Cabinet needs a technologist to inspire 'a nation of nerds'

Ireland requires an overhaul of its education system and a shift in mindsets to embrace the knowledge economy. So heard the audience at a discussion in the Royal Irish Academy this evening entitled 'What's smart about Ireland' Smart Economy in 2010?'. By Malachy Browne.

The panel included Dick Ahlstrom, Science Editor at the Irish Times, Karlin Lillington, technology journalist with the Irish Times, Sean O'Driscoll, CEO at Glen Dimplex, Brian Kelly, CEO of Celtic Catalysts and John Fitzgerald of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). Michael Cronin of Dublin City University introduced the discussion. An audio recording of the complete discussion and Q&A is available below.

(Pictured left to right: Dick Ahlstrom, Sean O'Driscoll, John Fitzgerald)

[Audio from the discussion here:  {mp3 width="400"}Whats smart about the Smart Economy{/mp3}

At the outset, Dick Ahlstrom asked panellists to explain what they believe the Smart Economy to be. Brian Kelly noted the difficulty Ireland faces competing for international business against lower-cost economies. He said that on a macro-economic scale, the smart economy must deliver efficiencies by offering better products and services than competing economies.

John Fitzgerald said the smart economy is about "putting bright ideas together". He referred to the culture in Ireland where people passionate about technology were termed 'nerds' or 'geeks'. "We must create a culture where people think it's fun to discuss ideas," Fitzgerald said. "We must be a nation of nerds".

Fitzgerald also said that the Smart Economy is "much broader than just physicists and chemists". The idea of a Smart Economy must grow beyond its pigeonhole of technology and industry to include the social sciences, the arts and humanities and encompass Irish society in a broader sense.

Dick Ahlstrom concurred, adding that at present, the idea that a smart economy goes beyond industry is heresy among government.

Sean O'Driscoll warned that the term 'smart' is potentially divisive and presumptuous. The word 'smart' conjures an association of academically intelligent children, he said. And, applied in the national context, it "assumes other countries are not as smart as Ireland". O'Driscoll said that on a recent trip to China, he met "some of the most intellectually powerful people in [his] industry".

O'Driscoll added that the phrase is about "inventiveness", about doing things more efficiently and doing things better. Noting challenges to Irish entrepreneurship, O'Driscoll said that "there are very few 'Eurekas' out there". He said that support must be given to the evolutionary research and development (R&D) happening in Ireland that often leads on to new ideas, products and services.

Brian Kelly said that there is an obligation on media and people involved in high-technology research to communicate what is behind the Smart Economy and to outline the benefits of technology and R&D. Kelly echoed O'Driscoll's argument that more people should be facilitated to engage in the Smart Economy.

Sean O'Driscoll said that Ireland has lost competitiveness. "Ireland is 36% more expensive to do business in than the UK," said O'Driscoll. However, Ireland is starting to regain competitiveness now. "Electricity was 38% higher than other countries in the EU. Now it's 6%."

O'Driscoll heads Glen Dimplex, a heating business specialising in home appliances. O'Driscoll said that the 2020 energy target - which requires a combination of green energy with carbon energy - can be delivered in terms of the hard technology. "But it will also require huge changes in human behaviour," he said. "We need human sciences to play a role. It is about inventiveness and about doing things efficiently... doing more with less."

How to make wider society engage and be aware of the Smart Economy?

Karlin Lillington said that Universities "tend to have quite weak systems to promote ideas". She referred to difficulties she has had as a technology journalist in keeping abreast of cutting-edge developments emerging from this sector. She said that social media and niche blogs means there is a wealth of channels by which to access sector-specific information. She said that the media can help to deliver messages to a wider audience, but that often the wider public is not interested.

John Fitzgerald said that recently the government has diluted the focus of Science Foundation Ireland, which he described as a bad idea.

Brian Kelly said that Ireland's education system is designed to reward those who learn by rote, something that stifles creativity and understanding. He said that the government must "weed out" this vulnerability.

Sean O'Driscoll said that confidence in the Smart Economy is crucial, a view supported by Karlin Lillington. An American, Lillington said: "In [Silicon Valley] there is an optimism that tomorrow you can create the next Google." She cited an Irish researcher who polled a PHD class in the US, four fifths of whom said they wanted to form their own companies; this compared with merely one fifth of an equivalent class in Ireland.

"People don't grow up [in Ireland] thinking in those terms," Lillington said. Dick Ahlstrom supported the entrepreneurial deficit by saying that "Ireland doesn't have a can-do attitude".

Ahlstrom said there is a lack of vision in government regarding the benefits of entrepreneurial activity. "There's no vision, there's no realisation ... that we have to stimulate at the same time [as austerity] to get ourselves out of this hole." He argued for incentives such as allowing start-ups to operate tax free for five years.

One speaker said that Ireland needs "flagship models" and success stories that will inspire the next generation. "We need kids to celebrate technological success... to have kids thinking they're no different to me."

Diversity of imagination and emigration by choice

Panellists also spoke of the need for diversity of experience and candidates to harness creativity and build the knowledge economy.

Karlin Lillington cited the example of the business software applications company, Oracle. Oracle, Lillington said, brought together high achievers from diverse backgrounds such as sport (water-polo), law, the arts and humanities to foster a creative, multi-skilled environment.

This approach was contrasted with the Irish Cabinet of which no member comes from a science and engineering background.

While recognising that forced emigration is undesirable, Lillington said that emigration for a period is beneficial. Lillington said that companies in Ireland have found it difficult to find sales and communications staff with international experience. "It's not the worst thing for people to have to be shoved out for a while," she said.

A speaker from the audience concurred. Having just returned from eight years working in China, he said that too often emigration is viewed as a negative. "If [Ireland] were an international company," he said, "we have to be a node in a world of industrial and economic nodes. We have to bring up our graduates to grow up with the understanding that they will have to work abroad, we should support that, and we should encourage them to come back."

"Irish people are drawn back anyway," he said. "Getting out and seeing the world gives the students skills."

John Fitzgerald said that ESRI research shows that Irish people who emigrate and return will be 7% more productive and will earn 7% more than their counterparts who worked only in Ireland. The ESRI is currently doing research to gauge the relative success of companies whose managers worked or studied abroad.

John Fitzgerald said that the higher education in universities should also be diverse. "If you want to be a great department, two thirds of the class should be the best international students."

"We have created a diverse multicultural economy - we should value that." Fitzgerald added.

Overhaul education

At the conclusion of the discussion, Karlin Lillington outlined what she believes Ireland needs to do right now to foster a Smart Economy. A priority must be "overhauling the education system, from the primary system up," she said. She advocated greater funding for primary and secondary education "where students never encounter the science role models, the skills, the equipment that they need to inspire them for tomorrow". She recommended diverting funds from third level education if necessary.

Lillington added that Ireland must choose niche areas in which to invest, and put people of different disciplines to work together in teams within these areas of focus.

John Fitzgerald argued for greater diversity. He noted that 60% of Irish graduates are female, the top performers in education are female, and yet most of the attendees at this evening's discussion were male.

Dick Ahlstrom said that Ireland should take a broader view of what the term 'Smart Economy' means.

Further discussions will be held at the Royal Irish Academy in coming weeks.