We are a social enterprise located in Dun Laoghaire. We convert empty space in listed buildings in town centres into vibrant remote working hubs to attract digital businesses and jobs. We call these facilities Digital Growth Hubs. We use the hub’s income to help future proof the local small business population through collaborative digital promotion campaigns and digital capability development.
For an overview of our mission please see John Kennedy’s article - Inside Dún Laoghaire’s Unique DigitalHQ
To see our impact for the year 2020 please see - https://speakerdeck.com/digitalhq/supporting-the-growth-of-small-businesses-and-irish-towns
For an overview of our Board, Honorary Patrons and Advisory panel please see - https://www.digitalhq.ie/governance
As outlined in Figure 1 below our work to date in Dún Laoghaire Town reflects our goal of enhancing the vibrancy and economy of the town by supporting a strong employment base. The main components of our Digital Growth Hub model have been fine tuned in Dun Laoghaire Town and includes:
Repurposing Space – Under the name ‘Dún Laoghaire Enterprise Centre’ 10 businesses are incubated in the enterprise centre operated by DigitalHQ with the support of Bank of Ireland.
Attracting and Networking Innovation Driven Enterprises – Under the name @DigitalDunLaoghaire since 2016 33 free events were delivered to over 1,300 attendees who heard over 97 expert speakers.
Collaborative promotion of traditional businesses – Under the name ‘Love Dún Laoghaire’ almost 100 local businesses were supported through 10 digital promotion campaigns. These Buy Local campaigns focus on the online offerings of local small businesses at key events in the calendar such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, January Sales as well as sector specific promotions.
Figure 1 The three components of DigitalHQ’s model, repurposing space, creating networks and supporting traditional small businesses.
DigitalHQ’s Model - New Localism in action
The work DigitalHQ are doing in Dun Laoghaire is absolutely aligned with what we want to do as a Government and a Department, I'm very supportive of what you're doing, it is a model that could be replicated around the country. You're ahead of the game! Minister of State Damien English Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail
In approaching the regeneration of our town we studied in detail how Brighton went from being “'a town that always looks as if it is helping police with their inquiries“ to “the place to be with a diverse local economy based around tourism, ICT, higher education, healthcare, the arts and the service sector. “ Our project director Eoin Costello also studied the key features of Innovation Districts in his previous role of Skills & Innovation Champion for Sandyford Business District’s ‘Smart Sandyford’ initiative.
Thought leader Bruce Katz coined the phrase New Localism to describe a problem-solving practice for communities in the twenty-first century. He believes that the real power of regeneration lies locally in communities where people live and work. New Localism is based on pragmatism rather than ideology, action rather than obstruction. He states that the prosperity of local communities is accelerated when they are linked to the growth sectors of the global economy in ways that are both inclusive and environmentally sustainable.
As Katz suggests the business community of twenty-first century towns must comprise both traditional businesses and innovation driven enterprises. To future proof small businesses with a local market focus (such as restaurants, dry cleaners, professional service providers) they need to sit next to a cohort of innovation driven enterprises (IDEs that have a global market focus with products and innovation at their core) to benefit from sustained footfall with a high capture rate.
As noted by our Honorary Patron Jennifer Carroll MacNeill the past year has completely changed the way we live and work. At DigitalHQ we feel now is the time to put the transformative power of digital to work in regenerating Dun Laoghaire town. We believe that the economic well being of the town depends on how we enable our small business communities to leverage the full power of digital and how we reshape the fabric of the built environment at the heart of the town to make it a desirable location for innovation driven enterprises.
A number of years ago DigitalHQ set about seeing how we might take a bottom-
up approach to economic growth and community development in Dun Laoghaire Town. We created an action plan for the digital transformation of our town and established the @DigitalDunLaoghaire steering group to oversee the work of that plan. We were grateful to Bank of Ireland who contributed office space to enable us to establish the Dun Laoghaire Enterprise Centre and to DLR County Council who supported our work building the town’s website and social media footprint. We use the hub’s income to help future proof the local small business population through collaborative digital promotion campaigns, digital skill development and business attraction.
Over the past 5 years we have gradually evolved a model of town centre regeneration which is a digital led strategy that breaks down into three 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. Thus the strands are:
The town - the physical and economic fabric of a locality.
Innovation Driven Enterprises - shaping the town to provide an attractive environment for the talent these businesses need.
Sustaining existing traditional businesses - Helping the local flower shop, the coffee shop and dry cleaners evolve to serve the needs of 21st century customers.
In terms of the physical and economic fabric of a locality we believe that by 2030 coworking spaces will be the second highest use of space on our main streets providing hubs of collaboration and community for knowledge workers. As Eoin Costello outlined in his TEDx talk on town centre regeneration 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.
The success of hubs such as Ludgate Centre (a former bakery), Dogpatch Labs (a former retail shop), Portershed (a former CIE staff canteen and office) shows that former shops, