If the Apple-Athenry data centre debacle has taught us anything, it is that regional balance and harmony must align with ambition and zeal, writes John Kennedy.
“How is an eagle supposed to fly when it is surrounded by pigeons?” That was the lament of a former colleague of mine when we were brash, ruthless young things, frustrated with obstacles or people who didn’t share the same vision as we did.
We were ‘take no prisoners, eat the wounded’ kind of hustlers until events such as the dot-com bust and 9/11 took the wind out of everybody’s sails in tech for a time. Entire data centres in Dublin were bought for a song while others in Amsterdam became nightclubs.
But not even the most ardent believer in tech 15 or 16 years ago could not have foreseen how fast it would return and boom. Indeed, in 2018, there are few businesses untouched by digital.
That sense of frustration and those words of eagles and pigeons were constantly uttered by myself as the Apple data centre debacle in Athenry wore on.
As the dithering and delays took their toll, I warned early on that the train may have already left the station, but no one listened and, ultimately, legal and planning plodding stopped it dead in its tracks in recent months.
My frustration, however, must be nothing compared to the swirl of emotions from the local community in Athenry, executives at IDA Ireland and the various engineers and architects at Apple.
The loss of what would have been one of the ultimate flagship projects for the west of Ireland served to highlight the weaknesses in the Irish planning system. It belied the flexibility and support by the Irish State that CEOs of multinationals often speak of when they cut the ribbon on a new investment in Ireland.
Granted, after construction, data centre projects by themselves do not employ hundreds of people, but their very presence acts as a force-multiplier in gathering the necessary infrastructure and talent required to attract further investments from other companies.
For an investment that was announced around three-and-a-half years ago alongside a sister project in Denmark, it must have been galling for supporters to see the other project up and running, and further investment directed that way instead.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time for those who are selling Ireland.
If you have been paying attention to what the IDA has been saying in recent years, the battle for foreign direct investment (FDI) has upped a gear. With Brexit looming, the UK will be a much more ruthless opponent.
This, coupled with the Trump administration’s plans to lower tax and bring US investment back to the States, and the ongoing Apple tax case with the EU, it already adds to a toxic cocktail of challenges for the IDA and, ultimately, the overall Irish economy.
The IDA remains unparalleled for what it has done for Ireland. When the narrative of the country’s economic history is fully understood, the agency’s role in turning Ireland from an agrarian, economic backwater to a jewel in Europe’s digital crown may finally be acknowledged.
But what also must be acknowledged is the fact that the project floundered because a number of people exercised their basic rights as citizens, with some of those objections raised around the environmental impact of the project and questions around the ability to provide the electricity to support it.
A single data centre on its own would demand the same power output of a regional town or a city airport.
Answers to fair questions ought to have been evident from the get-go. Visionary projects should always be accompanied by a vision for their impact on the local region, with all aspects considered about the life and welfare of the region and its community.
Joined-up thinking needs to be more than just a catchphrase
In the aftermath of the loss of the Apple data centre in Athenry, the Government published a new policy statement outlining Ireland’s approach to securing future data centres. This unprecedented step speaks to me of the shock and the loss of prestige associated with the failure to get the aforementioned data centre project off the ground.
What is clear is that the data centres are going to keep coming and, if Ireland wants to continue winning a pipeline of digital investments from the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft, policy and planning need to march in step.
Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys, TD, spoke of the need for balance and joined-up thinking if Ireland is going to continue to be a leader in the digital economy.
In recent days, it also became clear that the IDA has no intention of fighting with a hand tied behind its back, as a study prepared for the agency by consultants Grant Thornton has pointed out that 5,700 construction and operational jobs are supported by data centres in Ireland each year.
The report said that total direct and indirect expenditure on Irish data centres by companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon is estimated at €7.13bn since 2010, and these companies see Ireland as strategic to their future growth plans.
It is clear that data centres are now moving beyond the M50 belt of Dublin and you can expect projects to pop up in Cork, Kilkenny, Donegal and elsewhere in the coming months and years. These will be flagships for more jobs projects, but people really need to plan ahead and think beyond the jobs.
Towns across Ireland – many now connected with superb motorways and high-speed broadband – are crying out for investment and they want to see seasoned executives with young families put down roots in the quest of a superior quality of life, away from the stresses, congestion, gridlock and other frustrations of city life.
In towns and cities across Ireland, from Kells to Sligo, Skibbereen and Tipperary, digital hubs are growing up in anticipation of a new generation of people from near and far who will bring life, wealth and an enrichment of culture.
There will be little room for error – if these engine rooms or arks of the digital economy are to flourish, they need to do so in the context of balance and harmony when it comes to planning Ireland’s regional economy.
The loss of the Athenry project exposed some serious flaws. Everyone makes mistakes but if you fail to learn from your mistakes, what was the point?
Looking to the future, if the data centres are to come to Ireland’s regions, the rising digital tide must lift all boats.
The fact that more offices are being built in Dublin than places for people to live is an inexcusable and short-sighted policy that could haunt the city for decades.
The rising digital tide for our regions must be accompanied by balance, harmony, logical planning and consideration for people’s quality of life, but ultimately requires joined-up thinking when it comes to energy, education, communications infrastructure, transport and a lot more.
Crucially, State departments need to work together and bolster the efforts of agencies such as the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. Think of the impact this rising tide could have on the wellbeing of communities as well as the social mobility of those within these communities.
Otherwise, like the hopes and dreams of the people of Athenry recently, these digital ambitions will be dashed on the rocks.
Don’t just talk about joined-up thinking. Mean it.
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