The knowledge economy is key to Ireland’s prosperity. That is because of the rapid migration of business online, the wave of gigantic data processing that is supporting a myriad of industries, and the value of analysis and insight to the global economy.
Ireland is ideally positioned to exploit this opportunity for a number of key reasons. Firstly, English remains the chosen language of the online world and is a natural asset for Ireland based providers; secondly, we have a well-entrenched education pipeline of graduates who are savvy in knowledge management, and, thirdly, geographically Ireland can service a global market efficiently given its ability to trade across all time zones.
Added to this mix is the monumental shift that marks Brexit. With the UK outside the EU, Ireland is the only English-speaking member state left. This is not just important for serving the large EU market but it also opens up other markets that have struck trade deals with the EU. Canada is the most recent example but Japan and India are on the horizon too.
These EU trade deals allow companies inside the EU to access large external markets without major hurdles. There are 35m people in Canada, 127m in Japan and 1.25bn in India. That compares with the 60m people in the UK who are leaving the EU. It is not far-fetched to imagine Irish knowledge-based companies using advanced telecommunications to support more customers in these countries over the next decade.
A recent debate among UK politicians highlighted the folly of pursuing manufacturing markets for the UK post-Brexit. It explained that most manufactured goods are sold in geographies contiguous to the place of production as the cost of transport limits their competitiveness. In contrast, knowledge and services suffer no such disadvantage. Instead, the key barriers are language, market access and sufficiently advanced telecom infrastructure.
Ireland does well on all three criteria, although we need to step up the speed at which web access is strengthened and introduced across the country. It beggars belief that policymakers cannot see the merits of fast-tracking solutions that provide ultra-fast connectivity.
I was washing my car at the weekend and a guy in the garage was lamenting the departure of four employees in recent weeks. He said rising rents had driven them away. If we want to build multi-decade foundations that can support a growing knowledge sector, we need to provide housing for those employees. The main cities are struggling to offer competitive rents, so rural Ireland offers a long-term solution. That only works if large capacity broadband is available constantly.
Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon, Monaghan, and Mayo are the five counties that have the worst broadband connectivity in Ireland and they also have the lowest house prices. Does someone need a drawing to explain how the two are connected? If broadband access can be conquered properly, it changes the definition of the workplace entirely and provides options for fast-growing knowledge-based companies.
Brexit is throwing up many challenges and opportunities for Ireland and there are many taskforces in place across the political spectrum to help shape our response. Putting the knowledge industry at the heart of that would not only deliver answers about the direct impact of Brexit but would also help generate a much bigger opportunity for the country. Beyond the UK, there is a number of large growing economies that are logical targets for growing Irish companies. Tapping into those could not only replace but actually exceed the level of business under threat as Brexit unfolds.
Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal