A manifesto for joined-up thinking

30 Jan 201790 Shares

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Joined-up thinking is necessary if we are to remove the frictions preventing the country reaching its full potential. Image: Lodimup/Shutterstock

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Hey, here’s a novel idea: joined-up thinking. But please be careful, it might catch on and upset too many fiefdoms and vested interests, warns John Kennedy.

As an information addict, spending an entire weekend without broadband has been a nightmare. My ISP informs me that it may take days to fix and has something to do with ports in the rickety local exchange and the Irish damp. Fibre be damned.

How 1.8m fellow citizens of my country get by in 2017 without broadband is beyond me. But now I can commiserate and relate how hard it is to get simple tasks done without this vital resource.

Believe it or not, it is 17 years since the first DSL connection went live in Ireland.

Bumbling, dithering and protectionism have brought us to this point. It is truly lamentable.

If anything, the upcoming National Broadband Plan ought to be a master class in infrastructure and, for once, joined-up thinking. If it succeeds the way it is designed to, it could propel Ireland to the top of the digital league-tables and a farmer in Connemara could have a quality of broadband superior to that of a wealthy banker in Paris.

That is, if it goes to plan.

You see, it’s a largely rural problem and its execution will be a joint venture between the Department of Communications and the Department of Rural Affairs, which last week revealed a €60m plan to breathe life into rural Ireland.

Ireland and infrastructure

If both plans succeed, quality of life in rural Ireland will be off the charts as employment and economic growth do their magic.

The National Broadband Plan, costed at around €500m, is being fought among three consortia: Eir, Enet and Siro. The contracts are due to be awarded in June but this could slip to later in the year because intense deliberation is required to prevent tribunals or court cases if unsuccessful parties take umbrage.

The real victory for the National Broadband Plan will be seen in just how quickly the winner or winners get down to business and just build the infrastructure and connect homes and businesses. For this to happen, the usual planning delays involving county councils and the National Roads Authority need to be eradicated. And that’s why two departments – Communications and Rural Affairs – are working together. It’s called joined-up thinking and let’s hope it works.

The problem I have is our history of infrastructure. Irish people across the world build the best infrastructure for other people, like skyscrapers, energy platforms, motorways. Sure aren’t we the hands that built America?

And yet, on our compact little island with our compact little population we can’t get simple things like hospitals or transport right. There are simply too many apple carts and fiefdoms around such as unions, civil service cabals and overpaid corporate flunkies to mess things up.

We are the country that, after all, built a two-lane motorway called the M50 which was insufficient for the volumes that soon arrived and had to be expanded. Not only that, but some not-so-bright sparks decided it was a good idea to plonk a tollbooth in the centre of the highway.

The M50 became Ireland’s biggest car park. It still is if a car breaks down or, worse, if a tragedy occurs.

So how do we get away from this tradition of droning union reps, hapless civil servants, waddling and stuttering politicians and corporate skulduggery?

Transport

The usual lament is there is not enough joined-up thinking. The problem for me is I witness joined-up thinking whenever I go overseas.

In Sweden two weeks ago I got off a plane, took an elevator down to a train platform and 20 minutes later I walked into the lobby of my hotel in Stockholm’s city centre. I enjoyed a similar experience in Lisbon when I went to the Web Summit in 2016. I was never more than five stops from the event, my hotel or the airport.

Can visitors to Dublin enjoy such efficiency? Not a chance. And the capital of Ireland is one of the few in Europe that still doesn’t have a rail link with its own airport.

The Web Summit left Dublin because of shoddy infrastructure and insufficient hotel rooms, which still shoot up in price to fleece visitors at opportune times. The Web Summit is unlikely to ever return to Dublin and I don’t blame it. It is understood that the contract between the Web Summit and the Portuguese government has been extended from three to five years.

Wise minds need to look at the future of transport for Ireland and look beyond creaking buses and diesel trains.

Energy and data centres

The news that the IDA is currently seeking land banks for new data centres got me thinking about how Stockholm is also ahead of the game. Stockholm is using excess heat from data centres to heat up to 10,000 apartments in the city.

This involves a partnership between the city, utility providers and fibre providers, to name a few. The theory is that one 10MW data centre could actually heat 20,000 homes in freezing winters. By that logic, if you took the 30 or so data centres clustered along the M50 north and south you could, in theory, heat 600,000 homes in Dublin and its hinterland.

But that would require joined-up thinking.

Christy Moore sang ‘Low Lie the Fields of Athenry’ and so do Irish football and rugby fans no matter where they go. It’s a kind of ode to the bleak and sorrowful times of the Great Famine and emigration. But Athenry could now be a watchword for something altogether different.

Apple is trying to build an €850m data centre in Athenry, in a move that would propel the entire western seaboard of Ireland into the digital age. The locals want it to happen because of the obvious impact on their economy as well as the prestige. Unfortunately, the country’s slow planning process as well as a legal challenge from three people (two of them local and one who wants to build a data centre in Wicklow) could unravel the whole thing.

Meanwhile, a sister project for Viborg in Denmark, announced by Apple the same day in early 2015, is already halfway towards completion. By the time the first sod is turned in Athenry, the Danish data centre will have already hummed into life.

