Shining a light on the smart regions

9 May 2016

Roches Point lighthouse, which illuminates the gateway to Cork harbour

As Cork and Meath’s examples have shown, regions need to come up with smart visions for their future in a way that won’t just boost their economies but the very fabric of life too, writes John Kennedy.

So, Ireland finally has a Government after 70 days of deliberation, negotiation and, at times, farce. Resembling something like a local county council, albeit with a national mandate, we have to hope the best for this minority Government and hope that internal wrangling between Fine Gael and independent TDs won’t give it a shelf life of less than 70 days.

So, after a 70-day hiatus, the busy business of running a country can finally resume.

This is vital because if Ireland is indeed in recovery mode – a LinkedIn survey this morning showed a 36pc increase in professional migration into the software industry alone – any delay in vital decision-making serves no one.

There are serious national issues from running hospitals, transport networks, spiralling crime, communications and education that are overdue attention.

‘A smart region is one that utilises e-government, publishes open data and fosters an open data economy’

But something is changing in Ireland and people and organisations are stepping up to the plate in ways I have never seen before. I saw this last year when the Startup Gathering took place with more than 400 events taking place around the country. This groundswell helped to change the perspective on entrepreneurship in Ireland. It was accompanied by intense lobbying that unfortunately failed to result in a satisfactory change to Ireland’s capital gains tax and share ownership rules in the Budget for 2016, but it was an impressive tour de force.

I have been equally inspired by the examples in recent months around how crowd wisdom, local endeavour and the willingness to try something new could unlock opportunities in local economies.

Another initiative that could be a tour de force is an industry collaboration in Cork to create a Smart Gateway to overcome regional challenges using smart solutions like the internet of things (IoT) and data analytics to improve problems like water supply and flood warnings, for example.

Cork City Council, Cork County Council, Nimbus Research Centre and Tyndall National Institute are the founding members of Cork Smart Gateway, with environmental detection, flooding and waste management tipped as early areas of interest.

Another example of how regions are taking matters into their own hands to improve their economy is an initiative driven by Meath Enterprise, with support from Meath County Council and several stakeholders, the Boyne Valley Food Hub aims to accelerate food innovation and research and turn a 20-acre site into for food “what Silicon Valley is to technology”.

It will do so through collaborative partnerships to create scalable and sustainable food agribusinesses with growth and export potential.

Meath Enterprise’s ambitions don’t stop there. Recoginising its strategic location on the commuter belt, its proximity to Ireland’s biggest airport and other transport links, as well as the county supplying more than 100,000 of Dublin’s daily workforce, there are plans to turn Navan into a kind of Digital Hub like that of Dublin 8. With the right infrastructure, Meath could retain some of that economic power within the county and fuel the creation of local start-ups and other enterprises.

Another fantastic example of local spirit is the actual creation of what is Ireland’s first rural digital hub in Skibbereen where a refurbished bakery building, which will be renamed Ludgate@Skibbereen, plans to create 500 new jobs over the next five years, with an initial 75 or more jobs guaranteed in the start-up phase. The Ludgate hub initiative is named after Skibbereen native Percy Ludgate, who lived less than 100 metres from the building. He took his place in the history of digital technology by designing the world’s first portable computer in 1907.

New ideas, new thinking, should always be welcomed

Often what I try to promote through this column are new ideas and new ways of thinking and doing things, ultimately centred on removing the obstacles that frustrate and hold people back.

I’ve often been inspired by the example of local leaders in Cork’s technology community, including Denis Collins and Ronan Murphy of IT@Cork European Technology Cluster for example, and how the local industry there reaches out to local schools to effect change in education, fosters visions for scaling up the local industry, collaborates with local start-ups and organises its own trade missions to Silicon Valley and Chicago.

But, then again, the Cork technology ecosystem in the city and throughout the wider Cork region has a cohesiveness that makes it unique and special. Everybody pretty much knows each other for one thing and there is a discernable pride and ambition. Local start-ups like Teamwork and Trustev are first class. Simply put, everyone’s on the same page.

And that’s the key, a certain clarity of purpose. For example, the new Cork Smart Gateway was set up on the back of new research conducted throughout the county that found that plenty of people feel improved impact on local decision-making is good for everybody.

“A smart region is one that utilises e-government, publishes open data and fosters an open data economy,” said Claire Davis, programme manager of the Gateway. She also referenced “citizen-centric dashboards”, as well as participation and urban testing as keys to an improved society.

This isn’t far from where my mind has been at in recent months – better ways of using technology to give people a certain kind of buy-in into local decision-making and improving the fabric of their local region and economy. And ultimately their lives.

In recent weeks, I proposed how Ireland could look for inspiration from the start-up world and apply principles like Lean Methodologies to speed up local decision-making and result in better project and service delivery. I asked “What if Ireland ran itself like a digital start-up?”

Simply put, I’m fortunate to live in a country I love but am frustrated by the unnecessary bureaucracy, over-spending, poor healthcare, the Irish Water debacle and other problems and delays that could perhaps be overcome if better thinking and communication were applied.

The article got a lot of attention and sparked debate, some of it critical, including suggestions I was either pushing a neo-liberalist agenda by wanting to dismantle government as we knew it or had been drinking the Kool-Aid about start-ups.

But that’s fine. Comment is free. All I wanted to do was plant the seed of novel ideas to get people asking questions like “what if” and “why not?” At least I got people debating and discussing it; I got what I wanted.

Seeding ideas

Ideas need to start somewhere. Even Dublin having its own Start-up Commissioner began as the novel idea of someone at Dublin City Council, for example. By that virtue, if Dublin has a Start-up Commissioner, shouldn’t Limerick, Cork or Galway too? Why not? They are important cities with vibrant start-up communities of their own.

The point is, change is inevitable, ideas, whether good or bad, should be welcomed and freely and openly debated. And the chance that, if good ideas do filter to the top that they can be accelerated by technology, how can that be a bad thing?

Globally, cities, especially smart cities, are the answer, but countries like Ireland need to mind their regions too.

A key aspect to regional success will be the rollout of broadband. Last week, I pointed out that patience will be required since the start of the National Broadband Plan to connect 40pc of Irish premises – 1.8m people – without broadband will be delayed by at least six months.

Delays to get this vital infrastructure of the 21st-century in place are hurting people and careers and, as I pointed out, broadband isn’t just about Netflix and YouTube. Last week, we heard from a man called John who lives in the countryside but for medical reasons is unable to drive to work and is depending on a 3G dongle to transmit vital design files. “To suggest the problem is access to YouTube, Netflix and the like is infuriating. I spent two days this week in a hotel near work so I could make it into the office to make up for missed meetings,” he wrote.

The good news, John, is that people are working on it and soon Ireland could leapfrog Europe, especially for regional broadband connectivity. It won’t be this week or next week, unfortunately, but it will happen.

This is because someone had the idea to do something about it. Someone had the idea to create a fully EU-funded fibre optic network that could be faster and further-reaching than other European government’s intervention plans and build it in such a way that it could be future-proofed for decades to come.

It might have seemed novel, even impossible, but it was courageous. It has got the ball rolling and even spurred incumbent operator Eir to go further to the point that 100,000 broadband-deprived homes will get 1Gbps broadband by March 2017.

Time will if the National Broadband Plan will be a success. A lot could go wrong but, if it is a success, it will add significantly to the fabric of a regional, rural economy that invariably is learning to ignite change and take charge of its own affairs.

Crucially, we need to be open to welcoming and debating new ideas and ways of doing things.

Roches Point Light House at Cork Harbour image via Shutterstock

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