There are exposed beams, a high ceiling, open-plan offices, funky colours, breakout spaces and an orange kitchen. The Ludgate Hub looks for all the world like a typical startup office in Silicon Valley, but this is Skibbereen in west Cork. Its proponents argue it could be a blueprint for how hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created in rural Ireland in the coming years.
Opened officially by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, on Friday, the Ludgate Hub is a shared office space which is powered by a 1 gigabit (Gbps) internet connection thanks to Siro, the joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone, which is "transforming Ireland's communication networks" according to Siro's chief executive, Seán Atkinson.
Dovetailing with the National Broadband Plan, Siro is targeting regional population centres first, rather than the big cities which are already well-served with relatively fast broadband connectivity.
Skibbereen is the first town to be wired and is calling itself "Ireland's first Gigatown". In the coming weeks work will begin on 15 other towns around the country to wire them up to the Siro network, bringing the promise of broadband speeds on a par with Singapore, Silicon Valley and any other highly connected city across the globe.
Connectivity on this level has the power to radically change the way rural communities can connect to the global marketplace and Skibbereen has grasped that opportunity fully.
The Ludgate Hub is a shared workspace for up to 75 people and within a couple of weeks of the centre opening its doors on Townsend Street in the heart of the town, it already has 20 permanent tenants and more than 100 members who use it on a part-time basis, 50 per cent of whom are employees of large multinationals such as Google, Facebook and Pfizer.
It has gone from concept to reality in the space of just 18 months, all without a single euro in state funding. It has a glittering roster of board members that includes filmmaker – and Ireland's digital champion – Lord David Puttnam; RTÉ's new director general, Dee Forbes; Vodafone Ireland's chief executive, Anne O'Leary; and Google vice-president Ronan Harris.
For years towns such as Skibbereen have watched as their young men and women slowly drained away to Cork, Dublin and beyond. Now the town is seeing those people begin to return, in part thanks to the attraction of a 1Gbps broadband connection, while people with no links to the area are moving there just to take advantage of the facilities. In the coming weeks and months, people will move from the UK, US, Spain and South Africa to Skibbereen and set up home in the Ludgate Centre.
The digital centre has been called “the model for rural Ireland’s future” by those who helped create it, but can this success be easily replicated across the country?
Despite the presence of the Minister at Friday's opening, neither the Government nor any State agency had anything to do with the development. As founding board members Sean O'Driscoll, chief executive and chairman of Glen Dimplex, and local businessman John Field both pointed out at the launch, this was a project driven by the community and aimed at the community.
While Skibbereen – like all other regional centres –has suffered in the fallout from the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, it also had a lot of things going for it which made the Ludgate Centre a possibility.
It had the vision of Field, a businessman whose family offered the use of the building which houses the centre. A former cinema and bakery, it is a shining example of how regeneration can be done properly in rural Ireland.
O’Driscoll, an outspoken figure in the Irish business community, used his book of contacts to get the project off the ground, getting Vodafone on board, for example. Coincidentally, O’Leary has holidayed in the area for the past 30 years, shopping in Field’s supermarket during her stays, so when she was approached, she jumped at the chance to revamp what she calls “a magnificent part of the world”.
Lord David Puttnam has lived in the area for almost 20 years and as Ireland's digital champion he is keen to see technology empower people. Atkinson's father hailed from Bandon, just up the road. Forbes hails from Drimoleague, a small village 15 minutes from Skibbereen.
All these factors combined to allow the community to come together and drive the project forward. It allowed them to raise the €1 million needed to get the facility up and running and it has allowed the group to boldly state that it wants to be the digital capital not only of Ireland, but of the world.
“This is an example of a town that didn’t wait for Dublin or didn’t wait for government to do something, they went about it themselves,” O’Leary said. “It is an example for other towns to galvanise local businesses and people who want to do something.”
It comes as no surprise to hear that Grainne Dwyer, the chief executive of the Ludgate Hub and a local who has been drawn back to her home town by the development, has been inundated with calls from towns across the country looking to know what the secret is.
“The advice I gave to all the other towns and villages is that you need to first identify what your local strengths are,” Dwyer said.
In west Cork, which has the highest number of artists per capita in Ireland, it was inevitably going to be about creativity and design, but in other locations it could be based on fisheries or forestry – and identifying that speciality is key to success.
"It is great that people have done it for themselves down here, rather than wait for any agencies to pick up and do it," said Mike Collins, who runs the Your Irish Heritage website with his wife, Carina, from the Ludgate Hub. The pair moved their business from just outside Cork city where the connectivity is "absolutely crap", according to Mike.
Designer and artist Orlagh O'Brien has made the same journey because "there is nothing in Cork city like this" and while she may bemoan the lack of a cinema in the town, the support and feedback on offer from the community in the Hub is something she wouldn't have got working from home – not to mention the chance to have Oscar-winning film producer Lord Puttnam advise her on her business plans.
While the support of the community is vital to make these centres succeed, connectivity is the key to their establishment and Atkinson said Siro is already in talks with three other towns to set up digital hubs identical to the Ludgate Hub.
“This is proof of what that connectivity can do. If you didn’t have a gigabit here, if you were struggling with your services, you would struggle to make it a success,” Atkinson said.
Vodafone is also seeking to promote a connected Ireland, and not just in the big urban centres: “It is all about equality of connectivity wherever you are, so that irrespective of location, everyone has access to high-speed broadband for healthcare, education, jobs and prosperity,” O’Leary said.
The towns that have contacted Dwyer for advice have been mostly located along the western seaboard and all have an empty building they want to transform, including Garda stations and post offices that have been shut down in recent years. It would be easy to suggest that a government agency should step in to promote the development of centres such as these across the country, powering a digital revolution in rural Ireland and creating the 135,000 rural jobs O’Connor and her department have said will be created by 2020. Dwyer, however, warns that this top-down model may not succeed.
“It has to be from the bottom up, it has to be from the community,” says O’Driscoll and he adds that access to high-speed connectivity is consigning geography to history. “This is the template for how the 135,00 job could be created. This is the model for rural Ireland’s future.”