Ireland could learn the lessons of social entrepreneurship

Students who opted for a course which focused on Ireland as real-world case study are here to present their findings

Prof Dan Breznitz has studied innovation growth economies such as Taiwan, Israel and China. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Prof Dan Breznitz has studied innovation growth economies such as Taiwan, Israel and China. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Mon, Jun 9, 2014, 01:10

Prof Dan Breznitz must number among the most internationally eclectic members of Ireland’s broadly defined diaspora.

The Israeli native came to reside for a time in Ireland nearly two decades ago, as a political science graduate student at the American university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

While here, he interviewed many technologists, entrepreneurs and policy makers in the public and private sector for his doctorate, research that eventually went into his award-winning book Innovation and the State: Political Choice and Strategies for Growth in Israel, Taiwan, and Ireland.

Now, after eight years on the faculty at Georgia Tech in the US, he’s gone to Canada, as Munk Chair of Innovation Studies at the University of Toronto, with a cross-appointment to the Department of Political Science. He’s also co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School, and director of academic research.

And he’s back in Ireland this week, accompanied by graduate students who just completed a rigorous course in Toronto on social entrepreneurship, with a focus on Ireland as real-world case study.

Addressing Ireland’s problems

The course was produced and taught in tandem with Sean Coughlan of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (, a charity which supports entrepreneurship that addresses Ireland’s social and environmental problems.

Because the new Munk School was giving him complete freedom in developing its research and innovation programme (“It’s like having a great research and teaching start-up,” he says), Breznitz approached his friend Coughlan about doing something they’d long talked about: helping people abroad and in Ireland better understand, and develop, social entrepreneurship, in a way that could benefit Ireland.

Why did he want to do it? “Because of my connections to Ireland, and because for a long while, I’d like to give back to Ireland. Thanks partly to Ireland, I got my first book written,” he says.

Students who opted for the course – which Breznitz says was a mix of “very hard-nosed” academic work, and of working with projects on social entrepreneurship and Ireland – are here to present their findings and engage with government officials and TDs.

The students had to look at complex issues around increasing and enhancing policy around social entrepreneurship; the positives and negatives of funding projects using so-called “social bonds”; and finding ways to more accurately measure social and economic outcomes.

“The real aim is not to offer conclusions but hopefully to steer debate, and open new venues of thinking about either new or old programmes in a way that I hope will be sustainable. Even if the only thing that comes out of it is a change to half a sentence in a piece of legislation, then that’s an achievement,” he says.

Breznitz is no stranger to a strong opinion and critical thinking, qualities that no doubt appealed to the University of Toronto. He’s never been one to voice whatever the current, popular innovation mantra might be.

Highly lauded

His first book took a sharp view of innovation growth economies: here, in Taiwan and Israel. The second, also highly lauded, looked at China, while his latest examines whether wealthy nations can stay wealthy in the 21st century.

A piece he wrote for the Harvard Business Review last week, arguing that Germany outpaces the US as an innovation state, sparked much internet debate.

“It’s high time for the US to revamp its innovation system. Americans need to recognise that the purpose of innovation isn’t to produce wildly popular internet services. It’s to sustain productivity and employment growth in order to ensure real income expansion,” he wrote.

It is, he says, revamp time for Ireland, too. Like the US, Ireland abandoned much of its manufacturing sector, which in Germany, by contrast, has remained a source of stable wages and growth, providing about a fifth of German GDP.

Hence, “Ireland has done a really rotten job of figuring out jobs for people who don’t have Master’s degrees.” Construction employed many through the boom, but – as in the US – the state needs to rethink its approach to manufacturing, he says.

On the positive side, Ireland probably needs perhaps 60,000 jobs in this area, whereas the US needs 15 million, so modest, successful initiatives could be very effective.

Ireland has also done very poorly on creating innovative and successful indigenous companies, especially in the technology sector, as opposed to being very successful at attracting in multinationals.

Attracting foreign direct investment is also positive and has supplied many Irish jobs, he says. But Ireland’s indigenous sector is alarmingly weak.

Governments here should be blamed for what he believes is “the state’s role in the destruction, or at least stagnation, of Irish-owned industry” in innovation sectors such as technology.

After the initial public offering of Iona Technologies in the late 1990s, followed by several more Irish Nasdaq IPOs, Ireland “was poised” to create big companies in the sector.

Israeli example

But, the state failed to create a supportive environment to do so. Now, “there’s nothing left. I can’t think of an Irish-owned company that is not only big in its sector, but also leading its niche.”

Compare that to Israel, which had “a small hiccough” economically in 2000 and then went on and produced an innovation powerhouse that, with a similar population to Ireland, has sent company after company to the Nasdaq and other public listings.

Israel does have the advantage of being able to compete for, and create business without being circumscribed, as Ireland is, by the business and taxation rules of the EU.

“But then, you gain much from being in the EU,” he notes, adding that he is a “great admirer of the idea of the EU, if not the machinery of the EU.”

Ireland, he thinks, would be better to look not at the UK as a rival and point of comparison, but perhaps EU states such as Denmark and Finland, both of which are Ireland’s general size but have wealthier and socially richer societies.

Don’t get him started on Ireland’s current economic woes. We’re a nation where people historically, have just accepted that terrible things happen. With passive resignation, we watched the state turn “completely private debt into a horrible public debt.”

It was like watching the Six Nations, he says: there’s an Irish unwillingness to criticise individuals, lay blame or demand real change.

Challenge to rebuild

The challenge now is how to rebuild.

“Ireland needs to get a few more tricks in its playbook,” he suggests. The state could start by looking at the Israeli government’s current approach to innovation, which, he says, “has a 95 per cent fit with Ireland.”

Initiatives include an education programme for SMEs on how to infuse and diffuse innovation into business, as well as a rigorous system to connect up SMEs with research universities and students “who otherwise wouldn’t look at those industries”.

And on a personal level, he hopes through the Toronto course, he might be able to give help and ideas back to a country he holds in great affection, and to which he is grateful for its welcome to him as a graduate student.

Both he and Coughlan believe the Toronto programme was a successful endeavour.

“My hope is that we can strengthen and scale up the programme with Social Entrepreneurs Ireland.”