What is smart? What is society?

An introduction to the series

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 01:00

The ‘Irish Times’ Blueprint for a Smarter Society begins today.

The initiative was inspired by a speech this summer by Prof Luke Drury, president of the Royal Irish Academy, as he welcomed new members to the academic institution.

“Thinking of the students sitting their Leaving Certificate examinations today, we must surely wish for them a future as engaged citizens in a smart society and not just alienated workers in a smart economy,” he said then.

He elaborates now: “If we try building a smarter economy without improving our society, then the project is doomed.”

What do we mean by society? “Think of the economy as the concrete structure of a building. You need a sound structure. But if you don’t finish it with good materials, and decorate it with furnishings and pictures, it’ll be a pretty dismal place to live in. Society for me means people living together and interacting. I would like us to improve the structures that make us feel comfortable and happy and give meaning to our lives.

Ireland is a wonderful society in many ways. We still have close family ties, and there’s a lot of generosity, and we value these things. The reaction to the death of Seamus Heaney is an example of our appreciation not only of poetry but of great public figures. The GAA is a remarkable grassroots organisation.”

How do we make it smarter? “Irish society needs more critical thinking. We still often fall into a pattern of groupthink, even though the collapse of the economy should have taught us that lesson.

“The academic community has a lot to contribute. We have offered in the past, but we need to be more engaged. And there needs to be more respect for scholarship at an official level. In practical terms this could mean that Government policy decisions are better informed.

“Creating a smarter Irish society is a job for both the State, with its vast resources and power, and for civic society as a whole. The media have a role to play, too.”

Today we explore structures and strategies that could improve Irish life, from better public services to innovative community initiatives, from the enriching potential of digital media to the depoliticisation of the Border.

The series will continue next week and beyond.

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