The road ahead: Maeve Kneafsey, chairperson, Irish Internet Association

29 Dec 2008

Ireland’s indigenous internet industry has provided world-class entrepreneurs and businesses who have used the net to reach new markets. Maeve Kneafsey is chairperson of the Irish Internet Association (IIA).

Q. In a very short space of time, both Ireland and the world’s economic fortunes have changed. In your opinion, what are the priorities that need to be addressed to steer this country back to a sound economic footing?

A. It is really important that we do not cut back indiscriminately. In particular we should  focus on investments that will pay dividends if they are completed, or set us back decades if we do not deliver them. I would include here rolling out infrastructures in terms of technology to allow Ireland to be well positioned to compete as a knowledge economy. So we need to continue to focus on high-speed national broadband access, incentivising industries and Government to use the web to drive business and efficiencies.

Finally, our future growth lies in the innovation and energy of the SMEs that are the first to feel the effects of the economic downturn. We need to look at imaginative ways, or indeed incentives, to ease the pressure on SMEs and encourage their growth. Certainly, if the Government, in exchange for their guarantees to the banks, cannot push for a release of money to SMEs, we are in trouble. Quickly responsing to the crisis is key.

Q. More than ever, Ireland needs breakthrough science and technology business stories, with local companies reaching global markets. What’s missing and what areas of technology could deliver rewards?

A. Biotechnology and life sciences in Ireland have received strong investment from our Government in the past five years in particular. We need to provide an impetus to convert those ideas into practical business applications. Some of this work is being done via our third-level hot houses. However, perhaps including a far wider number of our inventors and entrepreneurs with access to Leader programmes will speed up the development of business applications and encourage more business partnerships. These programmes open up new markets as participating entrepreneurs and inventors gain access to and learn from international leaders.

Q. Ireland is continuing to win its share of foreign direct investment (FDI). Why is this and how sustainable is this going forward?

A. It is going to be so much more difficult in the future. The Ardnacrusha dam was a massive infrastructural project for this country that showed we could take big, brave steps. Then we had Ken Whittaker’s vision of attracting FDI through low taxes – another stroke of genius. Many, many countries have modelled themselves on Ireland, so we are effectively competing with our own idea in terms of tax.

I think that a new, bold vision would be to Wi-Fi the entire country and provide free internet access to all. Thirty-plus years ago, Singapore, which is a model of economic development, had free local phone calls, when we in Ireland were still having to ring up our local TDs to get a phone line. We must show innovation to the ‘outside’ world.

Q. Education was the bedrock of the economy that was known as the Celtic tiger. But the evidence is Irish schools are not receiving the same level of investment as counterparts in neighbouring and competing economies. What can and should be done about this?

A. It appears that if we focus our education priorities on where we see future growth, we need to be addressing the areas of science, technology and business. Particularly, business skills in how to convert biotechnology and life sciences into real business opportunities on an international scale are needed.

From what we are hearing from the education experts, the way maths, in particular, is being taught throughout the education system is that it is too focused on theory when it should be more focused on practical application. So a review of how best to teach all of these subjects and introducing deadlines for transformation could result in fast returns.

That said, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Our education system has let us see the world in quite a unique way, which has allowed us to do business, without problems, in almost any country you care to mention.  If that part ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Q. In terms of infrastructure, is Ireland, in your opinion, adequately equipped to perform as an agile economy in 2009, and do you think it could emerge stronger as the economic storm clouds clear?

A. No. As long as it is faster (almost) to travel from Dublin to New York as it is to travel from Dublin to Kerry, we know we have a problem. If we can do business, and, more importantly, locate business anywhere in the country without the huge drawbacks of either road and rail links, or broadband links, then we will have cracked it.

This is a tiny, tiny country. To attract people here from abroad they must feel that they can get ‘home’ or to their markets very easily. This is certainly not the case at the moment.

By John Kennedy

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