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'We don't want to leave anybody behind': How ready is Ireland for the digital transition?

Ireland has some big targets to hit in the next eight years when it comes to getting people and workforces online. Will it happen?

IRELAND HAS SOME big targets to hit in the next eight years. 

The government has set out plans for the country to become a digital leader in Europe as part of what’s called the Digital Ireland Framework

These big targets include plans to increase the Irish public’s level of basic digital skills to 80%, have 90% of public services and businesses operating at a “high level of digital intensity”, and cover all populated areas with 5G by no later than 2030.

The European Commission’s vision for the bloc’s digital transition by the end of the decade revolve around four dimensions with corresponding targets that Ireland is now aiming to reach. The key areas covered include digital infrastructure, digital transformation of business, and the digitalisation of public services.

For years, a low corporate tax rate had been a key part of the Irish economic policy.
However, joining the OECD framework for a global rate of 15% tax last year meant Ireland’s future competitiveness for foreign investment would have to come from elsewhere.

Speaking at the recent European Financial Forum, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that accelerating digital and decarbonisation transitions are bringing “challenges” as well as opportunities for growth.

But how ready is Ireland for these challenges?

The country is well placed to reach those targets “but we can’t be complacent,” according to Ibec’s head of digital economy policy Erik O’Donovan.

“We’re all aware that the pandemic has accelerated the digital transition in a lot of businesses. But remember it’s done the same in competitor countries as well,” said O’Donovan.

When compared to our European counterparts, Ireland ranks 5th of the 27 EU countries in the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) 2021, preceded by Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Under the same index, Ireland was above the EU average for digital public services and the integration of digital technology, ranking 6th in both areas. However, where Ireland lags behind most is in our digital skills. In 2021, the basic digital skills of the population were found to be just below the EU average – 53% against 56%.

Ibec’s 2022 CEO Survey, which aims to capture the perspectives and predictions of CEOs on the major business issues, found that the digital transformation of their business was a top-five priority for 26% of respondents.

O’Donovan notes that some small to medium enterprises (SMEs) are further along in the digital transition than others so supporting those who need it will be vital in reaching the targets set for 2030, particularly as the sectors involved are not just those in tech.

“When people think about digital, they may just think narrowly about the tech sector, but it’s also across other elements of our knowledge economy. Whether it be medical tech or biopharma, financial services or professional services, these will be digitally intensive industries.

“That’s why the strategy is welcome because it offers a framework in which to do that. The key thing though is implementation.”

Infrastructure hurdles

One country with a similar population size considered to be ahead of Ireland’s digital transformation is Denmark.

The uptake of digitisation among the Danish population is very high thanks to one digital key access to more than a hundred different public services, according to Engineers Ireland. All levels of their government have been digitalised as well as their hospitals, schools, and universities

The Danes also lead the EU in their very high-capacity networks, with over 90%
coverage – significantly further ahead than Ireland’s paltry 20.8%. While other factors, such as geography, are at play, Engineers Ireland credit more investment in telecommunication services and Governmental organisation as having contributed significantly to this difference.

Damien Owens, registrar at Engineers Ireland, told The Journal that one of the big challenges moving towards 2030 will be having a reliable energy source.

In the most recent State of Ireland report from Engineers Ireland, which preceded the government’s framework, the association recommended expediting the National Broadband Plan, securing Ireland’s energy grid and supply, strengthening support for digital education, increasing support for entrepreneurs, and investing more in research and development.

Owens notes that the subsequent government framework ticks most of these boxes but says addressing the role Data Centres play will be vital in the coming decade.

Data centres are now a significant feature of Ireland’s electricity demand while also being a core infrastructure enabler of the technology and information sectors thanks to the continued growth of cloud computing, social media, online retail, video streaming and the like.

In the coming years, Owens said the rollout of the National Broadband plan will need to be rolled out carefully alongside the construction of new data centres in what he calls a cat and mouse game. He says small scale, targeted data centres make the most sense for a small island like Ireland moving forward. But stressed that planning ahead was very important if we are to balance electrical supply and demand.

“While we weathered the storm of the pandemic well, putting in infrastructure for grids and electricity transmission is long term, you’ve got to think in a five year time frame. We need to envisage the capacity and where the population will be in those five years.

Hurdles aside, Owens is confident that the next stage of digitisation for Ireland will come from indigenous companies and “that’s where we’ll see the growth”.

“The multinationals here have performed well in the tech sector, the challenge will be transferring those skills to indigenous Irish companies to grow in the tech space
We need a spirit of entrepreneurship, but to grow an Irish SME to the size we need the support and funding structures developed.”

And what about the people?

Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune told The Good Information Project’s most recent Open Newsroom that while we don’t do very well when it comes to the digital skills of the general population “we don’t want to leave anybody behind”.

So how does the government propose we bring everyone, or 80% of us, along?  The framework sets out plans to invest in embedding lifelong learning/upskilling in the workforce, providing accessible, high-quality guidance to workers, prioritising transversal skills development, and ensuring a solid foundational knowledge from early years to post-primary and teacher education programmes.

However, the most important aspect of the plan to upskill the population is the framework’s focus on building strong managerial leadership, according to Duena Blomstrom, author of Emotional Banking and People Before Tech. 

Blomstrom said the focus should currently be on taking steps to make people change their mentalities to work. 

“You can teach them to use Excel, you can teach them how to use different programmes but realistically you’re not going to get anywhere until we’ve changed some tenets of what we believed our work should be like,” Blomstrom told The Journal.

You have to remember you have these vast segments of the population that are in the workforce today. And before they can be digital, they also have to understand what is flexibility. What are the tenets of agility, right? How do we move fast? How do we kind of change this slow pace of waterfall delivery into an agile mindset?

The best approach, she says, is changing the type of management/leadership that is commonplace today: “The previous tenets of ‘command and control’ no longer work simply because we no longer have a line of sight.

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“So in this new day and age, the only way we’re going to be able to accomplish any business objective is by getting people to come along. Inspiring leadership is no longer nice to have it’s mandatory.” 

For workers concerned about the digital transition, Blomstrom said from her experience there are more similarities between people’s ability to adapt to change than there are differences irrespective of age, gender, geography or race.

“There’s more that unifies us if we go back to fundamental concepts. If we manage to bring it down to very clear common sense items, I don’t think we see differences in terms of people’s age and so on and it is a very unifying time if you wish,” she said.

“Investing in self-care, being more self-respecting of ourselves, building a personal brand, making sure that we have enough joy in the ways we offer our skills. Those are things that we should be doing at an individual level.”

And for companies wondering how best to address the change this decade, Blomstrom recommends they always consider human debt – those things that get left undone for people in the workplace in particular with the advent of digital.

Some examples of human debt at a business level according to Blomstrom: lip service from the top, management changes and bad leadership, a culture of fear and avoidance of failure, and not permitting hybrid work models.

“It contains many things, our discussion on diversity and inclusion, our discussions on respect, our discussions on feedback, many, many things that have been started on and never really sorted in the workplace which now translate into burnout and people being depressed and then eventually that translates into less money into the pocket of the company.

“And more importantly, makes these companies unsustainable when if they’re not competing with the big guys that know what they’re doing.”

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Adam Daly

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