, which by now had become intrinsic to how he carried out his role. When he paused to think, he realised that his eureka moments were part of a proven five-step process:

with user desire and thus lacking nuance and missing opportunities to delight.

Gather material – both specific and general, indexing and categorising it as you go Think and make connections – between all of the material that you have gathered exploring even obtuse possibilities Relax – go and do something that’s not work – watch a movie, ride your bike, go for a walk Eureka moments – there will be more than one – as ideas emerge write them all down Rework – fine tune, combine ideas, expand and contract, filter out bad ideas, until the leading innovations emerge

done it this way” q We understand customers deepest needs are often unspoken q We will avoid incorrect assumptions q If we fail we will fail cheap, early and forward q We will create physical safe space conducive to emotional safety and creativity q We will speak with candour and honesty q We are curious q We will be courageous enough to say things which may be perceived as stupid or contrary to accepted wisdom q We are all working to and bound by an agreed process and timescale

Many of the concepts embedded into design thinking, such as separating the problem space and solution space, allowing for multiple ideas, starting with research and insights, iterating and honing have their genesis in Young’s book. Importantly too, design thinking has evolved to recognise that innovation isn’t simply a production line process, it is also a culture and mindset.

Making good decisions by avoiding terrible decisions

This may seem like a trivial or pedantic point, however as a quick look on Google will illustrate there are many design thinking processes which can lead to good outcomes, but there is only one design thinking mindset. A look at the Stanford design thinking process will highlight the key concepts of the most popular methods:

The importance of culture and mindset

It is for this reason that culture and mindset is the beating heart of innovation. For teams to innovate they must sign up to the following creed:

q We will resist groupthink q We will never say “we’ve always

 Gareth Dunlop Author

CEO & Founder, Fathom

Empathise – understand the problem to be solved deeply, by observing it and using research methods such as interviews and shadowing it to absorb it Define – describe what you observe, with a focus on visual outputs outlining user journeys, personas, challenges, pain points and decisions, seeking to identify common or big problems Ideate – using some of Webb Young’s techniques, explore a full range of potential solutions for the problem defined Prototype – represent the solution in a testable manner, keeping it simply, failing fast, iterating quickly and improving regularly Test – build out a high-fidelity representation of the solution for further testing and iteration Done right, design thinking mitigates against the three most common reasons that solutions fail to reach their fullest potential. 1. The problem being solved is misdiagnosed, typically because of incorrect assumptions and unchallenged bias. 2. The solution is too narrowly conceived, causing incremental improvements and not disruption or competitive advantage. 3. The solution is too blunt, misaligned

This framework has underpinned business model innovation for physical products (such as Rolls Royce charging per mile for their engines) and for software (such as the software-as-aservice revolution). It has led to product innovation such as Heinz providing tomato ketchup in an upside-down squeezable container rather than a bottle. And it has helped designers conceive entirely new products which improve the lives of millions of people with products such as the Embrace incubator which has saved the lives of over 350,000 babies in the world’s poorest regions. Design thinking allows us to see the world as it really is and to use the clarity this provides to make it better. It isn’t ideas which drive innovation, but rather insights.



A 10x Economy: How Applied fosters innovation through openness Tom Needs, Chief Executive Officer at Applied Systems Europe, explains how Applied are fostering innovation through openness


he world has seen more digital transformation in the past few years than ever before. Circumstances brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and the fast-changing technology market have driven organisations in all industries to innovate so they can survive and thrive. Applied is no different. As the pandemic progressed and our broker customers needed to quickly pivot to remote working, Applied saw the opportunity to focus on digital connectivity and evaluate ways to open up its technology and culture, enabling more innovative and practical experiences for all stakeholders. Applied has leveraged this worldwide evolution to develop a deep culture of innovation within the company – much like the one called upon by the Department for the Economy. At Applied, we agree that for economies to become more vibrant and valuable, all participants must evaluate current structures and cultures to innovate for future growth. As we outline the components that made up our company’s transformation strategy we hope that other businesses within Northern Ireland may find value to innovate their businesses and support the Department for the Economy’s 10x Vision.

