Dublin college sets the pace for digital media

27 Jan 2003

Digital media has been pushed and prodded from every direction in the last couple of years, touted as one of the sectors most likely to succeed in Ireland’s technological future.

Last Thursday, at the first annual Digital Media Awards in Dublin, the spotlight was once again on some of its many exponents, shining brighter than at any time before.

The notion of staging an awards event might at least lay to rest the recurring call for clarification as to exactly what digital media defines. The nominal notion that it’s shorthand for a new generation of entertainment, marketing and publishing ventures powered by converging technologies sort of explains it, but there’s a feeling that it’s almost too big a brief to fit in a single phrase.

“It’s not really an industry in itself, but rather an appropriate term used to embrace the basket of industries brought about as a result of this convergence,” says Damian Ryan, chairman of Digital Media Intelligence, the company behind the event.

Ryan’s entrepreneurial zest for establishing digital media events has revealed him to be a master of the zeitgeist. Not only has it bagged him the commercial support of sponsors O2, it has also been endorsed by various government departments and agencies, with Mary Hanafin and other ministers putting in an appearance at the awards.

This mix-and-match of batting for Ireland.Inc and business back-slapping was tidily encompassed in the awards categories and their recipients. Ranging from the Digital Person Award won by Brendan Touhy of the Department of Communications, Marine & Natural Resources – to Digital Media Agency of the Year, no avenue was left unexplored.

The effect was to not entirely douse those doubts about an appropriate definition of digital media or concern that it was perhaps too broad a term to be entirely convincing. Moments after one gong went to a film about Chernobyl, another was presented to a company that had created the best SMS character for a marketing campaign. While both shared a dependence on digital technology to make them happen, their reasons for existence couldn’t be further apart.

So it was perhaps fitting that the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) won the Grand Prix award. More than any other entrant it seemed to bridge the gulf between the infinite variety of winners, focusing our attention on the students who turn into the professionals that are the masters of the medium. The IADT fits digital media like a glove.

“It’s not an accident. It was very much our strategic plan to look very closely at digital media,” says the Institute’s director Jim Devine. “We have been using the phrase extensively in our prospectus for at least two years,” he add.

Formerly a pure-play art and design college, it was in 1997 that it added on the technology and business wings creating a unique learning establishment in Ireland with its dynamic mix of the high-tech and the artistic.

The next phase in this evolution is the building of an incubation centre, funded to the tune of €2m by Enterprise Ireland (EI) with EU money. More is needed in what Devine believes is a €3m-plus project and he’s currently looking for the extra investment.

The synergy between EI and the Institute goes back at least two years to when the government body began to explore the role digital media might play in Ireland.

Dublin’s Liberties and Coombe district was subsequently picked for the Digital Hub project which is endeavouring to accommodate disparate digital media companies in a single location. Media Lab Europe is already in there.

“We want to be the pipeline into it,” explains Devine. “Small startups would have a maximum stay of maybe three years in our own incubation centre. Then they would be ready for bigger things and move on to the hub. Enterprise Ireland are very supportive of this approach,” he adds.

Another point of partnership would be through the hub’s proposed training programmes. The Digital Academy will aim to offer high-end and training and post-graduate courses provided by the IADT.

“The physicality of having a lot of high-energy people bumping into each other on a daily basis makes it important for our staff and students to be linked in there,” says Devine. “It would be part of our strategy to locate some of our activity in the hub,” he adds.

At a time when third level education is under scrutiny and frequently called to task for its growing inability to provide talent to Ireland’s tech sector, the Institute lays claim to being a success story offering the best evidence yet of digital media becoming a real force. In five years it has grown from 400 students to near its target capacity of 1,500.

“One of the real success factors is our small size,” says Devine. “We’re small enough to be adaptable. The bigger colleges might find it slower to react as quickly as we can.”

Naturally, funding is an ongoing issue for such a high-tech learning establishment.

“It’s crucial to us is that students are working in a professional environment using professional infrastructure. The big challenge is how you update that year on year. The award is the shot in the arm you need,” he says.

“The last five years have been tough. This award represents an independent voice that seems to be saying we’ve hit the spot. Now we’ve got to keep it up!” he concludes.

If Ireland is really going to compete at the races in digital media, he might well be right.

Pictured: Jim Devine, director of the IADT with e-Minister Mary Hanafin