After the Hashtag: Where Now for Skibbereen?

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | November 27, 2015 0


Guest contributor Brendan Lyons, MD of Redbarn Publishing, and self appointed Digital Czar for Skibbereen (unpaid and voluntary!) reflects on Skibbereen’s hugely successful Digital Week and the ambition to make Skibb a Digital Hub with the building of the Ludgate Centre. This web incubator centre is named after Percy Ludgate, the Irish inventor of the first portable computer in 1912. There are no prizes for guessing which town Percy hailed from! Brendan Lyons

It was a week of dreams. The recurring mantra was ‘making the impossible, possible’. Is this really Ireland? Is this really Skibbereen? While one of our greatest exports famously wrote, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, the culture of business failure in Ireland is not one that, historically, has been wholeheartedly embraced.

However, at #DigitalWeekSkibb, during this can-do, gung-ho week, phrases like ‘You have to fail in order to succeed’ were being bandied about with gusto. Ronan Harris of Google spoke of ideas being received with ‘Yes and …’ rather than a ‘No but…’.

While ‘geography is now history’, we were told, the hard miles also need to be put in, both by established and startup businesses. David Puttnam (at 74) was only ‘virtually present’. He was not relaxing with his feet up in River House a mile out the road, but on a trade mission in Hanoi. The two principals of the local Spearline Labs were in New York one day, at Web Summit in Dublin the next, prior to arriving back ‘home’ on day three. They did not arrive empty-handed, but announced a one million euro investment and 20 new highly skilled IT jobs in the pipeline.DigitalWeek

Operating in the margins as is my wont. I had many interesting conversations with speakers and delegates alike, in an attempt to gauge their assessment of this, a conference put together on a very short timescale and a shoestring budget. ‘Everyone made a great job of introducing people to each other’, I was told – an area, apparently, where many conferences fall down. Anne O’Leary of Vodaphone, one of the Ludgate steering committee, commented ‘We have witnessed a digital community in the making.’ Up in Mrs Trendy’s hair salon, neither Twitter nor the ‘internet of things’ were the central topic of conversation, but the comments there mirrored many I heard on the street in the course of the week: ‘I don’t know what it’s all about but, shure, it’s good for the town.’

Undoubtedly good for the town, too, the two separate donations of 150,000 euro seed funding from philanthropist Maurice Healy, who grew up ‘on the street along with his eight siblings’, and Sean O’Driscoll of Glen Dimplex, who is from ‘only out the road’, where his 92-year-old mother still lives. These narrative threads are what made this conference stand out from the anodyne. There was much talk and much listening, a most important lesson for entrepreneurs – an ability to really listen to customers is central to success.

Many people came for a single session and did not readily leave. When I met Avril Allshire-Howe of Caherbeg Free Range Pork at about six o’clock one evening, she told me ‘my husband was expecting me back at 11.00 this morning!’ She, and many of the other powerful local business women present on that second day, could teach us all a thing or two about empowerment.Digi1

And at what other conference would an MD bring her mammy and auntie along? It was wonderful, too, to see a host of local students attending the first day’s session on the future of Digital Education and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Laurence O’Rourke of the European Science Agency provided a fascinating insight into the science behind the Rosetta mission. Susanne Thompson, the Director of Discovery Education, illustrated how STEM subjects will be used in jobs in the future and Stephen Howell of Academic Engagement at Microsoft discussed coding with students and how they can create basic ‘apps’. Jagoda, a young girl of immigrant parents stacking shelves as an after-school job was almost in tears as she told me how inspiring the education day and Laurence O’Rourke’s seminar had been. That, alone, made the week worthwhile for me. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí (praise youth and they will prosper) sprang to mind. Digi2Digi3

In one session, Kieran Harte of Uber – a company at the heart of the ‘sharing economy’ – asked ‘what else in the world is under-utilised?’ The entrepreneur and angel investor Mary McKenna’s answer to his question was ‘talent. How can we fix that?’ This same question has been exercising me, too.

On Tuesday 3 November, while last-minute preparations for National Digital Week were being feverishly put in place, 959 inhabitants of Skibbereen and its hinterland were in receipt of social welfare assistance. So much talent being wasted, a situation unfortunately not unique to Skibbereen, but one mirrored in small rural towns throughout the country.

The hard work really begins now. We need, as a community, to find a way of capitalising on the positive energy generated by this invigorating week. As the old Irish phrase goes, ‘tús maith, leath na hoibre’ – a good start is half the work.

So, can we dare to dream? Paraphrasing Ronan Harris, maybe it is not too fanciful to suggest that Skibbereen could become the Fatima of the 21st century, with business owners coming here on an annual digital pilgrimage. As Web Summit folds its tents to migrate to Lisbon in 2016, stranger things have been known to happen.

The Skibbereen Eagle

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