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Column: I’ve witnessed Ireland become a leader in the technology sector, let’s not slip

For Ireland to continue to compete successfully, demand has to be stimulated, internet usage has to be promoted and digital literacy has to be accelerated, says Philip Flynn, who has worked in the ICT sector since its infancy.

Philip Flynn

Since the 1980s, information and communications technology (ICT) has been one of the most successful sectors in the Irish economy. Now – by truly embracing digital – we must ensure Ireland retains its place as a global leader in ICT, writes Philip Flynn.

IN THE 1980s, when you told people you worked in the computer industry, you were generally met with curious expressions and questions. For those on the inside, the sector was hugely exciting.  However, only about 16,000 people worked in ICT in Ireland – the majority of those in manufacturing.  In 1987, when I began working with Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Irish software and services exports were valued at a mere IR £100 million and less than 3,000 people were employed in computer services.

Having a PC in your home was rare

The majority of the population had never touched a computer, and having a PC in your home was not only rare, it was considered curious and strange. I was privileged, through my job, to have one then – except it wasn’t even a PC as we now know them: it was a ‘dumb terminal’, so called because it needed to be connected to a mainframe in the company’s offices.

ICT now accounts for €60 billion or 35 per cent of total Irish exports. Nine of the top 10 software companies in the world have substantial operations here and the £100m of software and services in 1987 has grown to €50 billion today.

Over 82,000 people work in ICT, and – in the face of the worst recession we have ever seen – employment in the sector continues to grow.  In fact, somewhat ironically at a time of high general unemployment, we still have significant numbers of hi-tech job vacancies unfilled due to skills shortages.

The challenge for government now is to develop solutions that will rapidly address skills shortages and employment needs. We must also stimulate indigenous enterprise for the next wave of ICT, which is already being driven by a pervasive internet sector, mobile technologies, social media platforms, data analytics and information and cloud services in every economic sector of a globally connected marketplace. We must do all we can to ensure Ireland retains its place as a global leader in ICT.

From manufacture to software to online

Over the past three decades, I worked in a number of different roles in ICT. I spent ten years at DEC and had the opportunity there to move from hardware product manufacturing and design engineering in Clonmel to sales and marketing and business unit management in Geneva to the global services division in Massachusetts. I saw first-hand the power and potential of software as it was evolving and was first introduced to the internet through Digital’s own search engine, Alta Vista, in the mid 1990s.

After DEC was acqured by Comapaq, I moved back to Dublin to manage the international operations of Visio Corporation, a Seattle-based software development company. Visio was subsequently and successfully acquired by Microsoft in 2000.

I saw it as a natural progression for me next to embrace the opportunities presented by the emerging internet and I joined Orbiscom, a company focused on online credit card transactions, and subsequently acquired by MasterCard.

My own career – moving from manufacturing to services to software to online – somewhat mirrors the trajectory of Ireland’s ICT sector over the past 30 years. The next step for the sector – and one which we are now in the process of taking – is to fully exploit the opportunity presented by the expansion of the internet and its increasing influence on every aspect of our lives.

Embracing Digital

We are living through a seismic cultural change: economy and society are becoming increasingly digitised, and the importance of digital literacy and digital skills for all citizens cannot be stressed enough. Digital is no longer just a communications channel; it is a defining behaviour for younger generations of ‘digital natives’ – and in every sense it’s a new cultural change already happening.

Ireland is not alone in pinning our hopes for future economic prosperity on digital and ICT; every developed country in the world has a strategy for how it will take advantage of the internet.

For Ireland to continue to compete successfully, ‘demand’ has to be stimulated, internet usage has to be promoted and digital literacy has to be accelerated. Allied to that, connectivity has to be seamless and always available; always on; everywhere. Both sides of the demand and supply equation have to at least keep pace with – and, ideally, outperform – our leading sovereign competitors.  A warning shot across our bow, if one was needed, is that our nearest neighbour is already pushing ahead of us in this field.

To be fair, things are being done by the Government on the demand stimulus, education and infrastructure fronts, but the speed of change is such that we can’t rest easy. The major issue for us is the speed at which competing countries are developing, and our capacity to keep pace with them, let alone outstrip them. We also have an issue with the effective coordination of disparate initiatives.

Government plans

I look forward to the imminent publication of the National Digital Strategy by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, which will go some way to addressing these issues.

The fundamental opportunity that the internet age presents is the relatively low entry cost (the real entry barrier is one more of capability than cash), combined with the power it offers to exploit knowledge capability by bringing technologists, creatives and expert practitioners together – in any particular field that ultimately has global application – to collaborate in solving real current problems.

Where those efforts are successful locally, compelling products and / or services can be developed and exported to a global marketplace.  And the very same principle applies to the arts and cultural sector in developing global audiences for their offerings.

Exploiting our opportunities

To fully exploit the opportunity requires what we referred to in The Digital Hub as the four Cs: content, capability, connectivity and collaboration. Combined, these create a fifth C of digital community, which continues to evolve the capability to keep us competitive in the pervasive digital age. Connectivity and capability facilitate and stimulate content creation and collaboration and this, in turn, generates more content and an evolving, engaged and more capable expanded community at every iteration of the cycle.  A truly virtuous digital circle, so to speak.

For over 30 years, Ireland has made itself a leader in ICT. Now, in the digital era, let us not see this work undone.  By producing top-quality digital content and promoting connectivity and collaboration, we can develop a national digital capability that will ensure the sector continues to play a leadership role in the Irish economy.

Philip Flynn recently retired after over a decade as Chief Executive Officer of the Digital Hub Development Agency (DHDA).  The DHDA manages The Digital Hub, the Irish government initiative aimed at creating an international centre of excellence for digital content and technology enterprises.  The Digital Hub is located in Dublin’s south-west inner city, and is home to almost 70 digital enterprises.  Further information is available at www.thedigitalhub.com.

Read: What are they doing with that analogue space?>

Read: Ireland above EU and OECD averages for internet access>

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Philip Flynn

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