The new Steam age: the role of the arts in Ireland’s future

The Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – are meant to drive our economy into the future. But as Other Voices heard last weekend, art could turn that into an even more potent mix

Think tanks and policymakers love a good acronym, and few get more currency than “Stem”. Science, technology, engineering and maths are, according to the theory, the clean energy that will drive our economy into the future. Invest in these and all will run smoothly for decades to come.

But what about the arts? Should we be turning Stem into Steam? And could this be a key factor in tempting our diaspora home?

Last weekend’s Other Voices festival, in Co Kerry, expanded on its musical offering with a conference on the topic called Ireland’s Edge, organised in association with The Irish Times.

Linda Doyle provided some of the most astute contributions. She is a professor of engineering and arts at Trinity College Dublin and director of Connect, the national telecommunications research centre, and she actively involves artists in much of her research and work.


“We do things called ‘engineering fictions’, where we write about ideas,” she says. “They could be about visualisation; they could be about playing things out through theatre. But they all contribute to understanding something more about the research.

“One of the fantastic things about different worlds, when you meet people from the arts, they provide a different vocabulary . . . That’s a different way of unlocking problems. I find all the time I might be thinking with a particular mindset, and then I hear people with this vocabulary that I’m unused to. And I suddenly see the problem in a different way.”

Challenging bias

Artists also play a key role in challenging inherent biases in Doyle’s work.

“I learned this phrase from one of the artists I worked with: she talks about ‘epistemic injustice’. What that means is you privilege one form of knowledge over another. We tend to do that a lot in engineering. What you’re asking in this is, How do we bring these knowledges in, and how do I give them equal weighting and understanding?”

Doyle also says that artists have a gift for challenging power in authority . “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as neutral design. You’re always building a power relationship into something. When you’re working with artists you don’t get away with doing that, without at least questioning it and being aware of it.”

One theme that came up repeatedly was Irish education – both its benefits and its drawbacks. Nóirín Hegarty, who is operations director for Lonely Planet Ireland, makes the point that, along with drama and Irish, students should be learning computer coding.

“We have a very broad education system that’s really good, but it’s not focused enough and not fit for purpose for the decades to come,” she says. “I have a son who recently took his Leaving Cert choices. They are the same choices I had 30 years ago. I’m trying to hire developers for the last six months, and it’s very difficult.”

Eamonn Sinnott, whois general manager of Intel Ireland, argues that “what may have served us well in the past is not fit for purpose. The only time you are not connected to the worldwide availability of knowledge is when you are sitting an exam.”

That said, the Irish education system still has a good reputation internationally. But John Concannon, a director of Fáilte Ireland and head of the Government’s 2016 programme, says we need to go a step further. Ireland as the best country in the world for primary education, he says, would be a huge driver for executives willing to relocate here – and a lure to draw the diaspora back (see panel).

There is some dissent on multinationals. Sinnott reckons that Ireland takes foreign direct investment for granted – FDI currently makes up about 20 per cent of the economy – but he is keen to see improvements in the environment for small and medium enterprises (SMEs): “If every SME hired one extra person, it would solve unemployment.”

Doyle is similarly bullish about the sector. “We have more opportunities in the country than we can even handle,” she says. “There are enormous opportunities for indigenous companies to grow, if that was supported better. This is precisely where arts and technology can come together.”

She makes the point that the internet of things offers a niche area that combines design thinking and technology. “In this country, if it were easier to set up companies, indigenous industry would grow more and we would be on to a winner that would complement the multinationals that are here. We don’t have the right conditions in the country yet.”

One of the most germane arguments concerns the siloisation of funding and opportunities.

“I’m in a very privileged position, because the Government has put an enormous amount of money into research for the last 10 or 15 years, and we are seeing the fruit of it,” says Doyle. “But that investment is still siloed. I can employ all sorts of engineers and technologists, but I sneak in artists under the edges. We have them in the group, but they are in other headings. We’re not in a position where we can fund that.”

