Digital sector to play key role in economic recovery

 

NET RESULTS:Despite the recession, we must consider now how technology will drive economic growth, writes Karlin Lillington

THE WEEKS leading up to Christmas were about the worst possible time to release any sort of strategic report. Along with festive preoccupations, people turned their attention to headlines dominated daily by economic doom and gloom and banking crises.

So an excellent report from the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) slipped under the radar for many people. It deserves to be read and considered, especially right now, as the Government struggles to find a constructive way forward out of an economic morass.

The report by the institute’s researcher Johnny Ryan, entitled The Next Leap: Competitive Ireland in the Digital Era – which can be downloaded from www.iiea.com – is well-considered, concise, and sets out some key tasks needed to build now towards the next phase of economic growth.

Some might wonder what the institute is doing dabbling in digital media. In fact, since late 2007, it has been a leading light in prompting serious thinking about a digital future that rightly has focused not just on Ireland but taken an international focus.

Through its Digital Media Forum, the institute has brought a sequence of provocative, topical and compelling speakers to its North Great George’s Street offices to address numerous aspects of what the institute calls “our digital future” – one of its policy themes.

Speakers have included Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, security expert Bruce Schneier, Google chief privacy counsel Peter Fleischer, and internet legal expert and author Jonathan Zittrain. Talks have gone from occasional to regular affairs (contact the institute if you are interested in attending).

Much of the enthusiastic energy behind this effort has come from Ryan, who is also an O’Reilly Foundation Scholar at Magdelene College, Cambridge.

Harking back to the Republic’s First Programme for Economic Expansion report launched 50 years ago by an optimistic government, the institute’s report – which was peer reviewed by the Irish Technology Leadership Group, the Silicon Valley-based organisation of Irish technology executives – is intended as “a useful point of reference as Government considers a new national strategy to maximise Ireland’s competitive advantage in the digital era”.

That may sound a bit anodyne, but the report – which, the introduction notes, is an “attempt to present something new: a cross-cutting draft plan of action delivered from the diverging inputs of stakeholders across the digital sector” – is hard-hitting.

It looks at six trends. First, a fresh workforce approaching adulthood that will be used to being “always on” and will see itself not as the young Europeans of the 1990s, but the young global villagers of the new millennium.

I agree with the report’s view that no matter how much some of us may blog, use Twitter and e-mail nowadays, we are still only one foot into a world that is going to be seen in a very different way by the fully-wired generation that is about to mature.

In the same way, it was hard for an older generation to initially comprehend that the college graduates of the late 1980s and 1990s increasingly did not see working abroad as a burden of Ireland’s poverty, but as an obvious and exciting career step into a Europe that was full of opportunity.

Experience gained abroad then, was critical in building the growth economy of the past decade.

The report notes that for all the stakeholders, next to infrastructure, education is critical. It is absolutely crucial in shaping this next generation of thinkers and doers, just as decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s produced those young Europeans.

“Pervasive internet” is the trend and infrastructure piece that underlies the whole report though – it must be everywhere, it must be cheap, it must be high bandwidth. Of course, most of the world is clamouring for this. The challenge here, in a still highly rural country with little cash, will be how to provide it.

The report also delves into other trends it identifies as “total commerce”, “a global digital media boom”, “cloud computing” and “a green dividend”.

It concludes by arguing strongly for “converged leadership”. Being a sceptic about such things, I am not sure I agree that we need a national “mission statement” on digital policy – mission statements generally make me snigger, even when well-intentioned.

But I like the suggestion that we need a dedicated digital strategy unit in government – probably in the Department of Communications. We still have no overarching policy approach to digital development (and the role of digital minister never took any constructive shape in the last government).

There’s so much more for consideration in the report (which is brief and is summarised in key points at the end) that I encourage anyone with a remote interest in this subject to download a copy.

It is essential that we not become so preoccupied with the worries of today that we fail to consider how to effectively progress towards tomorrow.

klillington@irishtimes.com

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