Dear Dublin, you are in danger of no longer being fun or fair

17 Jul 2017

Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge. Image: Kraft_Stoff/Shutterstock

Dublin is Europe’s digital capital and it stands to gain from Brexit. But it also runs the risk of losing its fair and fun side, writes John Kennedy.

The past, they say, is a distant place. But it was through observing the travails of younger colleagues recently, just trying to secure accommodation, that I realised the Dublin city I used to know and still love is far from being fair. Or fun.

When I was launched upon the city as a culchie in the ’90s, the hunt for accommodation was a comparatively easy affair. Equipped with an Evening Press or Evening Herald and a phone card – later replaced by and a mobile phone – your search consisted of a few polite phone calls, an appointment was agreed and deposit was duly handed over, after which you absconded to the pub and bemoaned to friends how stressful it all was.

‘In London, the cost of living, the cost of getting around and the infrastructure mean it’s not a fun place to live unless you are really rich, especially for young people’

The hunt for somewhere to live barely lasted three days. Worst-case scenario: a week. The quality of accommodation varied, less Friends and probably more Withnail and I. But the parties were legendary and the friends – even though they mostly now (like me) live out in the country – most importantly, are still my friends.

But it was the ’90s and Dublin was changing. The IFSC was a thing, many of us were the first lot who didn’t have to emigrate, and companies such as Microsoft, Gateway, IBM and Dell were hiring to beat the band. This resulted in lots of young people coming from everywhere, from deepest, darkest Kerry, Thurles, Shanghai or even São Paolo, with full wallets and a sense of hope, adventure and expectation.

Some things change and some things never change. Dublin is once again bursting with hope, driven by an ever-accelerating digital economy, a burgeoning financial services industry, and the promise of many more jobs as UK-based firms are spurred to escape the insanity that is Brexit, seeking calmer shores to continue their operations inside a functioning EU. Heck, the newspapers are once again bursting with property porn.

Every week, new jobs are announced. Last week, it was a massive 300-job expansion at Zendesk, and one of Britain’s most prestigious banks, Barclays, revealing that it plans to use its licensed EU subsidiary to continue passported activity post-Brexit.

How can we make today’s Dublin work?

This all sounds rosy but the reality is that Dublin, in its present state, does not appear to have the accommodation to support the legions of new workers likely to descend on the city.

There are question marks over precisely how much accommodation for rental there actually is, and how much is really being made available.

Landlords gripped by greed have hiked the prices of rental accommodation to ridiculous levels – apparently if one moves, they all have to move – and the resultant chaos for ordinary working families having to live in emergency accommodation is the nation’s shame.

A mark of how bad the homelessness crisis has gotten is how we are kind of used to it now. Isn’t that terrible?

Yet still, some prized employees of tech giants moving to Dublin have agencies working on their part to find suitable accommodation as well as schools and more for their families. The whole process is apparently frictionless. And so, a two-wheel economy has come to exist in a city that is no longer fair.

Families are bringing children up in hotels while college students opt to remain in the city for the summer months to ensure they don’t lose their precious accommodation for next semester. There is talk that the dreaded bedsits of the past – long since banned – may have to make a comeback.

My rumination on the matter – and my warning for Dublin, which should be heeded by groups such as the IDA and Dublin City Council before it is too late – was prompted by news that Samsung recently rejected London as a location because it was no longer fun.

Do we want that to become of Dublin?

The Times reported last week that Samsung Next Europe, a $150m technology fund owned by the Korean company, selected Berlin over London because the latter was no longer a city for young people.

Felix Petersen, the managing director of Samsung Next Europe, told the paper that London had become “increasingly hard for people to build companies” and that there were no reasonably priced neighbourhoods left.

He compared this with Berlin where young people could do more stuff “without much money”, and where there are uncommercialised zones.

“In London, the cost of living, the cost of getting around and the infrastructure mean it’s not a fun place to live unless you are really rich, especially for young people.”

A city for start-ups?

And there is something else that is a cause for concern: start-ups.

These companies exist on a shoestring. Yes, there is the promise that one day they could be something big, but the harsh reality is that only a fraction of start-ups ever make it.

Romantic stories such as Airbnb beginning by renting out an air mattress in a spare room in the San Francisco of 2009 in order to make rent is just an anomaly. Endearing, but unlikely to be repeated. Despite its sparkle, San Francisco is now a living hell for anyone not living on a $200,000-a-year salary.

Every time a tech giant creates new jobs in Dublin, a start-up CEO somewhere in the city inwardly weeps. This is because they cannot match what the big companies offer in salaries, benefits and perks.

Add in the complication of finding suitable office space accommodation, and starting up in Dublin is not for the faint-hearted.

It would be worthwhile for the city’s planners and the State’s agencies to pay attention to the suggestion made by Accenture country manager for Ireland, Alastair Blair, that the next wave of FDI into Ireland could well be led by start-ups and therefore, we need to consider start-up districts and zones.

In Dublin, some of the tech giants have carved out a virtual oasis that flies the flag of so-called culture to wean more people to join their ranks in the war for talent. These are glimmering office spaces, each one more unique than the next, and, if there is one job to have in Dublin today, it is that of interior decorator, followed only by creative carpenters and carpet-makers. Dammit, people who can hoop barrels could soon be back in vogue.

I visited one of these havens, where an old friend works, and I was impressed by what was on offer. Apparently, some of the best chefs in Dublin work there to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner. Any or all kinds of food are on offer for free. The tomatoes are flown in from Napoli, supposedly. There are full-time gym staff and baristas. As well as craft beer, there is even prosecco on tap. “I don’t have to put my hand in my pocket between Monday and Friday,” my friend said casually. “And still people complain,” he said, gesturing to drawers full of breakfast bars and nutritious nuts, referring to complaints that there was not enough Diet Coke in the fridges.

24-hour party people

I don’t party in Dublin like I used to. But that doesn’t mean the party doesn’t continue. It does. On the occasions that I do – such as Hallowe’en or Christmas – I marvel at how cosmopolitan the place has become.

The many different accents only add to the city’s splendour. All these cultures mixing, thriving and jiving in the city I was born makes me fiercely proud.

For years, I told global CEOs who had the time to listen that one of the things that made Dublin, and Ireland generally, a draw for talent was its proximity to the rest of Europe. Young executives from Spain and Italy, for example, where youth unemployment is at high levels, could live and work and party in Dublin, earn well, progress their careers, and still be no more than an hour or two’s flight from home.

That is still a factor but, as the accommodation saga endures and the city becomes more and more similar to London or San Francisco in terms of price, that unique aspect risks being lost.

To my mind, Dublin can still save itself.

Never mind the air-conditioned ivory towers where people lock themselves away with their pizza ovens and free food, away from the plebs and the hoi polloi.

Never mind the queues of beardy men wasting away most of their lunch hours waiting on the street for a burrito (I wonder do they ever see the world where they live?).

Dublin is a city for all ages, all generations. It has a delicate balance born of simplicity, humour and chaos; it gels and somehow, it works. People coming in and passing through add life, oxygen and colour, and some stay and raise their families; others carry good memories in their hearts all their lives.

Dublin and the people who sell it and manage it need to cop themselves on before the city goes the way of London or San Francisco, where the vibrancy is slowly being strangled by gentrification and yet more instances of tech privilege.

You can argue economics, market forces, the price of progress, yadda, yadda, yadda – but Dublin, don’t ever stop being fun.

And Dublin, please, always be fair.

Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge. Image: Kraft_Stoff/Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years