Fostering a new partnership mentality

When evaluating how we could innovate our technology and processes, we took a hard look at the way we partner with organisations in and outside of our industry. We had to evolve from a “We can provide it all” to a “Let’s work together” mindset to maximise value for our customers and ultimately, the insurance customer. This shift was critical to increase productivity and connectivity for our customers that deliver collective value for the broader ecosystem. Additionally, this shift fosters growth across the entire industry and beyond, building on technological strengths and ensuring opportunities for all. Applied first focused on its technology to enable open innovation across its product portfolio to achieve

this transformation. Using continued investment by CapitalG, the capital investment arm of Google, and an expanded partnership with Google Cloud, Applied modernised workflows and opened secure pathways within its core technology to seamlessly flow data in and out of the system. Opening technology allows for faster innovation, enabling small, more frequent product releases that allow our broker customers to realise value more quickly. Cloud technology and API management also create greater flexibility and accessibility, allowing organizations outside of Applied to integrate with our technology quickly and securely.

Enhancing customer experience for collective success

Our strategy is driven by our strong focus on our customers. This transformation has enabled us to rapidly adapt our solutions to meet the changing needs of our customers by leveraging the power and flexibility of our technology. A key component of our platform is the open, flexible, API-powered ecosystem that enables customers and partners to seamlessly blend our capabilities into their portfolios, multiplying the impact of our innovation. Extensive configurability within the system enables our customers to design business workflows that map to their sources of value generation, while also making the system adaptive and resilient as customers’ needs continue to change. Along with a strong mentality around open technology, we have focused our efforts on the journey our customers embark on when they implement and optimise our technology. Implementation of our technology is a crucial time in the process where we use proven best practices and workflows to accelerate timelines, so our customers can see success faster. We provide them with access to education and training needed to keep productivity high. In fact, we offer more than 3,000 instructor-led courses to meet our customers’ needs from implementation to beyond. Implementation and go-live are just the beginning.



Communities of Interest (COIs), including Black at Applied, Women in Tech at Applied, IndispensAbility and LGBTQIA at Applied. Each of these COIs offers employees an inclusive, supportive environment, enhances understanding of DIB, and promotes personal and professional development. Together, COIs are working to become a think-tank to help cultivate business innovation, engagement, and growth opportunities.

 Author

We create strong partnerships with our customers to deliver strategic customer relationship management, and provide ongoing training, health checks, coaching and consulting with Customer Success teams. All along the way, we provide 24/7 support to our customers, enabling access to a skilled-Applied team member any time of the day or night.

Encouraging a culture around innovation

At Applied, we knew that none of this transformation could take place without careful attention to driving a culture around innovation. Applied focused its efforts on creating openness and inclusivity, encouraging employees to take advantage of leadership opportunities and to lean into other chances to showcase their brilliance. To achieve this, we committed to innovating in three main areas: empowering employees at all levels, celebrating each individual’s differences, and embracing agility companywide.

Tom Needs

Chief Executive Officer, Applied Systems Europe

In the belief that real change happens with a top-down approach, Applied empowered leaders and teams to make strategic and operational decisions and serve up ideas on how they can innovate or improve. For example, we implemented a training program for firsttime managers that guides managers through the emotional and practical learnings required to successfully transition and lead a team. Additionally, Applied recently created a mentoring program that matched 53 mentor/ mentee relationships to build trust, support self-reflection, and develop skills in professional and personal development with the goal that each participant could find new and exciting ways to uncover talents and potential. Applied also created a Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) Council that fosters diversity throughout our business via our hiring practices, training process and diversity celebrations in the marketplace. The council leads our

Applied actively works to embrace its culture as it expands, encouraging leaders to become more agile through continued education and training to quickly respond to market demands, customer needs and DIB initiatives. For instance, hiring training is provided for managers to bring awareness to unconscious bias and stereotypes and educate them about behavioural interviewing to help them understand candidates on a more personal level. This helps potential candidates feel comfortable being themselves in the hiring process, whilst encouraging hiring managers to lead by example by promoting inclusivity.

