With the State closing the Digital Hub, what should come next?

‘Rising talented leaders could collaborate with others and together make valuable changes’

Staff from large and small companies could together give their time and experience to innovate on some of the environmental, societal and governance issues now facing us.

Staff from large and small companies could together give their time and experience to innovate on some of the environmental, societal and governance issues now facing us.

 

In July 2000, the Bertie Ahern-led government announced that Media Lab Europe (MLE), in partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), would be the anchor tenant for a new digital media district in the Liberties.

The International Financial Services Centre (ISFC) initiative was already leading urban renewal of the docklands area and repositioning Ireland in the global financial services sector. It was envisioned that the Digital Hub could be transformational to another area of Dublin.

Furthermore, the government was lobbying the EU for changes to the application of e-commerce sales tax charges across Europe and, if successful, the Digital Hub might become a global e-commerce district.

While Media Lab Europe initially received funding from the Irish taxpayer, it was intended that it would become financially self-sustaining from commercial support to undertake applied research and development. But it quickly became evident that the proposition that companies should outsource a portion of their research and development to Media Lab Europe without an ability to direct or oversee the work was unrealistic.

The MLE initiative raised eyebrows internationally when Ireland announced it. But it went into voluntary liquidation in 2005, through lack of funding and in the fallout from the 2001 “dotcom” crash. Later that year, the government announced that the formation of the National Digital Research Centre, intended as a more commercially focussed replacement for MLE, and led by a consortium of Dublin universities together with the National College of Art and Design, and the Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

The Digital Hub offered low cost space for companies, including multinationals, and the National Digital Research Centre provided a set of programmes to mentor and guide entrepreneurs through the process of raising seed and venture capital. Meanwhile, the local community, including schools and senior citizens, had opportunities to improve their digital literacy, to build an online presence for local businesses, and for those interested in software and multimedia careers to be trained.

In December 2020, the Government re-tendered the National Digital Research Centre contract and awarded it to a new consortium led by Dogpatch Labs, Portershed Galway, Republic of Work Cork and RDI Hub Kerry. The National Digital Research Centre activities in the Digital Hub were closed. The Digital Hub initiative was then itself terminated in April 2021 on the back of a Grant Thornton analysis that there is now a surplus of co-working facilities in the Dublin area and that the Digital Hub had hence served its purpose. The Government has announced that the extensive lands of the former Digital Hub will be developed for housing and community use.

The Digital Hub complex had impressive and suitably retro-industrial buildings. In Japanese and Buddhist cultures, a dojo is a place of self-development, where one can learn to face barriers preventing better performance. While the Digital Hub and the National Digital Research Centre were a dojo for start-ups, perhaps now in retrospect they were actually a dojo for incubators. The Digital Hub and National Digital Research Centre were among the first co-located work spaces in Ireland, and one of the first Irish accelerators: others have learned from their success and have created their own hubs and incubator programmes nationwide.

Digital Hub complex

Coder Dojo, a project to encourage digital literacy and software careers, was founded in June 2011 at the National Software Centre in Cork by James Whelton and Bill Liao. The remarkable initiative is now global and is co-ordinated from within Dogpatch Labs. Like the Digital Hub complex, the CHQ building which houses Dogpatch Labs is inspirational. However, given the myriad co-location hubs and start-up accelerators now in place countrywide, what could be the next national initiative to advance the digital economy in Ireland and to benefit society at large?

One of Ireland’s most strategic resources is the portfolio of multinationals operating in the country. With corporate taxation increasingly less a competitive differentiator, can multinational operations nevertheless become even more embedded into the economy? The National Digital Research Centre offered talks and coaching to start-ups from multinational staff. Dogpatch Labs offers an immersive innovation experience to its multinational partners for whom the digital start-up culture is otherwise exotic. In both the National Digital Research Centre and Dogpatch Labs, multinationals can technology “scout”. Could more be done between the multinational and start-up communities than bilateral exposure to their respective cultures, than identifying technology for potential acquisition, than grooming talent for eventual hire?

I suggest that Ireland is uniquely positioned to launch an initiative. Staff from large and small companies could together give their time and experience to innovate on some of the environmental, societal and governance issues now facing us. To deepen collaborative industry linkage, rather than prematurely forcing joint commercial product development and licensing, instead rising talented leaders could collaborate with others and together make valuable changes to our world.

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