Virtual Solutions to Real Problems

The global pandemic changed everything from the way we live to how we communicate and travel.  Aside from the terrible loss of life and hardship the virus exposed deep divisions which exist in societies and on a global basis. The divisions between how first world and third world counties coped, right down to the forced separation of older people and the sick and vulnerable from the rest of the population.

As an organisation we have embraced technology and digital solutions to survive and develop through the pandemic. However as we invested in new technology and moved our operation online we were mindful that many people who were less able to use technology could be left behind.

 This decision was taken to ‘bridge the growing digital divide’ with training and support for older people to get online, supported by intelligent design of our digital offerings to make them accessible and easy to use.  We aim to develop digitally in a way that will lead to a multiplier effect not a greater divide.

A New Virtual World


The project’s initial concept was to use the Chinese New Year to host a virtual international event with Belfast’s sister city in China. This we achieved and gave us online resources which we have utilised in the current Belfast City Council funded project. This ‘Digital Multiply’ project gave us more time to plan and consider how technology can be used across our operations to address the digital divide . It allowed us to develop our online facilities to ‘host’ events and ‘produce’ virtual spaces which were designed to be used by older people. 

The spaces were specially designed to replicate in a virtual format the Chinese Resource Centre in Belfast which is the hub of the Chinese Community. 

Many of our older members were key players in the work  to achieve a Centre and they see it as their greatest achievement. This meant that as age, disability and then COVID isolation prevented them from using even visiting the Centre there was a real sense of loss. Using technology we have allowed them to revisit and start to reuse the Centre in a virtual way using  hand held devises. 

The project allowed us to involve older people in a safe way and expose them to technology and its benefits effecting a culture shift in the organisation. 

Tackling Isolation

Bringing Culture and the Centre to People

The 8,000 strong Chinese community is the largest ethnic minority group in Northern Ireland but sadly many older Chinese had to travel to England or Scotland or even return to Hong Kong for care and housing as they got older.

Chinese elders are a very isolated group, with many unable to read or write in their own language or speak very little English, they are a core constituency of CWA and we have a long history of working with Belfast City Council to address their growing and complex needs. 

The Chinese Welfare Association first identified the need for a dedicated scheme the early 1990s. After looking at a number of locations the site of a former scrapyard in the Markets was pinpointed as the suitable site.

In a model of cross community living the local housing association also built sheltered accommodation for 72 members of the local community and 20 six-bedroom houses for large families. They spent £9.2m, with £7.2m provided by the Department of Social Development.

CWA has continued to work with and support the community at Hong Ling and Digital Multiply was our answer to the challenges and concerns they faced over COVID. Isolation was the key problem as they were forced to shield and stay indoors. Our Centre and our Chinese New Year celebrations are at the heart of the Community and our aim was to bring both to the older people at home using new digital solutions. 

Working with LEXXER Solutions and digital experts The Flex Studio we pioneered a virtual solution.

Bringing Culture and the Centre to People
Project News

Working Through COVID to Digitally Multiply

We were supported financially and practically by Belfast City Council as part of their COVID support work for the Community and Voluntary sector. It was a vital resource as many local groups were struggling due to the government restrictions around meeting and the provision of face to face services. Our COVID Continuity Planning was supported by grants from the Community Foundation Northern Ireland, and the local Government Departments and together we worked hard to reconfigure our services and support with staff working from home.

The real breakthrough came as we sat down and planned a series of investments in technology and digital solutions. Working with local firms LEXXER Solutions and The Flex Studio we were able to design digitally and plan strategically allowing us to deliver to those most in need despite the restrictions. Our organisation underwent something of a Digital revolution and was able to develop a Virtual Centre which could provide an immersive experience for those who could not visit in person. This was complemented by a new website which you can see and a range of other online and virtual services and activities.

View Our Virtual Centre

As we look back over the project here are a few high points and key milestones which allowed us to work collaboratively and support not only our own community but to design and develop a signature project which we hope will be an example to others . As we realise that the 'new normal' is increasingly online from shopping to meetings CWA has moved with the times. However thanks to Belfast City Council we have developed a model where older people and those less connected to technology can be included and brought along.

Bridging the Divides Caused By COVID

Developing a Bridge Between Belfast and China

As a community we felt the divisions between our countries most acutely as international travel was stopped and fear set in. One of our strategic aims as an organisation is to build bridges between Northern Ireland and China. Our New Year celebrations had the sister cities initiative at its heart and we sought to build on that. Our Explore, Study Invest Programme grew out of the Digital Multiply Project as we sought to not just address the gaps between generations and support the recovery of our community after COVID but to look at addressing international divisions and disconnects. The virtual space we had created and the website which supports it is the perfect gateway for Chinese audiences to experience Belfast and Northern Ireland.

EXPLORE - getting to know Northern Ireland

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INVEST - Belfast is back in Business

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STUDY - come to live and learn here

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Bridging the Gap
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