Committing to innovation for 10x future growth

Whilst the Department of Economy’s vision for a 10x Economy is ambitious, we are confident that the people and businesses across Northern Ireland have the tools and drive to make this generational change. Applied set out to transform its business from the inside out, laying out clear and achievable objectives that started with culture. As any successful business or economy knows, our greatest asset is our people, especially the people who are fulfilled in their roles and career trajectories. So, Applied’s advice to companies that are jumping on board to support the Department for Economy in achieving a 10x Economy is to create a culture of openness that extends to each area of the business, including your people, processes, products, and services.



The Global Innovation Institute

A tremendous opportunity for our economy  Author

David Quinn

Executive Director of the Global Innovation Institute (GII), Queen’s University Belfast

David Quinn, new Executive Director of the Global Innovation Institute (GII) at Queen’s University Belfast, tells Sync NI about leading the facility, which will see a huge expansion of ECIT by 2025 under Belfast Region City Deal


t is difficult to find your dream job, especially when you have a very specific and challenging set of criteria. After 30 hugely enjoyable years in business and technology consulting, most of it as a Partner at PwC, I wanted to apply what I had learned about purpose, collaboration and collective ambition in a new role where I could work in an area I’m passionate about - inclusive, sustained economic growth in Northern Ireland. Being a proud native of this region, I really want to see improvements in the economic and social circumstances of everyone here. A more prosperous, inclusive and healthier place is simply a better outcome for everyone. I feel very privileged that in my new role I can focus on three things that are important to me – addressing our region’s longstanding productivity challenge by growing worldclass expertise to make an impact globally, working in the

vibrant innovation and technology ecosystem and making a contribution to our health and environmental challenges. GII is one of five projects being delivered under the Innovation Pillar of Belfast Region City Deal. They represent a total investment of almost £320m from the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, Queen’s, Ulster University and other partners. GII represents a once in a generation opportunity to place a research institute - with sufficient scale and critical mass to compete with any found elsewhere in the world - at the heart of Belfast’s emerging Innovation District. The project aims to transform our digital economy by substantially increasing both the volume and range of digital innovation taking place within the region, with a particular focus on driving a Digital One Health agenda. This will deliver rich returns. GII will be an accelerant for high value jobs and economic growth while bringing solutions for agriculture and environment, healthier


lives and our healthcare system. It aligns fully with the Department for the Economy’s ambitious 10X vision to make NI one of the most advanced smaller economies in the world. It really is a case of ‘carpe diem’ with this fantastic opportunity. We will build on great foundations. I am really impressed by how, over the last decade, the Institute for Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) and its component Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT), have led the development of an internationally renowned NI Cyber Security ecosystem. With around 2,300 new jobs created, this sector is a global exemplar for a research and innovation ecosystem. This commercialisation of emerging technologies through creating earlystage critical mass in a distinctive domain, founded on international quality research, is a blueprint for future success. The GII, with ECIT sitting within it, will build on this cyber security model. Its research excellence, outreach, innovation and economic impact will play a critical role in developing a significantly larger ecosystem - and putting that expertise and excellence firmly on the global map. It will provide expertise across the spectrum of digital technologies encompassed by its Secure Connected Intelligence approach which comprises cyber security, wireless connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). To achieve our aims with GII for the Digital One Health agenda, we will create a novel multi-disciplinary environment, placing our international experts in Secure Connected Intelligence alongside those with excellence in food security/sustainability and health sciences. Research capability from the University’s internationally regarded Institute of Health Sciences (IHS) and Institute for Global Food

