How to put an indigenous engine of growth at the heart of your community
The challenges facing Ireland’s towns and villages are well documented and many of these challenges have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However the pandemic has also highlighted the web of collaborative community strengths and resources in our towns which are often taken for granted. Equally .IE identified a trend that emerged during the pandemic, a desire by people to buy and back local whenever possible.
Over the past 5 years with the support of Bank of Ireland and DLR CoCo we have evolved a model which we would like to share with other communities that wish to take ownership of their economic destiny.
A new economic model for towns
Many Irish towns have a built infrastructure that reflects the needs of their communities in the late 19th century. As inhabitants’ needs move up Maslow’s hierarchy towards self-actualisation, the towns that serve them must evolve accordingly. Self actualisation is different for everyone but can include belonging, self fulfilment, work life balance, heritage etc.
This digital led strategy breaks down into complementary and mutually reinforcing strands. Because retail is a follower of economic growth rather than a catalyst, we see the order in which a town might shape itself for the future as starting with the fabric of the town itself, then setting about attracting innovation driven enterprises.
Do what you can with what you've got
Our project director, Eoin Costello, distilled our model in his recent TEDx talk entitled “Reinventing Town Centres: Do what you can with what you've got.” We believe that putting digital growth plus new localism into action is a simple plan that can empower any local community that believes in itself.
We believe this will enable our small businesses, and the communities they support, to thrive.
Towns will become platforms for sustainable jobs
We believe that by 2030 co-working spaces will be the second highest use of space on our main streets providing hubs of collaboration and community for knowledge workers. Achieving this is a matter of repurposing existing unoccupied space. Paul Keogh, a former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, suggested that co-working spaces are a win-win solution, especially if it can be done by repurposing disused retail space in towns and cities thereby converting retail into vibrant hotspots of activity.
A plan in 3 straightforward steps
Based on proven results from our living lab in Dún Laoghaire town since we got started in 2016 we believe there is a three step process to achieving a Digital First Community in your locality.
Step 1 - It is essential to coordinate the resources and goodwill of local stakeholders through what might be regarded as a digital town team. This is the purpose of the @Digital<Location> steering group.
Step 2 - With lots of different actions, resources and skills needed to activate the digital growth agenda for your locality in a sustainable, long term way we found the best way to achieve this was a single entity which we call a Digital Growth Hub.
Step 3 - If we want more sustainable jobs in our local communities we need more traditional and innovation driven businesses scaling successfully through digital. That is the purpose of our Digital Growth Mindset programme.
Why become a Digital First Community?
The primary goal of becoming a Digital First Community is to attract visitors, shoppers, home buyers and workers to your locality by creating synergy between your locality, your traditional small businesses and innovation driven businesses as well as local community groups and social enterprises.
To achieve the benefits of ’Digital First Communities’ in terms of increased footfall, lower property vacancies, high quality of life and new sustainable jobs, localities need to digitally project their area as vibrant and attractive locations in which innovation-driven SMEs can thrive.
Traditional SMEs need to maximise the use of digital to increase their reach and capture rate while local groups need to be created to help network and retain digital talent and their businesses.
Phase 1 - Where to start
The theme of this phase is about creating an action orientated plan to activate B2C local traditional businesses around digital and attract B2B innovation driven businesses to the locality through digital channels.
The first step for us was to focus on bottom up, grassroots actions coordinated by the @DigitalDunLaoghaire digital steering group. It comprised the key stakeholders concerned with the economic growth of the locality.
In effect it acts like a digital town team and is the digital agenda representative on the main Dún Laoghaire Town Team. The objectives of this steering group are outlined here.
Phase 2 - The Digital Growth Hub - An engine for local growth
At the heart of our work is the Digital Growth Hub. The hub seeks to future proof the small business community of its locality by creating a fusion between new and old ways of doing business. While traditional enterprise centres and commercial coworking spaces focus inwardly on their client companies and community within their facility, a digital growth hub focuses both inwardly on the incubated member businesses but also outwardly on digitally empowering the locality it sits within.
This outward focus is what distinguishes a digital growth hub from a remote working hub or an enterprise centre. The goal of a digital growth hub is unashamedly to spark a digital revolution in regional localities and create a virtuous cycle of economic growth for all elements of the business community.
Phase 3 - Local job creation through scaling small businesses
Small businesses are a critical pillar of Ireland’s economy, on average paying 50% of the costs of the running of a county’s operating expenses through business rates while nationally small businesses provide 80% of the jobs.
Most SMEs are lagging behind in digital adoption with 37% of employees missing basic digital skills leaving SMEs ill-prepared to navigate the big technology changes coming their way. This is the purpose of our Digital Growth Mindset programme for small businesses, traditional, innovation driven and social enterprises.
Here are the results you can achieve in your locality
In 2020 DigitalHQ supported 61 small businesses with online campaigns. Our work focuses on independent, often family owned businesses in the locality, making their personal story the focus of the feature. We created 936 posts on social media for these campaigns which received 26,254 Likes and Comments from the public.
In order to network existing businesses and attract new businesses to Dun Laoghaire Town we ran 4 @DigitalDunLaoghaire events with a total attendance of 160 while our Dun Laoghaire Enterprise Centre incubated 8 innovation driven enterprises.
Have a look at our 2020 Impact Report for ideas that you might be able to implement in your locality.
Interested in Learning More?
Working with our partners and our Advisory Panel members DigitalHQ will commence a series of workshops on the basics of 'Digital First Communities' later this year. This initiative will be based on what we know works and will cover things like how to create collaborative ‘Love Your Locality’ promotion campaigns for local small businesses, understanding how to attract and retain knowledge intensive jobs etc.
If you would like to be notified of recruitment for the first programme please jot your details down here.
In the meantime if you would like to gain a fuller understanding of our model our guest post for .IE provides a great start.