The key to Belfast’s smart city successes? Collaboration


For such a small place, there are some BIG ideas happening in Belfast. People are driving forward change, using innovative solutions, freely sharing knowledge, ideas AND data.

The attitude here is the right one. There is NO fear of change. The secret to their success? Collaboration. Smart city stakeholders are embracing collaboration. They are also seeing the value of incorporating the bright minds from higher education into the fold. It’s no wonder that 28000+ people work in tech here.

Myself and the team at VU.CITY have been working closely with smart city stakeholders across Belfast as their  leading 3D platform for understanding and making decisions on urban design and planning. Together, we are certainly helping Belfast to ‘level up’.

Innovative city storytelling and placemaking

I have had my ear close to the ground in Belfast over the past two years, whilst managing VU.CITY in Belfast, Dublin and London. It is a buzzing, micro-city with innovation at the forefront. Having had to understand the lay of the land in our 20+ cities, I have not seen another UK city advancing technologically as quickly as Belfast is.

Belfast is ranked in the top 10 cities in the UK to develop a digital career (Monster’s Digital Cities, 2019) and Belfast is in the world’s top 10 Digital Economies of the Future – the only UK city outside London to be listed (Financial Times’ fDi Intelligence, 2018).

Its tourism industry and influx of people is a key contributor to this – attracting 9.5 million visitors and contributing £430m to the economy and supporting 18k+ tourism jobs across the Council area. It is incredibly well connected via sea, air, road and rail and their local Visit Belfast centre is as inclusive and digitally engaging as it gets. They really know how to tell the ‘story’ of a place here.

On a recent visit we stumbled upon Cathedral Quarter and were blown away by the creative placemaking here. Check out how one developer employed a local artist to create murals to tell local stories on the exterior walls of his pubs: Click this Insta link (We also visited the Titanic Museum and shipyard. A must see if visiting Belfast!)

Newly appointed Digital Innovation Commissioner

Innovation City Belfast (ICB) has recently appointed (June 2022) a new ‘Digital Innovation Commissioner’ to drive forward its mission to develop the city as a globally significant destination for innovation. Eileen Montgomery takes up the role following an almost three-decade career as a Senior Leader at some of the world’s leading manufacturers including Crane Co. and Ford Motor Company.

Harnessing Data to unlock Business Rates owed

A while back, Belfast City Council used the power of data to unlock over £500,000 worth of unpaid business rates. Without accurate, real time data it was hard to keep a track of business taxes and occupancy rates. They worked with innovative big data companies to unlock 24 datasets – from utility data to waste collection to find out if services had been accessed at particular premises.

A ‘Pioneer City’ with the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance

Belfast has joined 35 cities from around the world to pioneer a new global policy roadmap for the responsible adoption of new technology as part of the World Economic Forum’s G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance. As a ‘Pioneer City’, Belfast will collaborate with other leading smart cities and global experts to refine policies in areas such as privacy protection, cybersecurity, increasing openness of city data, advanced digital connectivity, and ensuring accessibility to digital city services for disabled and elderly people. These policies will contribute to the existing work of the council’s Smart Belfast Programme.

Physical Connectivity – The Compact City

Belfast understands the importance of connectivity as well as health and wellbeing and is close to becoming a 15 minute city. Here is a study by basemap testing to see if this is a 20 minute city.

Sustrans created an Active Travel Hub and there is a plan to increase Belfast’s cycle lanes by 193km – led by Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon. There are also initiatives to improve greening, solar lighting, bike storage and walkability.

See.Sense have worked closely with Smart Belfast to work on cutting edge data gathering through sensors on public bike schemes. Anonymous, near real-time information about such things as road quality, location of pot-holes, commuter info, traffic congestion, sudden stops, close calls and accident spots. This data is now painting a sophisticated picture of the city’s road infrastructure to promote sustainable travel. Beryl Bikes are also providing cycling performance dashboards to city partners.

There is even a campaign going on currently to create a new Circle Train Line around the Belfast metro Area using an existing track and reopening the Knockmore line! Belfast residents have collaborated on the validity of this idea using Twitter and other social platforms. Follow their activity by clicking on the above link.

