Digital king of Cong says look west for original ideas

17 Nov 2017

CongRegation founder Eoin Kennedy. Image: Michelle Gavin/Quiet Cailín

A village in the west of Ireland is about to be energised by original thinkers congregating around the potential of digital to improve the region’s potential.

The blessings and curses of innovation will be praised and lamented in equal measure by more than 100 speakers who will soon descend on Cong village in Co Mayo for a pretty unique conference called CongRegation.

All attendees at CongRegation, which has been running since 2013, are also speakers at the event. Attendees include Baileys creator David Gluckman, Boards founder Tom Murphy, Niamh Bushnell from TechIreland, LogoGrab CTO Alessandro Prest, and Gerry Duffy, who ran 32 marathons in 32 days. The price of entry is a written 600-word submission.

‘There is still a strong bias towards Dublin and other urban centres when it comes to tech talent’

CongRegation runs from 24 to 26 November and includes STEM workshops for kids as well as art workshops and mountain hikes.

In a sense, speakers and attendees have to kind of sing for their supper, only without the singing (although there is a music workshop, so who knows?).

Rather than the normal conference format of one speaker presenting to many people, CongRegation breaks the sessions into groups of 12 people in multiple venues that randomly rotate and change four times during the day.

The event, which is sponsored by Bank of Ireland, Blacknight, and MKC Communications, is the brainchild of Eoin Kennedy, who moved from Dublin to make his home in the west of Ireland.

Speaking with, Kennedy said that the ‘unconference’, as he calls it, has already spawned start-ups.

“Outside of people leaving inspired, energised and full of new insights, one of the big outputs are are the deep connections people make. This manifests itself in new partnerships, such as Camille Donegan [and] Sabina Bonnici of Silver Branch, and others collaborating on projects.

“This is the fifth year of the event and demonstrates that if small communities work together and smartly, they can compete against larger urban locations and attract a new type of business in off-tourist seasons.”

Can we turn the west of Ireland into a thriving digital ecosystem?

Ultimately, Kennedy said he would like to help foster the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the west, but this requires the sharing of ideas and the strengthening of connections.

“The different agencies and evolving start-up hubs do a good job at getting ideas to business-ready stage. There is no shortage of ideas and innovative thinking. There is, however, still a wide gap between, and need to form connections [in] tech and good ideas.

“There is still a strong bias towards Dublin and other urban centres when it comes to tech talent. The circular economy is still embryonic, with local talent feeding in to Dublin, and local collaboration can tend to be low-level.

“A more fertile atmosphere and increased awareness could harness/retain that talent and attract new blood,” Kennedy said.

He said that many of the new start-up spaces emerging, such as the Bank of Ireland Startlab and the NDRC at PorterShed accelerator, are doing a good job of connecting regional ambition with organisational structures.

“In theory, every community would want such centres, but they involve significant cost and coordination. However, the fragmented nature of the West and the availability of multiple properties in almost every town or village lends itself to short-term mobile innovation and collaboration centres.

“These could be four to six months [in] duration, uncovering and harnessing local talent and encouraging collaboration before moving to a new town or village.”

But crucially, warns Kennedy, it is all about infrastructure – something cities have but rural areas do not.

He said that does a good job of publicising the fantastic countryside, lack of traffic, stronger sense of community, deep history, natural wonders and sense of security for raising a family in the west of Ireland.

“However, much of the opportunities are either self-made or involve long commutes to cities, which undoes a lot of the advantages.”

Having finally managed to get high-speed broadband himself, Kennedy said that it has been transformative in terms of productivity.

“And a willingness of companies to take the route of increased home working, such as Shopify, would enable many more people to perform better and have a better quality of life. This can be good for both sides, but involves lots of trust and managerial training.

“Calls for the open access to high-speed broadband are overly simplistic and possibly counter-productive, without considerable thought given to services and increased cohesion and community – eTownz is a great example of the right thinking.”

Ultimately, Kennedy said that technology needs to deliver business benefits but also enhance rural fabric.

“Undoubtedly, technology enables more people to live in the countryside, but being part of community is a very different thing.”

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