A “smart Atlantic way” could close the economic gap between east and west coasts and put the western region on a more competitive footing internationally, according to a new report.
The region is already unlocking its potential, and could develop further by deploying “smart solutions” to specific business needs, the report by the Western Development Commission and the Insight Centre for Data Analytics says.
Approaches taken by the Finnish capital of Helsinki and the Highlands of Scotland could provide models for the Irish Atlantic seaboard counties, it says.
Described as a “roadmap”, the report was drawn up for the west, borders and northwest counties of Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway and Clare which have a total population of about a million people.
The population is unequally distributed, with Galway being not only larger, but also having a significantly growing population. Other counties such as Donegal are both less populated, less dense, and have seen a decline in number of inhabitants between 2011 and 2016, it notes.
It recommends equipping the maritime and agriculture sectors with increasingly smart technology which will allow a faster access to global information about the market and weather conditions, and will also allow for real-time prediction of changes.
The availability of a smart data infrastructure will “support innovative small and medium enterprises in developing new digital products that make greater use of the available data, making the region more attractive and support economic growth”, it says.
Deployment of technologies to support “eParticipation”, as in the engagement of citizens with the challenges and issues of the region, will also help make this part of Ireland “more inclusive and reduce inequalities”, it says.
It describes how the region around the Finnish capital of Helsinki has combined a “smart urban” and “smart rural” approach across 26 municipalities with 1.6 million inhabitants.
The Finnish region with 300km of coastline and “highly qualified human capital” has an international airport and four international ports. With harsh Nordic weather conditions, an ageing population, but “long traditions in engineering”, the Helsinki region is seen as a “perfect test bed” for collaborative smart innovations.
Key priorities identified included industry digitalisation, clean technology, health and wellbeing and the “citizen’s city”.
The report notes that both the Finnish and Scottish regions have “participation and consultation with citizens and businesses” at “their core”.
The “roadmap” notes that initiatives like the open data portal developed by Roscommon County Council and the Marine Institute’s “Smartbay” project in Galway bay are compatible with a “smart” approach.
Strong technology start-up networks, a network of enterprise centres and the Atlantic Economic Corridor network of business chambers, along with incubators and accelerators such as the Portershed in Galway, are further examples, it says.
It notes the region is “rich” with third-level institutions educating young people in technology and “innovation-related” careers and supporting research.
It identifies five “pillars” for a “smart Atlantic way”, starting with a “smart region hub” or think-tank and observatory, which does not have to be physically located in one place. This will frame engagement with the business sector, local government, research and development and communities.
A regional knowledge hub and data infrastructure should be supported by a governance framework, and by networks of business and non-profit entities and an “active community” of stakeholders to “engage and support emerging initiatives”, it says.
Mr Niall Ó Brolcháin of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics in NUI Galway said a smart region would not be contingent on roll-out of the Government’s rural broadband plan, given the accessibility of broadband on smartphones and in towns and cities. Broadband would follow economic activity, he pointed out.
He said the roadmap took an “evidence-based”, rather than sectoral, approach to show how economic disparities between east and west could be addressed.