The Queens Island Strategic Transport Masterplan aims to maximise sustainable travel by increasing use of public transport such as the Translink Glider, the Titanic Quarter rail halt and bus services, whilst also encouraging active travel such as walking and cycling, including the use of Belfast Bikes. It will also plan the roll out of new smart traffic technology, as well as propose upgraded road junctions to improve travel to and from the area.

Civic Dollars is another interesting local concept – citizens and residents get rewarded for community efforts and spending time in specific sites across the city. Incentivised placemaking!

Digital Connectivity – Free Public Wifi

Over 80% of homes in NI have internet and 9 out of ten people can access things online at home. Belfast also offers free public wifi at 109 public. The network is available at 109 hotspots, including visitor attractions, community and leisure centres and other public buildings.

The city was one of the first in the UK to be selected for BT’s 5G network roll-out and, as part of its ambition to become a Smart Port, Belfast Harbour has partnered with BT to trial 5G maritime innovations.

One company to watch in Belfast is Angoka. Watch this video to see how they are helping to protect communications for Smart Cities and Mobility.

Citizen Engagement

There is a big push for enhanced digital engagement in Belfast. YourSayCommonplaceCommunity Places NI, and Hello Lamp Post are all driving this forward. VU.CITY’s cutting edge visual tools are also aiding community engagement and consultation – by visually explaining change in 3D. Allowing viewers to see change to local areas before it happens. Further down this page, check out its immersive 360° imagery functionality!

Maritime Belfast are also heavily committed to local engagement. Through their destination work, they have engaged with over 470,000 people from 364 community groups and schools and supported and worked with 132 partner organisations and businesses! Hugely impressive.

A Bolder Vision for Belfast’s City Core

If you have not heard of it, this is a new vision for Belfast City Centre. VU.CITY is collaborating to help alleviate some of these challenges in Belfast. Here is a very brief overview of the areas of focus.

  • Redesign of areas like Great Patrick Streets’ junction with a people first approach
  • Review of on-street parking
  • More ‘pocket parks’ and urban forests
  • Better public realms
  • Network of green streets where people and bicycles get priority
  • More cycle parking and docking stations, especially along the river
  • Green corridors along inner ring, more active travel hubs
  • Enhanced pedestrian and cycle routes over Westlink and under A12/M3
  • Continued expansion of the Belfast Bikes scheme
  • Pop-up green island parks parks and swimming pontoons on River Lagan
  • Development of Belfast Marine Mile
  • Development of the ‘vacant to vibrant’ scheme to bring vacant units into use and support businesses and services to grow, test concepts and provide new offers in the city centre
  • Regeneration initiatives to bring in greening opportunities and placemaking projects

£1bn City Region Deal to deliver more jobs and attract more visitors

In December of 2021, Belfast announced the City Region Deal – which, over a decade, plans to create 20,000 new innovative jobs in the region. This is how they plan on spending the co-investment to create jobs and attract staying visitors. Consultants have, this month, been appointed to focus on the delivery of the research centres listed below.

Here is a visual representation of their vision for this mega investment.

  • £350m of funding will go to building an Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre. A state-of-the-art Factory of the Future is planned as the flagship facility of the project, with an ambition to be Northern Ireland’s national centre for Advanced Manufacturing.
  • Global Innovation Institute (GII) (expected to be delivered by 2025) This project demonstrates how collaboration between government, local councils, universities and industry can be transformative and bring greater prosperity and opportunities
  • Centre for Digital Healthcare Technology (CDHT) The Centre for Digital Healthcare Technology will provide a world-class space for academia, industry and clinicians to come together to innovate and boost the productivity of the Life and Health Sciences sector, as well as medical device and related sector activity in Northern Ireland.
  • Studio Ulster (part of Belfast Harbour Film Studio) The Creative Industries have shaped an incredible success story for Northern Ireland – and the story does not end with Game of Thrones. Studio Ulster will help to maximise the benefits of this sector for the Belfast Region by providing a dedicated physical infrastructure to support the rapidly expanding activity in this area.
  • Challenge Fund to be created to stimulate innovation in health and wellbeing
  • Investment into digital infrastructure – advanced wireless connectivity
  • Creation of Regional Business Hubs
  • £300m to create world-class visitor attractions and focus on regeneration
  • Building a cycle and pedestrian bridge to connect South and East Belfast
  • Phase 2 of the Translink Glider service
  • Digitally upskilling local residents so that they can take on new digital opportunities

The list goes on – seriously ambitious and well considered areas of focus…

Belfast Region City Deal Programme: Watch this video to learn more.

