It’s not just about smart cities, it’s about smart regions too

6 Jul 2015

Ireland needs to embrace smart regions as well as smarter cities if it wants to lead the next industrial revolution.

John Kennedy on how Ireland’s digital economy will take in both verdant landscapes and bustling cityscapes – and all the entrepreneurs in between.

Ireland is different to most places and it’s about time we took that into account when we talk about the digital economy and new fields of opportunity like the internet of things (IoT), our shot at the so-called next industrial revolution.

If you look at the current start-up buzz around the world, it’s all about cities – Berlin, London, Dublin, San Francisco, you name it. That’s fine and it makes perfect sense – cities are the future in many respects, people are flocking to them, they are convenient places to socialise, to shop and to get around, and when you put people together amazing things happen. You need a centric environment for start-ups to work in many respects, and cities are the right places to gather in and meet investors and the like.

But Ireland is different. We’re pretty spread out here and while Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Galway and Limerick are all striving to create identifiable and meaningful start-up ecosystems and tech quarters, the reality is not all start-ups desire to be based in cities and nor should they be. Another useful fact about Ireland is there is no destination on the island that can’t be reached within a few hours’ drive.

If the promise of the digital economy is the world at the end of a broadband line – then where you choose to be doesn’t matter as long as you can serve the world, or in many cases bring the world to you. If start-ups are the jobs of the future then people must be encouraged to start-up; in their own backyards if necessary.

The best example of this is NearForm in Tramore in Waterford. This is a young start-up that quickly captured a decisive slice of the emerging Node.js software environment and cemented this by bringing the world’s first Node.js conference to Waterford Castle. Just three or four years old, the company is already creating 100 jobs and winning talent, attracted by the quality of life and surfing in Tramore. NearForm scored a major coup recently by hiring eminent Silicon Valley technologist Eran Hammer to guide its development.

Another example of how you can create a world-beating software company in a regional location is FeedHenry, a Waterford-based mobile software company that was acquired by Red Hat for US$63.5m last year.

I pondered these two stories while I ambled about Waterford Institute of Technology’s TSSG campus on the hottest day of the year last week. Shortly afterwards I experienced the launch of Apollo 11 via virtual reality thanks to an Oculus headset and an amazing VR game created by another local software company worth watching, Immersive VR Education.

This was just one corner of Ireland.

This morning’s Boole Start-up of the Week is Moocall, an IoT company created by an Offaly farmer aimed at alerting farmers using machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies when a cow is calving. Genius!

The possibilities are endless

A couple of other key things emerged during the week that reinforced my conviction that Ireland needs to double down on efforts via Local Enterprise Offices (LEAs) and any other supports available to interlock with forthcoming measures like the National Broadband Strategy and ensure the digital tide lifts all boats.

Last week, the Government published a bold plan to create 40,000 jobs in the south-west of Ireland – chiefly Cork and Kerry – which calls for the creation of a Munster Technological University, a creative hub for the content and multimedia sector, as well as actions to develop new energy technologies, developing the green economy in the region and deploying “smart region” IoT devices like smooth sensors for traffic and utility management.

The smart region idea needs to be embraced because of the unique living conditions of Irish people. The quality of life rewards from country living are not really a hard sell, so long as other things keep in step, such as education, transport, digital infrastructure and tourism.

‘Small businesses are the backbone of every Irish town and village and, with consumers across Ireland now spending almost €700,000 online each hour, trading online is essential to create new jobs, new business and new exports’

It makes sense – the population of Ireland is approximately one-eighteenth the size of the population of the UK (or let’s say equal in size to Greater Manchester) on a landmass one-third the size of Britain. If that’s not an IoT  testbed opportunity for everything from drones to sensors I don’t know what is.

In terms of the digital economy, Irish businesses have been slow to embrace e-commerce at a time when geography shouldn’t matter so long as you have decent connectivity.

Ravaged by the recession, the opportunity for high-street businesses to get back on their feet was made clear in research published by the Department of Communications last week on the occasion of the granting of the 1,000th Trading Online Voucher. Research showed that 71pc of small firms that embrace e-commerce are capable of creating at least one or two new jobs each.

“Small businesses are the backbone of every Irish town and village and, with consumers across Ireland now spending almost €700,000 online each hour, trading online is essential to create new jobs, new business and new exports,” Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD pointed out.

Ireland is a unique place that is uniquely positioned to benefit from the digital economy and the IoT opportunity if we do two things – pull together broadband and regional development strategies in innovative ways, and encourage local businesses and entrepreneurs to get connected and sell online. Start-up culture needs to be awakened in all facets of the economy, rooms in libraries could host hotdesks and Wi-Fi and the description entrepreneur needs to be found in every town and village.

The world needs smart cities, but it also needs smart regions too.

Irish coastline at Doolin image via Shutterstock

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