#DIF12 – First look at the shape of Ireland’s digital economy strategy

23 Mar 2012

Communications Pat Rabbitte, TD, speaks at the Digital Ireland Forum at The Convention Centre, Dublin. Photo by Nicholas Mac Innes

Ireland’s Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte, TD, this morning at the Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin gave a key taster for the Government’s digital plan for Ireland. He said investment in industrial-strength broadband for schools is the lynchpin and emphasised four key tenets – connectivity, content, capability and community.

Rabbitte said it was vital that as a country we pay attention to adoption – not from the perspective of ordinary people but also from the point of view of businesses that are missing out on the opportunities of the digital economy. Pointing to Boston Consulting Group’s study, some €3bn was spent online by Irish people, but more than 70pc went to overseas businesses.

“The objective is to put in place a blueprint for digital adoption in Ireland to support existing and new businesses and unlock creative potential. It is about sustaining existing jobs and creating new ones.

“Forfas made the argument that advanced broadband is crucial to create the digital economy, capture new opportunities for entrepreneurship and jobs across all sectors of economy.

“Digital is now ubiquitous and not just the preserve of a few – all of us are tasked and need to work together. The Government’s  Action Plan for Jobs emphasises the importance of broadband for start-ups.”

Rabbitte said the department of communications is working to ascertain the actual size of the digital economy in Ireland. Boston Consulting Group yesterday pointed out that the UK is currently the most internet-dependent economy in the world, with 8pc of GDP coming via internet commerce. Ireland by comparison may count less than 3pc at this point.

The four Cs of Ireland’s next economy

In terms of drafting a digital strategy that is due to be published later this year, Rabbitte emphasised the four Cs of the plan – connectivity, content, capability and community.

“Connectivity – investment in schools should be seen as the foundation of any investment in digital society. In spite of economic difficulties it is possible to get private investment – where no business case exists there are people who struggle and it is imperative that investment in connectivity ensures all parts of country get broadband.

“Content – I want to see the focus of the strategy to be on adoption – people need a reason to engage with the internet. Without motivation to engage, we cannot expect citizens to engage and work will be lost.”

Rabbitte pointed to the poor levels of engagement in e-commerce among SMEs, which he said was partly due to Ireland’s broadband problems but also lack of awareness around how the digital economy can help their businesses.

“It’s about trading online – using the internet to advertise, access low-cost communications, branding and business networks. The fact that in 2011 Irish consumers spent €3bn online, that is going up 40pc year-on-year, and comes at a time that the high street saw declines of 10pc in same period. But 70pc of spending is going offshore. We are watching online balance of trade widen fast, it is imperative for Irish small business to grasp opportunities of the digital age – our forthcoming strategy will foster this.

“Capability – one of the first questions businesses ask when setting up in Ireland is what is the talent like? For the Irish economy to succeed, it will be the technical skills and creative flair that will make difference between product and competitors.

“Not all of the future workers will come from engineering backgrounds, creativity is an important aspect of Ireland of the future. Design and function need to be packaged hand in hand and Ireland has an opportunity to package the products of the future.”

Rabbitte said the investment in computers for schools – putting industrial-strength 100Mbps broadband in more than 650 schools – from this year to 2014 will be accompanied by a long-term strategy to help teachers optimise their skills and capabilities to raise all boats in the digital economy.

“Development of digital curriculum content and technical support will be vital and we will be continuing with efforts to reach out to those in society not digitally literate.

“Community – if there is a nation that will boost community adoption it is this one – what will Ireland do to be renowned for real digital communities?

“Connectivity, content and capability are creating potential for a whole series of connected communities at economic and social level,” Rabbitte said.

Go to the Digital Ireland Forum microsite for highlights of the event.

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