Shout start, grow remote and let’s get our towns working

13 Aug 2018

Bantry Harbour. Image: Phil Darby/Shutterstock

If Ireland wants to achieve optimal employment and wellbeing, we need to focus on remote working to help businesses and professionals become the best they can be, writes John Kennedy.

This morning (13 August), An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, revealed how he plans to embark on a Future Jobs 2019 programme to spur the next phase of Ireland’s economic development.

“Now that we’re approaching full employment, we need to be a bit smarter and a bit more strategic,” Varadkar said ahead of the Future Jobs 2019 strategy due to be unveiled this coming November.

These are laudable goals for sure and they centre on the jobs of the future. But, crucially, we need to be thinking of the Irish workforce of the future and what optimal employment could look like.

At present, that future seems predicated on cities such as Dublin, Cork and Limerick, which are benefiting from a surge in jobs announcements but are also struggling with the frictions of a rent crisis and a growing wealth divide.

Any vision for the future of work and employment must extend to the regions, not just the cities. Limerick is already powering ahead with this vision and a focus on optimal employment in the city but also surrounding regions such as Clare and Tipperary.

The timing of Varadkar’s vision for viable employment couldn’t have been better because just days earlier, individuals in regional Ireland showed they were already thinking smart and outside the box with the Grow Remote movement.

This movement aims to capitalise on the emergence of community workspaces across Ireland, joined together by the sinews of fibre broadband being deployed to make remote working a viable reality in regional Ireland. Across Ireland, broadband-powered hubs – such as the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen in Cork, the Building Block in Sligo or the Kells Tech Hub in Meath, to name a few – are popping up and making the option of working remotely and starting up businesses more appealing.

The logic is simple: the more people who can work remotely, the more local communities can be enriched economically. From an ecological perspective, it means fewer professionals clogging the roadways to cities such as Dublin or Galway. It also poses considerable merit in terms of lifestyle and overall wellbeing.

The linchpin of Grow Remote’s strategy is a conference that will take place on 27 September. Hubs and towns across Ireland have been invited to compete to host the event, with an estimated €20,000 uptick for the lucky local economy that lands it.

Currently, it is estimated that more than 216,000 people work remotely in Ireland, according to Grow Remote. Fast-growing Cork firm Teamwork estimates that 23pc of its workforce work remotely.

One of the instigators behind the Grow Remote initiative is Tracy Keogh, head of Bank of Ireland’s Startlab in Galway. She also brought the first Startup Weekend to Achill Island in April.

In a rcent Medium post, she posited: “This is what got us thinking. As high-speed broadband is brought into spaces in the most remote part of Connemara, we’re at an entirely unique period of time where we have really strong push and pull factors. The cost of living is going up, unemployment rate is at all-time low, office space in the city centres is crazy money. All of a sudden, when Jim from IT asks to work remotely, it doesn’t sound too crazy.”

Someone has finally shouted ‘Start!’

Around 50 years ago, a journalist called John Healy, author of the Backbencher political column in The Irish Times, published a seminal work entitled No One Shouted Stop! The Death of an Irish Town, which centred on the economic decline of his hometown of Charlestown, Co Mayo.

I wrote two years ago about the intrinsic relationship between broadband and future rural and regional prosperity in an article entitled ‘No one shouted start: Broadband and Ireland’s rural economy’.

Two years on and the National Broadband Plan (NBP) still hasn’t begun and it is now down to one final bidder, Enet.

But there are lots of pluses we can still draw on. We recently reported how Virgin Media passed 900,000 premises in Ireland with fibre and revealed plans for 100,000 more. Last week, Siro, a €450m joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, revealed how it has passed 175,000 premises with fibre-to-the-home technology. It ultimately plans to deliver to deliver fibre broadband to 500,000 homes and businesses across 51 towns in Ireland.

Eir will connect close to 2m homes to broadband by the end of this year and, in terms of the regional fibre deal it agreed with the Government, it has said that the number of rural homes and businesses connected to fibre will rise from 300,000 to 330,000 premises. The company has so far passed 165,000 out of the 330,000, delayed at the start of the year by Storm Ophelia.

So, while we wait for the NBP to kick in, regional towns at least are getting connected to unprecedented qualities of broadband.

Towns are no longer dying

As we reported before, there are calls among communities for multinationals and firms in Irish cities to empower key executives to work remotely.

In January, I wrote: ‘Remote working and the regions represent an irresistible rising tide’. I spoke to Ann Finn, a member of a community group called The Burren Lowlands based in Gort, Co Galway. The objective of the group is to stimulate economic development in this region, which includes south Galway and north Clare. One of the ideas the group has is to propose to the larger corporations – or, indeed, to the next tier of multinational corporations – that they give their employees, if they so wish, the option of locating in Gort.

In March, inspired by the sight of derelict factory buildings and schools in my hometown and neighbouring villages that could be repurposed for entrepreneurship, makers and industry 4.0, I asked: ‘Ghosts in a shell: Can start-up spirit be found in our industrial past?’

In April, I made the case for why we need to believe in the future of our towns and how the frictions being felt by the accommodation crisis in our cities could be alleviated if we promote balanced economic development spread out through towns in our regions.

I recently spoke to Lynsey Thornton, a Dubliner who happens to be vice-president of user experience and core product at $19bn Canadian e-commerce company Shopify. She revealed how in the last two years, the company has grown from 50 to more than 150 employees in Ireland, and last year announced 100 new jobs across the country for people who wish to work from home.

A story in the Sunday Independent yesterday signalled how ‘Someone shouted stop!’ as Healy’s native Charlestown is now in growth mode due to its strategic roadway location. Rural Ireland is not dying.

The sinews of our digital future are steadily reaching our towns, and very soon hopefully beyond our towns to villages and rural communities, one day enabling anyone to work and add value from anywhere.

If Varadkar and TDs Heather Humphreys and Paschal Donohoe need inspiration for their Future Jobs 2019 programme, they should look closely at local feelings, the work of Grow Remote, and the various broadband firms and hubs already laying the groundwork outside the big cities.

It is an irresistible rising tide, Leo.

Bantry Harbour. Image: Phil Darby/Shutterstock

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