Feeding the ‘smart economy’

Nearly two years ago the Irish government published a paper (Building Ireland’s Smart Economy) in which it identified what it called the ‘smart economy’ as the best support for economic regeneration and an escape from the deepening recession. In the paper, the idea of the ‘smart economy’ was explained as follows:

‘The Smart Economy has, at its core, an exemplary research, innovation and commercialisation ecosystem.’

Leaving aside for a moment the increasingly irritating use of the term ‘ecosystem’, the general concept is fair enough: that research, innovation and commercialisation come together to create new economic activity. This happens in two ways: more directly but with fewer short term benefits, the intellectual property from some research can be turned into economic value through licensing and spin-outs; and secondly, high value research linking with industry can generate conditions in which both foreign and indigenous investment may create jobs.

But one issue which perhaps has not received all the attention it deserves is this question: which areas of research are relevant here? Could it be any area at all, or do we need to focus on a small selection (given that we are a small country and cannot do everything)? And if we need to focus, which areas should attract our attention?

The ‘Smart Economy’ report did not itself specify exactly where the focus should lie, but it did make frequent references to areas of research that would align with industrial priorities, together with the provision of transferable skills from other disciplines. On the whole it is assumed that Ireland’s focus should be on the areas highlighted by Science Foundation Ireland – i.e. biotechnology and ICT and, more recently, sustainable development. But is that adequate?

Last weekend the Sunday Business Post published an article by TCD Professor of International Business, Colm Kearney. In a nutshell, he argues that the focus on the areas identified by SFI and in other reports is not necessarily right. In particular, he takes the view that the arts, humanities and social sciences (as well as other science areas that have not been prioritised nationally) have lots to offer that could benefit Ireland’s ‘smart economy’ and assist in regeneration. And this is what he concludes:

‘Ireland’s knowledge society must be broadly conceived. It will be inhabited by committed citizens who have access to a broad range of artistic, cultural and recreational opportunities in a sophisticated and tolerant society.’

It is certainly tempting to agree – and it is clearly right that a broad range of disciplines and areas of expertise will help to educate skilled graduates and develop vital benefits from research. But at the same time, Ireland needs to offer a highly focused set of key areas where it can add value to international and local investment. We cannot possibly compete with the best in the world if our priorities are too thinly spread. In fact, it seems to me that the SFI priority areas (the result of a Technology Foresight exercise in the late 1990s) are far too wide now. On the other hand, it is right that we should look more closely at the arts, humanities and social sciences to see what contribution they can make, either in their own right or in collaboration with other disciplines.

The biggest risk we face is that this whole debate has simply been taken over by clichés. ‘Smart economy’, ‘innovation’, ‘knowledge transfer’, ‘ecosystem’ – all of them no doubt ‘going forward’ – have been so over-used that in many ways they are now meaningless. That is why a restatement of priorities has become so important, because it forces us to address matters of substance rather than just churning out slogans. We must move, because we have an economy (and a society) to save.

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5 Comments on “Feeding the ‘smart economy’”

  1. Colm Harmon Says:

    I think the main issue is not that we shouldn’t have focus or specialisation…we should…but rather how that is defined and by whom. What DCU does at an internationally competitive standard will be different to what TCD or NUIG do and that should be a focus of attention. The idea that some central planner can decide that Ireland has to be competitive in discipline X is silly and creates odd incentives at the level of Institutions. The research providers know – if they are honest enough to say it – which disciplines they are good at and which they are not. That, to me, is the starting point. Going forward. 🙂

  2. Al Says:

    Well said Ferdinand,

    At this stage, the smart economy talk is gaining metaphysical definition. I fear that the knowledge economy will be undeliverable in the long run.

    At its current stage, it is proposed as desirable, and that third and fourth level education is the delivery vehicle. Delivering qualified graduates will create the magnatism to attract the smart economy.

    However, the next stage will more than likely be state funded, university run research institutes to employ the highly skilled and expensive graduates that the university produced in the first place.

    In the mean time, the rest of the workforce, the less smart, will be waiting for the economy to turn around for employment oppurtunity.

    While it is obvious that there will be growth in the smart economy area, the debate needs to be in terms of will the smart economy deliver for the rest of the economy!

    This scenario deserves a cost benefit analysis, with the costs measured against staged levels of a successful outcome. At what point of benefit curve will the costs be justified?

    There will obviously be a return from the smart economy, but for the country to put its future on it and it only, seems brave.

    In the meantime, driving on roads that are still scared from the winter freeze, wasting 50% of our harvested water, and preparing for possible winter floods round 2, which will stop children attending school in prefabs, etc.

    I propose what we also need a “Works Economy” where the people out of work can find employment on national infrastructural works. Obviously this would have to be done under the discipline of reduced costs etc.

    We have created a theology of education as salvation, but wise men have said that it is the combination of ‘ora’ and ‘labora’ that is the key.

    Perhaps in the meantime there will be some brain supplement added in to the milk, at a premium, to facilitate the smartening of the nation in preparation for the smart economy, with government support to deliver it, and the carton printed in Irish for an extra kickback….

  3. iainmacl Says:

    The ‘smart economy’ is just the latest example, is it not, of Ireland’s exemplary tradition of fiction. 😉

    That’s certainly how it feels much of the time. We see newspaper supplements and articles almost daily on the theme of ‘innovation’. Conferences, guest lectures, more and more reports, strategy documents and taskforces. One can’t help get the impression that there are more people writing (and pontificating) about innovation, that actually doing it. Has our education system provided us with a glut of analysts and readers of runes?

    • kevin denny Says:

      I would have thought we have too few analysts. Or at least too little analytical thinking where it counts.

  4. cormac Says:

    I think the views of the Harvard President, as stated in The Irish Times, are relevant here

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