Sinnott says that the reason most US companies, in particular, set up here is the quality of the workforce. “Our technology folks . . . have a reputation of being creative problem-solvers.”

Elephant in the room

The elephant in the room is tax: foreign companies set up in Ireland simply because they pay less corporation tax.

While it is certainly a factor, it may not be the main one. US corporations make €970,000 per employee every year in Ireland. On this they pay just €25,000 to the Irish exchequer. Were this tax to be doubled they would still make €920,000 per employee per year – hardly a figure that would cause a successful company with a substantial base here to shut up shop.

For Ireland to improve, says Doyle, it’s crucial that it “be self-critical: the arts and humanities coming together with technology is part of that. There is huge potential there.”

She refers to the recent Global Irish Economic Forum at Dublin Castle. Tánaiste Joan Burton may have insisted in her speech there that she wanted to see more women at the forum, but for the moment it’s little more than an aspiration. Doyle describes wanting to “run from the room” after being faced with a sea of men in grey suits.

This has to change, and the sense at Ireland’s Edge is that the country is changing. “We sit on the edge of 2016 and remember the cultural atmosphere that was there 100 years ago,” Philip King, Other Voices’ creator, says in his opening address.

“The language was prominent, people were joining the GAA, the Abbey Theatre; philosophies and the basis of what became the Rising were emerging. [IT WAS]a cultural coming together and a sense of Ireland, but a different sense of Ireland – a sense of a possibility of Ireland. And we’re here again.”

The challenge now is to turn that possibility into a country that is fairer and a country that is better, with the arts playing a central role – under its own steam.

There and back again: Arts diaspora on coming home

Sitting in the Dingle Skellig Hotel at the ‘Ireland’s Edge’ conference, with a stunning view of Dingle Bay filling the windows, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the prospects for those looking to come home.

A panel curated by Ciara Kenny, who runs this newspaper’s Generation Emigration forum, discusses the issues and the options for those looking to return to Ireland. Some of the pithiest comments come from the writer and director Dave Tynan, who talks in the sort of soundbites that politicians envy for their brevity, if not their honesty.

“I’m glad we’re getting encouraged to come home, because we were certainly being encouraged to leave,” he says. Predictably, the most crucial factor for those working in the arts is funding: “Lots of people are forced out of the arts before they are forced out of the country.”

Tynan, who is funded by the Irish Film Board, is “one of the lucky ones”, but “surviving on €10,000 a year”, he says, is considered a success story.

Nicky Gogan of Still Films and Darklight describes her own experiences of moving abroad. While Ireland Inc uses culture to sell Ireland abroad, the Government “needs to put its money where its mouth is” and increase funding for the arts.

When it comes to tempting the diaspora back, Eamonn Sinnott of Intel is adamant that “people need to be able to fulfil their economic as well as their creative ambitions”.

Minister of State for Diaspora Affairs Jimmy Deenihan, who was previously minister for the arts, says that the Government is keen to “see the diaspora coming home to play their part in rebuilding our economy”. He says that an interdepartmental group is working on proposals that could include grants to help people return. Deenihan adds that he has the backing of the Taoiseach’s department and hopes the #HometoWork initiative will help start a national conversation about the diaspora.

It’s a neat idea, although it doesn’t exactly set the Dingle room alight. It’s not the first time the Minister has mentioned this interdepartmental group, but it’s yet to produce much in the way of concrete recommendations or initiatives. Being so close to spring, it seems more like smart party politics than a fundamental shift in Government policy.

Christopher Kissane is a historian and the third generation of his Kerry family to live abroad.

“As a professional historian, history does not repeat itself. It’s moving all the time. Relying on assumptions [around diaspora] is very damaging,” he says. “Academia is a creative industry. Accelerated programmes will make a difference at the margins. But we need to get away from the idea that Government initiatives are going to address a centuries-long demographic problem.”

Deenihan might be the target of a few slings and arrows, but it comes as no surprise. “It’s very illuminating to sit here this morning and hear all the things we’re doing wrong,” he says, with more than a little wry humour.