Ireland created a record number of jobs last year. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland were rightly praised. What few noticed, however, was that our capital slipped down the internationally recognized ranking of Innovative Cities. Last year, Dublin was 92nd; six years ago it was in the top 50. We need to improve our innovation game.
6 years ago, Trinity College Dublin Discussions began on an ambitious vision for an Innovation District in Dublin. The suggestion was clear. Ireland was overly dependent on foreign direct investment (FDI). She faced an uncertain future in terms of international tax policy. It had failed to build an internationally credible startup ecosystem and needed to find a way to attract, retain and capitalize on the talent that would propel the economy into the future.
The plan called for the development of Trinity East, the first new campus for Trinity College in 425 years. It aimed to place Dublin among the top 20 global innovation hubs by 2030. The idea wasn’t original, but it quickly benefited from the roadmap developed by cities like Boston, London, Philadelphia, Barcelona and Rotterdam. It was supported by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, universities in Dublin and across the country, industry and key corporate agencies. The vision enabled the largest philanthropic gift to a university in the state’s history and received significant support and investment from Trinity.
So what went wrong?
To be successful it needed a vision that was both inclusive and ambitious. It had to overcome intricate ownership challenges and gain the approval of multi-stakeholders. This took time, but these issues were addressed, and a report was released in January 2020 endorsing the project by the Grand Canal Innovation District Advisory Group chaired by the Secretary-General of the Ministry of the Taoiseach.
Then the pandemic struck. Uncertainty about the future of the office and cities in general reigned overnight. The government’s focus rightly shifted to the health of the nation, and momentum was lost. Trinity College has focused on keeping its courses available to students and finding a way to minimize losses caused by the pandemic.
However, as of 2016, the rest of the world continued to think long-term. Station F opened in Paris. It is now the world’s largest start-up hub and has turned France into a global hub for venture investing. The new buildings in Philadelphia’s Innovation District opened and filled within weeks. In the UK, Here East became the latest innovation district in London, and new projects in Manchester, Oxford, Sheffield and Glasgow have since followed. There are now more than 100 active innovation districts worldwide.
A visionary idea has become a requirement for the competition. I live in Cambridge, home to one of the world’s leading universities and the leading innovation ecosystem in Europe. Cambridge is the ‘unicorn capital’ of Europe, producing more billion dollar companies per capita than any other location. It is home to ARM, the UK’s leading technology company, and the global research headquarters of AstraZeneca.
My experience here has further strengthened my belief that Ireland needs to develop a proposal for an Innovation District – and quickly. Unconnected innovation actors and assets represent under-exploitation of our potential.
How we position Ireland is important. Our FDI success was no accident. It was a clear 40 year plan based on developing a globally competitive offering and a proven track record as one of the best places to do business. We set out to be a global leader and we have achieved it.
The same applies to innovation and entrepreneurship. A national framework for innovation districts needs to be created. It can build on the growing presence of technology and research driven global companies and the promising development of Irish companies reaching unicorn status. The framework should include the exciting innovation district plans being developed in Galway and Cork, as well as the recently announced plan in Limerick. It should build on the excellent all-Ireland start-up hub network set up by Dogpatch Labs. It is intended to respond to the new future function of offices as places for networking and collaboration. It should consider new development opportunities in Dublin, such as For example, the Glass Bottle location.
It should take into account the disruptive technologies of the future, from genomics to robotics to AI. It should respond to the climate crisis and the need for new technologies to help our cities become sustainable.
It should consider what inclusive and community-driven innovation can look like and how it can impact education, arts and employment opportunities. I propose that a national summit be held on how quickly a proposal for an internationally leading innovation district for Ireland can be developed. To misquote a famous Trinity alumnus, Samuel Beckett, “Ever tried. Ever failed. Try again. Successful this time.”
dr Diarmuid O’Brien is Chief Executive of Cambridge Enterprise, which manages innovation for the University of Cambridge
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/ireland-excels-at-innovation-but-on-world-stage-were-in-danger-of-being-left-behind-41551973.html Ireland excels at innovation, but we risk being left behind on the world stage