Shetland is now well placed to grow a money-spinning computer tech industry on the back of its fast and reliable broadband – if the talent can be found to do the work.
A vision of a tech-cluster of small developers working in “co-opetition” was outlined this week by entrepreneur Barnaby Mercer of Lerwick-based software developers Mesomorphic.
He believes establishing a hub of innovative digital businesses would help diversify the local economy and offer new types of career to young people who might otherwise leave Shetland. New people with valuable skills might also be attracted to the lifestyle on offer in the islands.
The ambition is shared by others in Shetland’s small-but-thriving information and communications technology (ICT) sector, including website developers NB Communication, who are one of the more high-profile success stories.
Others like global software business Kildrummy have been blazing a trail for decades while going relatively unnoticed locally.
Mr Mercer thinks the broadband Shetland now has makes the islands ideally suited to activity like software development, which involves designing and coding programs for business and leisure use, ranging from computer games to one-off programs that enable a business to easily keep track of stock.
While fast broadband is still painfully absent in some areas of Shetland, those able to connect to fibre can access a world of digitally based work in which distance from the customer is no object.
Mr Mercer thinks local tech businesses and freelances currently have an advantage over many competitors elsewhere. “It’s pretty good broadband compared to the rest of the UK and the likes of Australia or rural America,” he said.
“As long as the power stays on and the broadband stays up, we can be coding.”
Speedy and resilient internet was crucial in helping NB Communication expand from concentrating solely on local business to winning contracts worldwide.
Founder David Nicol said: “As time has moved on we’ve quite radically increased the percentage of our work that comes from clients outside Shetland.
“Just now most of the big jobs we’re working on are for clients in Orkney, Edinburgh, London and for the UN and various inter-governmental bodies. We can do that from Shetland – the vast majority of the work is done here.”
Currently, Scotland has around 64,000 people working in the ICT and digital sector, including the creators of the best-selling entertainment product of all time – Grand Theft Auto V.
With Scottish government backing, the industry believes the number of jobs could soar to around 150,000 by 2022.
Shetland’s role in this revolution remains to be seen. Towards the end of the “noughties” there was, briefly, a vision of Shetland building a silicon island economy. It was associated with Shetland Islands Council’s brave decision to help transform digital connectivity by investing £1.1 million to join into the Faroese SHEFA-2 fibre cable as it crossed the land between Maywick and Sandwick.
Early talk was of Shetland hosting vast storage centres, like a series of gigantic remote-controlled hard-drives where the world’s hot data would be kept cool and safe, tended by a few natives.
One of these “cloud computing” data centres costing £12m was mooted for Lerwick in 2010 by Inverness-based Alchemy Plus. But it was not to be and the company subsequently folded.
A brighter hope may lie in cultivating local talent rather than courting outside investors with fanciful promises.
Mesomorphic was set up by Mr Mercer in 2015 and is still small, although about to grow from its current team of four.
He believes the best way forward is through small firms and individuals collaborating in a loose network, drawing on each others skills and specialisms to cover all requirements, such as graphic design, web development, consultancy, marketing, writing and other content provision.
Mr Mercer said: “You could have one business which focuses on sound production, one which focuses on art work and one on code. Together they produce a game. You can reconfigure them, much like blocks of Lego, to suit what’s required for each project.”
To build the new industry the talent has to be found. Mesomorphic is already working with schools and the careers service to try to address the lack of youngsters looking for careers in software development – a talent gap at odds with the fact that so many of them spend so much of their lives on computer devices.
Mr Mercer said creating and developing software tended to be overlooked as a career choice and he wants to encourage children to “think about things they’ve never thought about before”.
With robots taking over many traditional jobs, he believes an increasing proportion of future jobs will be software-orientated and that Shetland could benefit from becoming more tech-savvy to help keep the community strong and the population sustainable.
“I think it’s also about changing Shetland’s image, not just to the rest of the world but its self-image,” he said. “Shetland has a heritage it wants to hold on to but if there’s not also a vision for the future then the people who want a technology career are not even going to think of staying in Shetland.”
Fellow Mesomorphic team member Tim Ash said: “A lot of talented people go away and never come back. There will be way more local folk who are software developers outside of Shetland and we’d like to pull some of them back.”
At NB Communication, Mr Nicol is also keen to see isles ex-pats taking advantage of what can now be done from home
He said: “I’d like to see more clever folk coming home from university or from employment south and doing high-value work in Shetland and bringing money in. If they can take skills or businesses with them that would be absolutely fantastic.
“The more diversified we can make the economy and the more income that Shetland as a whole can bring in from digital services the better.”
by John Robertson