The Next Leap

I was at a very interesting presentation this week (probably last week by the time you read this) at the Irish Institute for European Affairs (IIEA).  They were launching Johnny Ryan‘s paper The Next Leap.  It describes what we should be doing to bring Ireland into the next stage of its economic development.  It would have been a far better paper for the Government to have produced on Thursday than its pathetic Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal (the one thing you can say for that is at least it was made from 95% recycled policies – well done Greens).

The Next Leap

The Next Leap

Education, Education, Education

The most important page in Johnny’s paper (all of which is online at the link above) is the Key Action Points.  To take a few of them in bunches:

  • Launch a Cabinet endorsed drive to transform the education system as a national priority
  • Speedy roll-out of a digital curriculum to provide “digital instincts” at primary and secondary level
  • Integrate business context into secondary level curriculum to emphasise the viability of a career in the digital sector
  • Introduce weighted marks at Leaving Certificate level for ICT relevant subjects
  • Commit the funding required to provide sufficient connectivity and equipment to bring Irish schools up to the OECD average, and exempt all school ICT equipment from VAT

The education system is probably the most important factor in the medium-term changes we need to make.  But we need to make the changes now in order for them to give a return in the medium-term.  The fact that most students leave school with less than a rudimentary understanding of how even simple computer programs work is disappointing, to say the least.

If we’re to call ourselves a ‘knowledge economy’, we need to make sure that our workforce has some relevant knowledge.  Bringing computers into the heart of the classroom is one place to start.  When I studied computers in WIT in the late 1990s, I was shocked at the basics that had to be taught to business students (how to open files in Word, for example).  From talking to friends still in that sector, I’m told the skill levels haven’t changed much.

I think we need to start off by using laptops as the primary method of course and work delivery at senior cycle (4th, 5th & 6th year) in second level schools.  This is already happening in private schools, and I’m sure companies like Dell and Microsoft would be more than happy to support a national scheme.  Microsoft would certainly love to have everyone in Ireland hugely familiar with their products rather than a competitor’s before entering the workforce.

Weighting marks at Leaving Cert for relevant subjects is also something that will have to be considered.  Either that, or alter curricula.  It takes far more work to get a decent grade in Higher Level Maths than in any other subject.  Dumbing down that course isn’t an option when we need more people with better maths skills, so let’s do the opposite – improve the return on investment for students.  This isn’t a matter of helping out those who have an aptitude for maths & physics.  It’s a matter of incentivising them to take those subjects instead of so called ‘easier’ ones (in my time, it was Geography).

The subjects, and they way they’re taught, need drastic overhaul, and it’s good to see that being identified by Johnny and his team.

Repositioning Ireland – Pick a Niche

  • Brand Ireland as a Green Data Centre location
  • Convene a taskforce to discuss an optimal national strategy to promote Ireland as a location for localisation services
  • Global Rights Clearance Hub: i) tax deductions could make Ireland an attractive location in which to vest intellectual property; ii) new tax treaties to minimise double taxation on foreign withholding tax; iii) lobbying to join the US Patent Prosecution Highway (PPH)
  • Establish a multi-disciplinary group convened by SEI and SFI to determine whether Ireland could be a hub of “silicon offsetting” research

The Canadian Government has done some great work in creating small clusters for really ‘far out’ technologies.  Things like nanotechnology and tidal energy were picked up on years ago.  The Government invested relatively small amounts of money creating research centres at existing universities, then encouraged companies in those fields to set up nearby.  What you have now is a focus point of North America’s nanotech industry in Edmonton.  A focus of photonics companies in Ottawa.  Those aren’t focuses that would have built up naturally.  They were strategically created by deliberate Government action.

So the IIEA’s ideas here are right.  Pick a niche – it could be one of those mentioned above, or something different – and focus on that.  Put money into researching it at one of the universities/ITs.  Create the incentives for similarly-minded companies to locate nearby.  Rights clearance is a great example.  We have plenty of intellectual property expertise in Ireland, and many of them do a lot of work on that periphery that exists between the US and EU intellectual property systems.  Let’s exploit it.

Encouragement & Discouragement

It was encouraging to see Paul Rellis of Microsoft there to launch the paper.  It started off as encouraging to see Tánaiste & Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment Mary Coughlan there too.  Unfortunately, she failed to grasp the point of it, and went through the main elements of the paper talking about how the Government had already done them or couldn’t do them at all, at all.  In particular, she made a snide comment about proposals to change the education system – to the effect that it wouldn’t happen (paraphrased from memory: “I’ll refer that to Batt, but good luck to him”).  Very disappointing that the Government Minister in charge of that side of the economy simply doesn’t appear to get it.

Realism

Overall, though, this is a good paper.  My biggest criticism would be that, at times, it doesn’t go far enough.  But being aspirational and being realistic are two different things at times.  This is a realistic paper that shows where Ireland can improve its offering to the world quickly and, relatively, easily.  It’s something we need to do urgently.


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