Last week, my wife and I were tootling around West Cork for a few days. We do it on a regular basis to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live in a country festooned with natural beauty.
Of course, rural Ireland — and especially those parts that have a high reliance on tourism — lives in a highly seasonal economic environment.
Once October sets in, many restaurants and places offering accommodation close or wind down to a weekend trade. In addition, numerous houses across the countryside, and particularly along the coast, are holiday homes that are often not occupied during school term.
That backdrop poses a strategic challenge to politicians and other societal leaders. Finding a key to unlocking far more all year round economic activity in rural Ireland is one of the big hurdles we should address.
While strolling around Skibbereen, I came across the Ludgate Hub, the tech-savvy centre kick-started by an enlightened group of private and public representatives.
I was given a tour that opened my eyes even further than was the case months ago when the Hub was initially launched.
It is hard to visualise the broad effect of centres such as the Ludgate Hub, but electrification is a good place to start.
When rural Ireland was electrified during the 1950s it was physical poles and wires that illustrated the real impact on people’s lives.
Lit houses and working domestic appliances brought to life the revolution that electricity provided for people who had relied on fires for heat and food previously.
We are now in the midst of an even more powerful revolution.
This revolution is one of digitisation and it is having a more profound impact on our lives than electricity ever had. It is difficult, however, to provide you with tangible evidence supporting that contention as this revolution is literally in the clouds.
My visit to the Ludgate Hub helped bring that vision to life. Kids in local houses are now attending Coder Dojo classes in the Ludgate Hub, where they learn the basic principles of computer coding.
Courses are taking place to teach anyone who attends, young or old, how to optimise their mobile phones and other devices. Rich Americans — who were sailing in Baltimore during summer Ò used the Ludgate Hub to hotdesk back to head offices and, in so doing, extended their stay in West Cork.
A number of entrepreneurs are looking for houses as they move businesses from the US and UK to the region and use the Ludgate Hub as their communication base.
All of this is the type of exciting momentum we should not only cheer but actively promote in other towns too. What is stopping companies such as Google, Apple, Dell-EMC, and telecom companies combining with county councils to replicate the Ludgate Hub around rural Ireland?
I read about fantastical housing costs in places such as London and San Francisco and compare those with the the hard facts of living and working in Kerry, Clare, and other counties.
The data shows house prices and rents in rural Ireland remain at very low levels, compared to key Irish cities and other international centres.
The reason that happens is because these areas have, for decades, been cut off from frontline economic activity, where large populations define strong business conditions.
Digitisation turns all of that on its head. By providing entrepreneurs and investors with gigabyte capacity and telco connectivity the Ludgate Hub is hooking rural Ireland into the heart of the global 24/7 and 365 day e-commerce marketplace.
It is bringing a new vision to how an area that is far from large urban centres can be positioned better.
I hope the Ludgate Hub wins awards for what it has already achieved. I hope, too, it incubates and produces a raft of success stories with companies selling themselves for fortunes, joining stock exchanges or staying private and building wealth through re-investing their profits.
If all that can be achieved then it will create a new generation of role models that can show how businesses can be built in rural Ireland that have resonance with investors and customers alike. We should look forward now to other towns waking up and smelling the digital coffee.
Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.
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