Minister Humphreys launched 'Our Rural Future' as the whole-of-government policy for rural Ireland for the period 2021-2025. It represents a new milestone in the approach to rural development policy for Ireland and adopts a more strategic, ambitious and holistic approach to investing in and maximising opportunities for rural areas.
The policy recognises the opportunity for rural rejuvenation that remote working presents and the potential of remote working hubs as key economic assets for our rural towns and villages.
At DigitalHQ we believe that the 3 Big Ideas in this document can contribute directly to the sustainable regional development goals of ‘Our Rural Future’ through the mechanism of the remote working hub infrastructure that the Minister's Department has created.
The creation of a state agency with responsibility for the remote working infrastructure of our country. Objective: To capture the remote working opportunity for rural Ireland
Once a sector of the economy becomes economically important the tried and tested course of action is to create a state agency to protect and grow the sector for the long term. There are many existing examples in Ireland, the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia, Fáilte Ireland, the National Milk Agency, Tourism Ireland, Screen Ireland (whose mission is to support and promote Irish film, television and animation) and Horse Racing Ireland (whose mission is to lead, develop and promote the horse racing industry) to name a few.
The creation of a vibrant rural Ireland is an objective that the Government has made a substantial investment in over the past five years. These measures include the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund (which provides funding for the development and construction of capital projects in towns and villages with a population of less than 10,000 and rural areas across Ireland), the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme (which provides funding for the development and enhancement of outdoor recreational infrastructure such as trails, walkways, cycleways, blueways and bridleways in rural areas), and the Town and Village Renewal Scheme/Street scapes/Connected Hubs fund.
The creation of a dedicated state agency would capture and augment the benefit of this substantial Government investment in rural towns and villages for the long term because the Government's goals for the National Hubs Network include: The local Hub will deliver economic development for their local communities and the wider economy. To link up as a network to advance the value and role of the national hubs network as a future national asset. For hubs to act as a catalyst in their localities by playing their role in localities as part of local action plans permeating out of them. Enables members of the National Hubs Network to achieve significant spillover benefits through the delivery of the social dividend of being at the core of their modus operandi.
The goals of this new state agency would include:
Helping future proofing rural communities through initiatives led by their local hub.
Creating trusted pathways to connect small and medium sized businesses on the east coast of Ireland with digital remote workers on the west coast of Ireland - in time this will enable remote working hubs to market remote work in Ireland around the world an existing pipeline of work for digital nomads
Helping activate the digital strategies of the local authorities at the grassroots level through local hubs.
Marketing Ireland's rural remote work infrastructure and opportunities around the world in conjunction with Tourism Ireland.
Liaising with Ireland’s diaspora to promote rural Ireland as Europe’s top remote working destination.
Creating a flow of technology and skill development from the East coast to the West coast of Ireland and a flow of the outputs of knowledge remote workers from the West coast to the East coast. The ‘invisible workforce’ of digital assets and tools available to small businesses could be complemented by the increasing availability across Ireland of remote working professionals who can fill gaps in the small business owners ability to leverage digital.
Seeking to progress the unlocking of the remote work opportunity of vacant state owned buildings as a trusted counterparty to the state agencies like Teagasc for example.
Be the state counterparty for the oversight of the distributing grant finding for supports such as a national program for the digitalisation of localities.
The creation of a national digitalisation of localities programme. Objective: To enable localities across rural Ireland to harness digital skills within their community to attract investment, remote workers, home buyers, shoppers and visitors.
The 21st century will see a paradigm shift in localities that will have considerable socio economic impacts on those least equipped to rapidly adapt and survive. Places that market themselves and organise around digital most effectively stand to gain the most. Localities that develop the best combination of technology and mobalising system will increase their capabilities rapidly and outcompete others. This is taking place at a time when more people want meaning in their lives and are potentially more amenable to living outside cities in the pursuit of a sense of community that goes beyond the task driven agenda of daily life.
If we look at the sustainable regional development goals of ‘Our Rural Future’, demand from businesses and workers for work that can be completed remotely will need to be met by a supply of remote-ready, vibrant communities that can market and differentiate themselves to attract and retain these remote knowledge workers and innovation-driven enterprises.
On the demand side, several agencies and organisations are actively working on activating demand generation by employers for remote working roles and remote workers. These include the Department of Rural & Community Affairs, Enterprise Ireland, Grow Remote, IDA, Western Development Commission, Údarás na Gaeltachta and government departments.
On the supply side, work on mobilising hubs nationally around providing high quality facilities to remote workers needs to be complemented by a coherent and integrated movement at the level of individual communities in order to mobilise the digitalisation and local cohesiveness of localities to attract and retain remote knowledge workers in a long-term way post-COVID-19. We believe that there are a number of key elements to mobilising this supply side as outlined below.
Mobilising the supply side of remote ready localities to capture the benefits of remote working post-pandemic
A three step approach to strengthening the supply side of remote ready localities would be along the following lines:
Coordinated mobilisation and collaboration through digitalisation nationally and locally is needed – a national network can help in this.
To make the maximum progress in the digitalisation of localities in the shortest time, established tools, best practices and relevant case studies need to be shared with communities and existing social enterprises as a guide to their work.
