The official report from the Global Irish Economic Forum held in Farmleigh a few weeks back was published this week. Having been at the event but not given access to most of the sessions I was interested to see what recommendations emerged from those closed sessions.
Much of what emerged from the weekend focused on selling Ireland more effectively abroad, leveraging the 70 million who make up the Irish diaspora to open new doors to indigenous businesses and finding ways to monetise our culture which was perceived by the group as a key strength. The proposals within the government’s smart economy documents, in particular the Knowledge Society Strategy report that I talked about here in July, were broadly endorsed.
Concern was expressed by participants that Ireland is not actually regarded as a centre of innovation in critical markets such as Silicon Valley or in Asia generally. It was recommended that networks such as the Irish Technology Leadership Group should be leveraged to project the story of successful technology companies working in Ireland to industry leaders in these key markets.
There was much talk about Ireland becoming a leader in green technology innovation, but not all agreed that this is the way forward for Ireland. It was suggested that we should instead prioritise more tightly focused sectors which hold the potential to differentiate us from our competitors.
The importance of broadband and communications infrastructure was underlined with a proposal that Eircom should be re-nationalised given its underperformance in this area. There was a call to ensure the necessary levels of investment in the “final mile” of communications in order to provide world class speed throughout Ireland. The Government defended progress in the development of infrastructure highlighting the €220m that is currently being spent on broadband rollout.
Ironically, innovations in the area of high-speed and energy efficient communications networks were proposed as a major opportunity for Ireland. Participants discussed the Optical Burst Switching technology being pioneered in Ireland which uses light waves to transmit data at high speed. This could potentially place Ireland at the heart of advances in telecoms and data and cloud computing centres, such as the one opened recently by Microsoft.
When it comes to funding, there was criticism of Ireland’s bureaucratic processes. The government participants did acknowledge that there is a need for a more responsive system but justified a level of bureaucracy in order to support public accountability. This probably won’t go far enough for those innovative Irish enterprises at the coal face of seeking support for growing into international markets.
There was a call to ensure that our education system delivers a skills base that is aligned to identified innovation opportunities. Educational change is required at all levels. At first and second levels there is a need to foster more creativity as well as growing the numbers taking maths and science.
Continued investment in 3rd and 4th level education is required to ensure the availability of highly skilled and specialised graduates. It was also proposed that existing high-skilled talent (such as unemployed architects and engineers) be up skilled in new technologies and processes.
One of the few specific and measurable recommendations was that at least 3% of GDP should be invested annually in R&D. This investment should be targeted at emerging technologies where Ireland can take a lead by establishing a small number of centres of excellence.
Ireland should establish an International Content Services Centre, modelled on the IFSC, but supporting world leading digital content enterprises. Such a centre would streamline the storage, localisation, delivery and distribution of digital content. A belief was expressed that Ireland is already well placed to exploit unmet global needs in this area.
Finally, participants consistently stressed the importance of executing ideas raised at the forum. Minister Martin dampened expectations at the launch of this report by emphasising that the proposals outlined in the report are “not formally endorsed by Government, but instead reflect the opinions and suggestions advocated by those who participated at Farmleigh.” Event host, David McWilliams promised to deliver five business plans within the space of a few weeks. It will be interesting to see which proposals do actually get carried forward.