Innovation City Belfast (ICB)

We are delighted to be working with Innovation City Belfast – who brings together Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour, Catalyst, Queen’s University and Ulster University, with Invest Northern Ireland as an advisory partner. They are committed to delivering an ambitious long-term plan that will establish Belfast as a globally significant destination for innovation. Priorities over the coming year for the partnership are: (worded the same on their website)

  • Establishing a major Innovation District from Queen’s Island to York Street to grow Belfast’s innovative SMEs. By building on the city’s strengths in FinTech, GreenTech and HealthTech, the Innovation District will attract high quality investment and provide an environment where the latest research from our universities can be rapidly translated into world-class businesses.
  • Working with industry and academia to support tailored programmes that build the local workforce’s skills for new jobs in the digital economy.
  • Investing in advanced wireless networks to support Industry 4.0, connected health technologies and next generation public services.
  • Establishing an Innovation Investment Service for companies and investors that capitalises on Belfast’s current position as one of the most attractive investment locations in Europe for tech start-ups and FDI.
  • Delivering a city-centre focused ‘Smart District’ where new technologies can be developed, tested and deployed to help the city address post-Covid recovery challenges including climate change, urban mobility, the future of the high street and healthy urban living.
  • Creating a Smart Port by investing in 5G connectivity and digital technologies, supporting Belfast Harbour to achieve its aim of becoming the world’s best regional port and a key economic hub for green growth.

Belfast City Council and Smart Belfast

Belfast City Council and their Smart Belfast teams led by Deborah Colville, were very early adopters of VU.CITY’s technology, and they are now using VU.CITY’s urban twin platform across a variety of internal departments – ranging from Urban Design, Forward Planning, City Innovation, Development Management, Project Management, Climate Resilience and others. We are delighted to see more and more departments being able to use the tool to aid their council roles. BCC have definitely helped us to prove the value of our Belfast model.

Smart Belfast is based on the understanding that a truly ‘smart’ city must harness the collective innovation and energy of lots of different organisations and individuals. It’s all about collaboration and idea sharing.

Catalyst – The Innovation Community

A community of 2700+ innovators in Belfast and NI, 900 of which are entrepreneurs. Just another example of how Belfast is harnessing local knowledge and getting people to collaborate. Check out this short video to understand how they differ from other co-working environments. Here are the top 10 startups to watch out for – all shortlisted at Invent2022, Catalyst and Bank Of Ireland’s annual innovation competition.

Knowledge Transfer Partnership at Queens University

A KTP is a mutually beneficial, three-way collaboration between: A Graduate or post graduate (known as an Associate), A Business (a company of any size, in any sector or a not for profit organisation), A University/Research Institution (Knowledge Base).

(KTPs are designed to deliver an innovation project and bring about lasting, transformative change. The project is led by a suitably qualified graduate (known as the Associate) with the capability to lead a strategic project with full support and input from the academic and business teams. This partnership embeds vital new expertise, stimulates business growth and powers innovation excellence.)

We are extremely lucky to have had Justin McHenry, now a PHD student at Queens, use VU.CITY as his area of focus during his studies to help to develop the VU.CITY product and enhance digital planning in Belfast and beyond. He has been integral to our successes in Belfast. Link with Justin here:

This is the Quadrupal Helix Innovation System implemented during the KTP.

QUB have just today been awarded £28m to accelerate bright ideas into global opportunities. Queen’s University Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation Emma Flynn said: “Research and innovation are part of the fabric at Queen’s and we have an outstanding record of working to ensure our research benefits society and the economy.

Belfast Stories

No matter how Belfast progresses, Belfast Stories will ensure that the history and heritage that has made up Belfast will not be forgotten! They are creating a brand new state of the art visitor centre, to help share what makes Belfast with new families, workers, travellers etc. VU.CITY is working as a visualisation partner for their projects.

