Dublin needs to double down on its vision to become Europe’s tech capital

28 Sep 2015

Winds of change offer a silver lining for Dublin

Home to the international headquarters of the biggest tech companies on the planet and a vibrant community of promising start-ups, Dublin needs to remind the world it wears Europe’s digital crown. But it has work to do first, writes John Kennedy.

My only reaction to the news that the Web Summit was leaving Dublin for Lisbon in 2016 was “so what?” That might sound cold but in the preceding weeks I had read the strategically leaked stories to newspapers and only a week previously noticed a social network teaser campaign asking whether the Summit should choose Dublin, Amsterdam or Lisbon, which I deemed inappropriate and in poor taste. So when it happened, I had already thought about it a lot and could only muster a “meh.”

Dublin’s tech ambitions existed long before there was any Web Summit and the loss of the three-day event will have no bearing on the city’s digital future. Tech is a 365-day-a-year business, Dublin has a tech pedigree that extends back to the 19th century, the industry employs hundreds of thousands of people who each in turn enable the employment of three more people in the wider economy. So get a grip, people.

It would be unfair to say, however, that the only people who will miss the Web Summit will be taxi drivers, bar owners and hoteliers. A lot of people in the early days of the Web Summit in every facet of the local industry from media to government and start-ups went out on a limb to support Paddy Cosgrave when the Web Summit had neither a name nor a location. He rightly capitalised on Dublin’s warmth and magic to create engaging experiences for tech luminaries all too happy to spend their venture capitalist’s shilling.

The poorly concealed barbs from “sources” in newspapers in recent days about Dublin’s infrastructure and government support for its digital economy must cut deeply at those who went out on a limb to support the Web Summit materially or with their time or influence when it was an unknown quantity. A lot of people care passionately about Ireland’s digital future; to some the Web Summit years will be a chapter in this narrative, to others a mere footnote.

But the truth always hurts. Dublin’s infrastructure needs to keep pace with its digital ambitions and this must be all-encompassing.

If you know anything about Paddy and his co-founders of the Web Summit Daire Hickey and David Kelly, it is that they are deeply ambitious and probably won’t stop until they become billionaires. Well, good luck to them.

The market they are targeting is one where they compete against other events like TechCrunch Disrupt, Le Web and The Next Web. Neither the Web Summit nor these competing events are anything of the same scale, purpose, cohesion or polish of superior events like Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which last year attracted 94,000 people from 200 countries. But it is clear where their ambitions lie and in choosing Lisbon, with better transport infrastructure and a world-class events venue, they are throwing down the gauntlet, not for Ireland but for their competitors in a particular growing commercial space.

So let’s not get emotional about this, it’s just business. But there is a lesson that can’t be ignored.

The core lesson in this is scaling up, having ambitions and thinking big. Dublin has succeeded in attracting some of the world’s biggest tech companies to locate here because there is a ferocious war for talent raging.

Dublin has succeeded in spite of a lack of cohesive planning around a digital future. But you cannot have a digital future if you don’t have the physical infrastructure and the business environment to go along with it.

Dublin is a place where great things have begun and the city needs to develop a sense of swagger and embrace its achievements. Companies like Google have grown employment in the city to 5,000 people. Microsoft came to Dublin in 1985 to put software discs in boxes, today Dublin is the heart of Microsoft’s European and global operations with some 2,000 people employed and data centres that are the engine room of its global business. Intel set up in 1989 in a car showroom on the Nangor Road; by the mid ’90s its Irish operations supplied a third of the world’s demand for Pentium chips and today some 4,000-plus people are engaged in producing its next generation of chips in nearby Leixlip.

Digital is in Dublin’s DNA. In 1843, Sir William Rowan Hamilton created an act of vandalism by writing the first fundamental formula for quaternions on Broom Bridge – that same mathematical formula is at the heart of the algorithms that make today’s video games possible.

But Dublin needs to think big, and show the same kind of vision for digital enterprises that it did in the 1990s when the IFSC district was envisioned and made a reality. As Accenture’s country manager Alastair Blair has warned, Dublin is running out of space for start-ups and recent ESRI figures warn that there is a limit on available office space in Dublin city.

The business environment

Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD has repeatedly said he wants Ireland to be the best place for small businesses on Earth. That sounds nice and cosy but it needs to go further — it needs to be the best place for all businesses to be able to flourish.

With the Budget looming, the writing has been on the wall for some time about Irish start-ups moving to the UK because the EIS/SEIS scheme is more realistic and allows firms to reward hard-to-find talent with share options. It would be an act of boundless, almost criminal, stupidity not to address this in the forthcoming Budget.

The reality here is that start-ups and multinationals now go hand-in-hand. Most decisions by investors to locate operations overseas today are influenced by the availability of a healthy, nearby start-up ecosystem purely for talent purposes. Like I said, a war for engineering talent is raging.

Dublin also has it within its power to capitalise on the headstart it gained with the IFSC to play host to a whole tapestry of fintech start-ups and multinationals that want to take advantage of Ireland’s location on the edge of Europe for low-latency digital transactions in picosecond timing.

Failing to provide the level playing field for start-ups to flourish in the 21st century is tantamount to forgetting about other infrastructure like broadband, electricity and transport.

It’s about engineering a city of the future

Infrastructure has always been Dublin’s bane. Streets designed around medieval and Georgian era street plans are nothing like the tunnels that run beneath cities like Paris, Brussels, Boston and Berlin. Indeed, there are islands off the coast of Norway that are connected to the mainland by underground, underwater motorway tunnels. Dublin has one tunnel to alleviate truck traffic on the city’s quays and yet still trucks and buses trundle the city centre and hold everyone up.

Bad planning and inability to think ahead is what led to daft situations like the M50 being built initially as a two-lane highway with a toll booth at its centre. I missed vital meetings at last year’s Web Summit because the sheer volume of traffic in getting to the RDS was terrible. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The next biggest conference venue in Dublin city, the Convention Centre Dublin, is at the wrong side of O’Connell Street, which is a nightmare to get past if you have to navigate the city’s quays by car or taxi.

Events like the Web Summit pale in comparison to mammoth, professional events like Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The Mobile World Congress takes place at the Fira Gran Via in Barcelona and is connected by every kind of transport option, including underground metro, buses, taxis and is still within walking distance of Barcelona’s vibrant city. It is the equivalent of 10 aircraft hangers lined up side-by-side with a central thoroughfare connecting the various halls.

Dublin, on the other hand, is a rarity in the developed world for failing to have a rail connection between its principal airport, Dublin Airport, and the city centre. Last week it emerged that the Government is scaling back its ambitions for investing in city rail connections – again, bad policy that needs to be stopped before it becomes fatal for the city’s economy.

Dublin currently holds Europe’s digital crown in terms of the size and scale of a tech industry that has succeeded in spite of, and not because of, cohesive city planning.

To not allow that crown to be tainted means becoming a more supportive city for start-ups and having infrastructure on a par with the best Europe has to offer.

Think big.

Dublin image via Shutterstock

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