Urgent call for digital industry task force

15 Dec 2008

Forty-five years after Time Magazine had a cover story on a visionary Irish minister called Sean Lemass and a new ‘can do’ spirit sweeping the nation, similar conviction and energy has been called for if Ireland is to stand any chance of reaping the rewards of the digital media revolution.

The social and economic impact on Ireland if it gets the digital media opportunity right could have implications for years beyond the now crippled Celtic tiger.

However, infrastructural deficits and a general public lack of understanding of the significance of the digital media revolution and its potential impact on education and job opportunities need to be tackled urgently, a European Union-sponsored think-tank involving senior technology industry figures has decided.

A cabinet-endorsed drive to transform the Irish education system, the drafting of a national mission statement and creation of a task force comprising ComReg (Commission for Communications Regulation), Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, industry leaders and research leaders to design a liberal radio spectrum experimentation policy have been urged by the Institute of International European Affairs (IIEA).

A report to be unveiled tomorrow evening by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Coughlan TD, entitled The Next Leap: Competitive Ireland in the Digital Era is a compilation of the views of leading stakeholders in Ireland’s digital future, including senior managers at IDA Ireland, Microsoft, Intel and Xilinx, as well as a multitude of indigenous software companies and university research bodies.

The most dramatic elements of this vision are a national strategy, a transformed education system, a new government department, a converged Irish Creative Media Board and a new role for RTÉ.

The report calls for a speedy rollout of a digital curriculum to provide “digital instincts” at primary and secondary level, and the integration of business context into secondary-level curriculum to emphasise the viability of a career in the digital sector.

It calls for the introduction of weighted marks at Leaving Certificate level for ICT relevant subjects, and the need to commit the funding required to provide sufficient connectivity and equipment to bring Irish schools up to the OECD average, and exempt all school ICT equipment from VAT.

The visionary report calls for the convening of a panel of Irish business leaders, including some of the individuals involved in the establishment of the IFSC, to consider how the Digital Hub could be strategically developed.

It also calls for the need to assess the feasibility of a legal hub and Global Rights Clearance Centre within Digital Hub, making Ireland in turn a major location for intellectual property rights management.

As well as suggesting new tax incentives to promote digital development, the report calls for new approaches to create a national pool of venture capital and use of private-sector leaders with proven successes to assess start-up applications for state funding.

The report calls for the establishment of a single Irish Creative Media Board into which the existing cultural and media bodies could be converged, and the re-tasking of RTÉ as an incubator and developer of media content, irrespective of platform.

“Now is the time to create the vision of a new economic reality where the digital world can connect Irish people in a society where access is open to all, regardless of health, wealth or geographical location,” said Paul Rellis, general manager of Microsoft Ireland in the report.

“If Ireland fosters innovation and enterprise in the digital space, it can create social and economic benefits.

“However, to do so requires bold and brave investment. In 40 years’ time, historians will look back at the actions we took in 2008 to address the challenges and opportunities presented to us. I believe they will commend our foresight on the basis of the actions we take now.”

The author of the report, Johnny Ryan, senior researcher at the IIEA, said that Ireland has a moment of opportunity that could very easily pass. “A digital revolution is transforming the global environment in which Ireland operates.

“Failure to embrace the transition to this new world will leave Ireland marooned as conventional industries migrate to cheaper locations, and traditional industries are transformed using new digital technologies with which our people are not conversant and for which we lack the infrastructure.

“On the other hand, the digital revolution presents huge opportunities for Ireland. If we successfully manage it, Ireland can offset its long-standing geographical disadvantage, leverage the creativity of its citizens at all levels of society and engage with a global market of unprecedented scale.”

He said that November marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of the First Programme for Economic Expansion as a White Paper. “Intrepid Government leadership in the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties guided Ireland in its first steps from its agrarian past to embrace manufacturing and trade.

“TK Whitaker, the youngest ever Secretary General of the Department of Finance, proposed bold initiatives in his study Economic Development that met the challenge of transition. Ireland now requires a similarly bold statement of intent to transition to the digital era,” Ryan said.

The report will be launched tomorrow night at a reception at the IIEA’s offices in Dublin. For more details go to: http://iiea.com/digital/

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Time Magazine’s cover story on Sean Lemass

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