Smart spaces & places

A blog brought to you by Chris Kane 

Whilst participating in last week’s Homecoming Event in Belfast I really felt the power and potential of linking people and place.

The Belfast International Homecoming, now in its fifth year, is a three-day event of conferences and events hosted by the city, which links its international diaspora with local thought leaders in an endeavour to boost peace through economic development. The aim being to shape an agenda to progress prosperity, whilst forging relationships and making pledges that will translate into solid actions.

The largest contingent present was from the USA, most of whom are connected with Ireland’s large diaspora. Although, it soon became clear to me that many of the American visitors came from Boston. This is not entirely unsurprising, since Belfast and Boston formed a sister city partnership since 2014. These agreements are designed to foster stronger economic, trade and investment developments and commits both cities to identify activities which can generate new initiatives to further nurture economic, educational, social and cultural relationships.

The historic city of Boston as well as being one of the oldest in the USA, is also home to a large percentage of those claiming Irish ancestry. It is considered amongst the top 30 most economically powerful cities in the world, as well as being highly innovative and a major centre for venture capital investment and high-tech businesses. It is also home to the ‘Brainpower Triangle’ with the most renowned and highly ranked universities in the world, located around the city.

All this struck me as what an inspiration and motivator Boston can be for Belfast and that Belfast could take a leaf out of its ‘sister city’s’ recent economic success, especially in terms of entrepreneurship, smart talent and regeneration. It also conjured up a call to action – Be Brilliant Belfast!

As I looked over the diverse international guests attending the event, I was gratified to see so many of them really engaged in looking at ways to realise our shared ambition of building a better Belfast.  However, it was Mayor of Belfast’s Chaplain, the Rev Karen Sethuraman’s prayer which best summed up the ethos and aspirations for this initiative to bring together people and place. It went as follows:

Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are those who carry the baton of peace-making today.
Blessed are those who have stood with our leaders.
Blessed are the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants who may not live here have helped to make this a better place to live.
Blessed are those who have placed a shoulder to the wheel of rebuilding, restoring, revising and renewing our city.
Blessed are the cultural architects.
Blessed are those who help create jobs.
Blessed are the hope filled vision seizing determined entrepreneurs.
Blessed are the trail-blazers, creators, innovators and risk-takers.
Blessed are those who have recognised and honed our skills.
Blessed are those who helped discover and uncover the diamond in the dust of our wounded Belfast hearts.
Blessed are those home and abroad who work hard for a better Belfast, creating a Belfast for all.
Together we are not less together we are blessed.
Welcome home

The Rev. Sethuraman’s poignant words reflected all that is remarkable about Belfast, warts and all. The city is truly that ‘uncovered diamond’ which deserves to be on the global stage, not for its negative profile but for a range of other more positive yet un-recognised attributes. When one actually visits and gets an understanding of the potential, you do discover a city full of imagination, inspiration and innovation.

Although I realise I’m viewed as a ‘blow-in’ by the locals, I can vouch for how amazing Belfast is, ever since I started my relationship with this incredible city, just after the Good Friday Agreement. From then on, I fell under its spell and have fostered a strong affinity for the place and its people.

I now find myself back in this marvellous city and my task is to shape our project The Waterside, namely the regeneration of the old 16 acre Sirocco works, which has lain idle for over 20 years. This means putting a long redundant piece of the city back to work, but through this I realised that there is a much bigger task to be addressed; that of putting Belfast – and not just our site – but the entire city on the global stage.

In a recent survey Belfast was ranked as one of the top cities in the world for a new type of workforce – digital nomads or remote workers  – now acknowledged as the future of employment. This reinforces the need for all the stakeholders working for the good of Belfast to pull together and put the city on the world map. In my work at Osborne+Co, I’m striving to harness the placemaking and development expertise to help showcase Belfast as a great place to work, to live, a place to gather and to share experiences.  Our project will become a shared extension of the city centre and will help turn it around and embrace one of its best natural assets – the River Lagan.

It was heartening to see our US visitors all confirm that they too have seen the true potential in Belfast. As a city full of opportunity, exuding innovation and creativity all over the place. It was even better to hear them provide encouragement and to really buy into Be Brilliant Belfast!