Losing the project would make Ireland a “laughing stock” warned Minister Seán Kyne, TD, and could endanger the country’s chances of landing further data centre projects in regional locations.

As well as being a huge economic prize for the region, the real win from the Apple data centre, to my mind, is the fact that the entire data centre will be powered by renewable energy. This could be a game-changer in terms of how the country looks at energy and how we, one again, heat homes and power infrastructure.

Think about it, one data centre requires roughly the same electricity that powers Dublin Airport. If the whole thing can be done through renewable energy, whole towns could do likewise.

Remember, joined-up thinking.

Growing the community

Across Europe, there is a skills shortage of 800,000 IT workers. It is said that any time a major FDI project is announced in Dublin, founders of start-ups sigh. That’s because they cannot keep up with the generous perks like free food and gym membership, and, of course, the rising levels of compensation skilled tech workers enjoy.

For FDI companies and start-ups to keep up with the skills battle, we have to be realistic and make it easier for workers from all over the world to bring staff here. This is an upside because people earning wages will spend locally, lifting all boats. Unfortunately, anyone who has had to run the gauntlet of Ireland’s convoluted, bureaucratic visa system will tell you that it is not fit for purpose.

The spread of broadband and the current buzz around start-up businesses should mean that entrepreneurial endeavours should not be confined to cities. Local Enterprise Offices do a great job in helping founders get off the ground but the reality is that many of these individuals end up working from a home office with frictions like malfunctioning broadband.

Why not create entrepreneurial spaces in local libraries or town halls with light, heat and connectivity to give entrepreneurs a place to go, meet and learn from and support one another? Towns should always have a role to play in fostering business communities.

Pension problems and CGT

The whole country of Ireland is heading for a pensions time-bomb. Unlike ministers and senior civil servants, most citizens do not have gilded pensions.

Around 60pc of private sector workers who retire do not have a pension and rely on the State pension. So what if it is not there in the future?

Most private businesses in Ireland are too busy trying to tread water so they don’t provide pension schemes for workers as a perk or benefit. As a result, saving for pensions is a discretionary thing and companies are obliged to at least inform workers or invite in reps from pension firms to give a spiel. This is insufficient.

The reality is workers will need to save almost from the very beginning of their working lives. The UK is already moving to make saving for pensions mandatory at source for workers from the age of 20. In Sweden, workers are encouraged to invest 5pc of their pension in stocks, which contributes to a vibrant and healthy local investment appetite and actually results in liquidity for Swedish businesses. Again, joined-up thinking.

If we don’t move fast on this, we are simply sending people like lambs to their fiscal slaughter.

Ireland’s outdated capital gains tax (CGT) system is seen as an impediment to start-ups, awarding share options to employees and diminishing any gain entrepreneurs could enjoy from an exit, such as a trade sale. It is almost predictable at this stage that every Budget is a missed opportunity to get this right for once and for all.

Budget 2017 saw CGT cut from 20pc to 10pc up to a limit of €1m in chargeable gains. Notable entrepreneurs such as Brian Caulfield rightly slammed the change as “peanuts”.

Under the current rules in the UK, the owner of a start-up who sells their business will only pay 10pc CGT on the first £10m. However, an Irish start-up owner will pay 10pc CGT on the first €1m and 33pc on the balance.

A resolution to the problem is sorely needed. Perhaps a re-think of CGT, share options and pensions could join the whole thing up?

Irish healthcare is sick

Our crumbling health system is the laughing stock of Europe. It is a bottomless pit of fruitless expenditure, mired again by unions and bumbling bureaucracy. Unfortunately, to enjoy quality healthcare that isn’t going to kill you means having private health insurance.

The price of premiums means our health system is becoming a mirror image of the unfair system in the United States. While former US President Barack Obama tried to establish some balance to an unjust system, any progress is likely to be dismantled by Trump and his cronies.

Why, then, is Ireland trying to ape the unjust American system? God only knows.

And so, private health insurance is unavoidable. And, if that is the case, a culture of mandatory but affordable private health insurance needs to be established early in people’s careers and enforced at source.

Most people believe their PRSI is sufficient for this task. It isn’t. It is an ATM for the state to blow money, as is the State levy we are still paying.

Education is our greatest resource

If the recent BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition has taught us anything, it is that Irish kids are among the best in the world at science and technology. And yet, we are failing continually to move away from the ‘by-rote’ learning system to include more realistic critical thinking and computer science skills. Countries like Finland are game-changers and are not afraid to tear up the rulebooks in this regard.

Also, the CAO points race is skewing how students access college places, resulting in people ending up on courses that are more fashionable than others, regardless of whether they have the aptitude or appetite to succeed. As a result, drop-out levels and disillusionment are leading to serious waste of time and talent.

New thinking and especially, joined-up thinking are required.

For all the sand in the Sahara

In conclusion, there is a much-abused barb that has been used to excoriate a multitude of governments – from the Irish Government to that of Soviet Russia – that if they were put in charge of the Sahara, in five years’ time there would be a shortage of sand.

The sentiment is clear: vested interests and bumbling bureaucracy need to be gotten out of the way and efficiency needs to rule.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com