Belonging to Belfast Video: Watch on YouTube

VU.CITY’s role in City Innovation

VU.CITY works with over 50 local authorities and public bodies across the United Kingdom and Ireland. We work closely with our council partners to help shape and inform policy and to allow those involved in city shaping/planning to be able to assess and decide on proposed schemes quicker, and to visualise change to local areas. Councils are finding more and more use-cases for the platform, especially with the net zero agenda requiring us all to act on climate matters, now. Our accurate models provide a customisable visual representation of a city’s built and natural environment assets – allowing all development and smart city stakeholders to collaborate, visualise and understand proposed change on a single, neutral, platform.

In Belfast, VU.CITY is collaborating with the likes of Savills, Mastercard, BT, Belfast City Council, The Climate Commissioner and Climate Resilience Teams, The Dept of Economy, Innovation City Belfast and Belfast Stories. Our aim is to allow organisations to share data and ideas to help speed up the implementation of the sustainable future Belfast vision. By working in unison with these groups, we have been able to understand what types of data we should be gathering to overlay on top of our city models, and how the platform could assist them in their roles and as a city and more.

The future of this 3D digital twin excites me. I think the possibilities are truly endless. We are looking at loading all sorts of cool data to the Belfast model soon, which will allow a macro view of assets (like bikes, urban forestry and EV charging) and services, aiding in better mobility and accessibility, and a more climate friendly city.

Belfast companies using VU.CITY’s 3D platform

With over 3000+ users across 1000+ companies, VU.CITY is starting to gain global recognition as the key smart city planning tool. We are delighted to be supporting serious design talent from the top Belfast based architects, consultants, developers and others in the Belfast area. Some of our clients in Belfast include: Savills, Todd Architects, RPP Architects, Like Architects, MRL Architects, Perkins and Will, Hawkins Brown Architects, Dimensions Chartered Architects, Queens University and Ulster University.

Further enriched collaboration is coming to VU.CITY in the next few weeks. This upcoming advancement will enable our users to better collaborate on the outputs of 3D, which will help streamline design and planning. And even better, a free component will be part of this!  Keep an eye out for it by following VU.CITY’s LinkedIn’ page.

The future skyline in Belfast revealed

Here is a snapshot of VU.CITY Belfast, taken today – with our consented timeline switched on. This allows users to visualise the city planning portal in 3D! We are the only 3D platform who keep our models up to date weekly. Our ‘Consents Team’ work to manually update our models – incorporating all ‘major’ schemes in 3D (10 resi units + /1000 sq m commercial space). Yellow buildings have been granted planning and blue buildings are under construction. We have over 100+ new developments showcased on this timeline in Belfast.

360° imagery functionality for Belfast – designed to support citizen engagement

Belfast 360! Click here to view a 360 image of all of Belfast’s existing buildings, planned buildings and those which are under construction! This is a brand new camera feature available in all of our 21 cities. Users can take 360 or 180 images from all angles and heights. These 360 images are interactive, but not technical, allowing anyone with a web browser to look, pan around and zoom into areas to visualise proposed change. We are working with Commonplace, and other leading engagement organisations, to help to aid the visualisation piece during consultations.

The value of city data – when it can be visualised

We are continually layering over important localised data with more on the way. Below’s image show’s the Smart Belfast district in green. There is incredible value in being able to visualise geolocated data over our city models. Belfast hosts over 25 data layers to help with site analysis prior to testing designs. We are always open to suggestions if you have data ideas for us. Belfast has lots of OpenData via this portal – – which other cities should look at for inspiration.

The availability of data to inform right decisions for the future of placemaking is crucial and this can only be achieved through more standardised opensource data. 👏 Massive kudos to Belfast for leading by example in this field.

We can help to make a concept a reality by testing designs in context. Eliminate the guess work!

VU.CITY recently travelled to Belfast to visit our clients on the ground and we visited the amazing Titanic Quarter. We loved this masterplan vision for the area. Hopefully we can help to make these visions a reality, faster!

Keep an eye on Belfast! Lots of exciting things are happening here.

Charlotte Bowen is Regional Business Development Manager (UK and Ireland) and Academic Relationships Manager at VU.CITY

If you would like a demo of VU.CITY’s 3D digital twin of Belfast, Charlotte would be delighted to take you on a tour. Get in touch for a virtual flythrough or access for a 7 day free trial.

Feature Image, Pics and Illustrations: Author sourced

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