A mobilising objective is needed to activate ‘Digital First Communities’ on the ground in a long-term way – mobilising objectives for these ‘Digital First Communities’ could be participation in a national network in a similar way to how local Tidy Towns groups participate in the national Tidy Towns initiative.
Digital First Communities - the Tidy Towns of the 21st century
As noted by the Department of Rural & Community Development the Supervalu TidyTowns competition is a unique community movement which has a huge impact on our communities throughout Ireland. It is an extremely effective and important sustainability initiative in Ireland, both from an environmental and community perspective. It encourages communities to improve their local environment and make their area a better place to live, work and visit. The competition has evolved in recent years, widening its focus to supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals Communities involved in TidyTowns contribute to making places great locations to live in, to work in or to visit, where volunteers work together to make their own place brighter, friendlier and more inclusive.
In recognition of this important function the Department allocated €1.5 million in 2021 to support groups preparing for this year's completion, and €8.1 million has been allocated by the Department to the groups since 2017. In addition to this, funding of €150,000 is allocated by the Department for the administration of the annual SuperValu TidyTowns competition. This funding is further supplemented by sponsorship from SuperValu, which meets expenses incurred in administering the competition. We believe that the goal of a nationally available digitalisation of localities programme creating 'Digital First Communities in localities across Ireland will do for the digital empowerment of communities what Tidy Towns did for the physical presence of communities.
Benefits of a nationally available digitalisation of localities programme
When localities work together collectively through digital there is the opportunity to effectively market whole areas of rural Ireland.
By instilling basic digital skills at the grassroots level no one gets left behind.
Localities learn how to run collaborative business promotion and business attraction online digital campaigns Communities learn how to repurpose vacant buildings
Local leaders learn how to mobilise and coordinate local stakeholders around digital growth
A national program for the digitalisation of micro businesses. Objective: To act as a counter weight to existing city and major urban area by enabling rural small businesses to harness digital through their local hub.
Ireland has one of the best enterprise support systems in the developed world. When one looks at how the state funds the growth of startups and micro businesses in Ireland there are a number of key mechanisms and agencies involved which include the National Digital Research Council (NDRC), the national New Frontiers programme and the national network of Local Enterprise Offices. If we start with NDRC, it’s mission is the scaling of digital growth businesses with international ambitions. The operating costs part funded by the state include centre managers, programme managers and programme administrators involved in managing and delivering the NDRC national startup accelerator contract at the four NDRC consortium partners. The core locus of activation is city centre focussed and its delivery mechanism is the Irish Tech Hub Network. Following a public procurement process, a contract was signed with Dogpatch Labs Management DAC for the delivery of the NDRC services. The value of the contract is €3.5m per annum which covers annual investment in companies of €1.3m and the remaining €2.2m covers the cost of all activities required to deliver the services including the training programmes and staff costs.
Turning next to the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs), these are Units within the 31 Local Authorities nationwide and act as a ‘first-stop-shop’ for providing advice and guidance, financial assistance and training and consultancy programmes to those wishing to start or grow their own business subject to certain eligibility criteria. The LEOs also provide signposting to all government assistance for SMEs and provide referrals to other relevant bodies such as Revenue, Micro Finance Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, LEADER, and Enterprise Ireland.
The LEOs provide a wide range of high-quality business and management development programmes that are tailored to meet specific business requirements. Whether it is a new start up or growing an existing business there is something suitable for anyone exploring self-employment as an option or for those who are currently operating a business.
LEOs are predominantly located in the Council Offices in cities/large towns and are mandated to support innovation driven enterprises to create a pipeline for Enterprise Ireland. LEOs are allocated a Training and Development budget to provide a wide range of high-quality entrepreneurial capability training and development programmes.
And finally New Frontiers is Enterprise Ireland’s national entrepreneur development programme funding of staff roles (including part payments for Incubation Centre Managers, programme managers and programme administrators) to manage and deliver, New Frontiers, at the 16 campus incubation centres across the country.
As we know from research in startup ecosystems the power of a support network/programme is at it strongest in a close physical proximity to the focal point of the network. So Silicon Valley acts as a focal point that concentrates resources, people and knowledge into a small number of square kilometres, businesses a significant distance outside the cluster are at a disadvantage. The same principle applies on a smaller scale to the 'on the ground' provision of state supports, yes, they have have some participant businesses that are located in rural areas however the more these programmes are concentrated in major urban areas the more they directly support the continued growth of urban areas rather than rural areas. As can be seen in row 1 of the above table current state supported focal points are predominantly located in major urban areas.
To act as a counterweight to this we believe that Ireland needs a large programme delivered at the grassroots level (i.e. within a couple of kilometres of the micro businesses they wish to support) and we would argue that the ideal mechanism to perform this is the national hubs network in conjunction with the LEOs. The benefits of a national digitalisation programme for rural micro businesses would include:
Does not overlap with existing provision, in fact it will augment the reach of LEOs
Does not overlap with the mandate of the LEOs as it is focussed on traditional micro businesses and social enterprises
Can be implemented quickly and professionally
Complements the LEO's Department of Enterprise Trade & Employment's ‘Digital Ireland Framework’
A completely new way of reaching a hard to reach group of micro businesses
LEOs have a county wide mandate and cannot be seen to support one locality in the county over another (displacement), the approach of the pilot would be via competitive fund open to all hubs in the county.