The internet of things revolution has washed ashore in Ireland, but to unlock the potential for thousands of new jobs, local heroes in the form of county council leaders and entrepreneurs need to step into the breach, writes John Kennedy.
Ireland is full of unexpected surprises. For a country that has had no choice but to have a world view just to survive over the centuries and recent decades, sometimes our politics and policies can come across as twee, insular, suffocatingly local and with a lot of tunnel vision thrown in. You could apply this across a plethora of issues from water charges and domestic waste charges to health and education.
And then, out of the blue, you discover amazing people doing amazing things that are extraordinarily visionary and ahead of their time.
For example, in what seemed like our darkest hour, decades of economic isolationism and a dearth of opportunity were checked by the brave, forward-thinking policies of Sean Lemass and TK Whitaker in the 1960s and 1970s.
These policies gave free education to all and laid the foundations for Ireland being the digital and biotech hub of Europe it is today.
This innate ability to turn it around, do the unthinkably brave and demonstrate the power of imagination came into my mind recently in unexpected ways. It proves that in the places we think least likely, people who care about the future are innovating and they are not looking for praise or thanks. They are just doing it.
As I sat with the Minister for Communications Denis Naughten TD recently to discuss hurdles that could stymie the advance of the National Broadband Plan to connect 1.8m citizens to high-speed connectivity, I was fully prepared to expect the local county councils and the intricate mesh of planning rules to bare the brunt of blame for possible delays. It is a very real issue and councils need to get on side or fail their communities.
But out of the blue it emerged that forward-thinking members of Cavan County Council had already designed a template for broadband operators to follow in order to speed up the planning process and get building. Naughten suggested that the early deployment of fibre through the Vodafone/ESB joint venture SIRO and the local impact in terms of job creation and inward investment convinced the local authorities of the wisdom of not letting planning impede progress.
In effect, Cavan County Council has set an example for other county councils to follow if they care about the economic future of their communities.
The Ireland of things
On one hand, broadband connectivity is key to enabling businesses compete on an equal footing as their counterparts in Tokyo or San Antonio or New York City, but as we enter into an internet of things (IoT) world, Ireland could become the test bed for a whole slew of new industries that bring with them thousands of new jobs countrywide, in towns and cities.
We learned last week that the Mayo town of Crossmolina is going to be the first town in Ireland to roll out a smart lighting system. US tech firm Silver Spring Networks, whose technology manages 23.6m devices in cities across the world, has deployed an IoT network canopy for Mayo County Council for smart street lighting, and a residential energy-efficiency project for the council, with the project being funded in part by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).
“This technology enhances Mayo County Council objectives of reducing energy consumption, reducing CO2 emissions and reducing cost, but more importantly, it increases the ability of the community to interact with and understand their energy use,” Peter McLoughlin, executive engineer, Mayo County Council, said last week.
The Crossmolina development emerged within days of start-up VT Networks completing the rollout of a nationwide Sigfox network across Ireland.
Sigfox is an IoT network that uses low-power, wide area communications to connect up millions of devices from robots to smoke alarms, to thermostats, smart meters, interactive billboards and a lot more.
VT is targeting Irish businesses with services that include smart metering, home solutions, security systems, smoke alarms, tracking and recovery of stolen farm assets, security sensors on gates for farmers and machine-monitoring devices.
“Irish businesses and farmers have been quick to understand the benefits that the Sigfox dedicated IoT network provides,” said Mark Bannon, CEO of VT Networks last week.
The IoT revolution can have a host of benefits for dealing with health-related issues and especially chronic health issues that clog up resources in Irish hospitals. Among the projects being tested using technology as a bedrock is a project by North-East Doctor on Call (NEDOC) to enable paramedics to visit patients and facilitate a remote diagnosis by GPs and consultants, as well as the use of internet of things (IoT) sensors in the home to monitor patients’ welfare.
This morning, our Start-up of the Week was Cortechs, led by brilliant young entrepreneur Áine Behan, which is focused on using brainwaves and digital tools, such as gameplay, to improve attention in kids, especially those with ADHD. This is just one example of the combination of IoT sensors with healthcare that could result in new jobs and exports.
On the research front, academic and industrial collaborations facilitated by research groups like Tyndall, Amber, CRANN, Insight, Connect, Adapt and TSSG have put Ireland on the world stage for IoT-related breakthroughs.
In Cork and Waterford, research institutes Tyndall and TSSG have signed a memorandum of understanding to draw down €82m from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme to fund 10 IoT start-ups. Both bodies are also leading the charge on collaboration on fields like smart agriculture where IoT sensors and smart grids could transform what is still Ireland’s biggest industry.
In Dublin, tech giant Intel is working with Croke Park to turn it into the world’s first internet of things stadium by enabling large, medium and small companies to beta test and pilot new ideas for the internet of things.
“The demands that we face, not just on match days but 365 days of the year, make Croke Park an ideal test bed for IoT technologies, and we look forward to assisting our partners to deliver innovations developed in our smart stadium for deployment in smart city environments,” said Peter McKenna, director of Croke Park, last year.
Last year, Vodafone and EMC jointly invested €2m to create an industrial testbed for IoT in Cork.
And there’s more. National Geographic recently named Dublin as the capital for the internet of things (IoT).
Intel’s Galileo dev board and Quark chip were designed in Ireland and IBM’s SmartBay has its own floating sea laboratory, Sealab, here.
A chip designed by Dublin firm Movidius is at the heart of Google’s billion-dollar bet on IoT, while the most energy-efficient, high-speed analogue-to-digital converter was created by Irish company S3.
And, in April, it emerged that the mountains of Donegal are to be the testing ground for Chinese drone giant DJI’s future search and rescue drones.
This momentum could make Ireland virtually the world’s first IoT island, but it requires a lot of moving parts and a lot of joint effort, vision and commitment.
It is fitting that such hallowed ground as that of Croke Park is the testbed for what could be a huge transformer for the economic future of Ireland, because the epicentre of the GAA world will help spark the imagination of young minds and possibly inspire innovation countrywide.
We need more towns like Crossmolina to experiment with smart technologies like street lighting.
We need more county councils like those of Cavan and Mayo to open the doors to innovation and remove unnecessary infrastructural roadblocks.
All we need is imagination and innovation in the most unexpected places. The jobs will follow.
Kite surfing on Ireland’s west coast image via Shutterstock