Security (IGFS) will be embedded in GII. The multi-disciplinary teams will create technological solutions to challenges in agriculture and health. Digital experts will work with those who have insights into the health of soil, the environment, livestock, humans, infectious and non-communicable diseases and populations. It will be a powerful collaborative combination and achieve outcomes based on an approach to data which applies the principles of trust, transparency and fair value. This alone is not enough for GII to achieve its significant ambitions. We are keen for much wider collaboration and partnership, which we are already forging. We will work in a quadruple helix manner, collaborating with others in industry, government, academia and the ‘owners’ of the problems we are trying to solve. We have secured key strategic partnerships, including four of the world’s largest cloud and computing infrastructure providers, a number of major players in the agri-food and health sectors, and the Department of Health (Northern Ireland), as well as other industry partners, from large corporates to SME’s. We will work with regional companies at all stages of development - from start-ups to established SME’s and larger entities on a challenge-led basis - to unlock digital innovation in the region. Our partnership approach with Invest NI will be extended through a joint plan of engagement, ensuring GII maintains a strong focus on economic development. Aligning to the 10X vision, we will also support the development and growth of our regional strengths in the Fintech/Regtech and Advanced Manufacturing sectors. To bring this unique combination of people and skills together, we will create an exciting new physical co-creation environment at Titanic Quarter, strategically located within the Catalyst ecosystem. The new facility (incorporating the existing ECIT building) will accommodate over 500 people, and enable co-location of multi-disciplinary


research expertise, engineering and business development and innovation support, public and private sector partners, and fledgling businesses, working collaboratively in an open, interactive environment. We will have a cutting-edge “AI Engine” capability to apply computing solutions and leading data science capability to realworld problems. GII will showcase the adaptable capability required to drive modern AI. We will work as part of the Innovation City Belfast partnership which has exciting plans for a vibrant Innovation District in Belfast, incorporating GII and Catalyst in Titanic Quarter, extending to the new Ulster University campus in the centre of the city. The vision is for a thriving ecosystem of 20,000 jobs and 500 companies by 2035 in the 10X focus areas of Health/Life Sciences and Fintech. GII will not be a stand-alone Institute, but central to the vision of this new district and the impact it will deliver. We will work closely with Ulster University, other City Deal partners and beyond to ensure that economic growth is inclusive and truly benefits all parts of the region. As well as delivering job and productivity growth, we will create a pipeline of talented people for NI’s future economy, and solutions (co-created with industry, the health service and citizens) to major health, environmental sustainability and business challenges. GII will be a game-changer for our region. Key to its success will be the dedication, talent and ambition that I see in colleagues at GII and across Queen’s. We have a hugely collaborative and collective spirit in NI and a hunger across a large spectrum of people, businesses and organisations to drive innovation and inclusive growth. I look forward to working with many fantastic local people and with great talent from elsewhere to achieve our goals. Let’s do this!



Belfast is a leading pilot city in a €7.9 million European project Hub-In that aims to transform historic urban areas through innovation. The Smart Belfast team has partnered with Maritime Belfast Trust to create a hub of innovation along the Belfast Maritime Mile and work with neighbouring communities to develop entrepreneurial and digital innovation skills.

Smart City Belfast

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


hen 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


 Author

Deborah Colville

City Innovation Manager and Head of Smart Belfast Programme, Belfast City Council

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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,

A few recent examples include: q Working with SMEs to test supportive technologies for older people who want to live independently. q Encouraging planners to adopt Machine Vision and AI technologies to gather data for designing better infrastructure for active travel. q Using space satellite data, GIS and IoT technology to map localised traffic pollution.

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


The Smart Belfast team is working with a consortium of partners as well as citizens in the Markets area of Belfast to enable SMEs, including Belfast company Wanatok, to trial innovative technologies in a healthy ageing testbed as part of Connected Places Catapult’s £2.5 million ‘Homes for Healthy Ageing’ Programme.



q Working with inner city communities on digital innovation to create local entrepreneurship opportunities arising from the regeneration of Belfast’s Maritime Mile. q Using big data and machine learning to explore the impact of Covid on the city centre economy. q Trialling a community currency to reward citizens for using our parks and open spaces. q Using low-cost IoT sensors to better understand recycling behaviours q 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

Stephen McPeake, CEO of local SME Moai Digital, successfully trialled his Civic Dollars community currency rewards app in Belfast parks as part of the council’s Amazing Spaces, Smart Places challenge fund competition looking at how data and innovative technologies can better manage parks and open spaces.

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. If you want to find out more about Smart Belfast visit



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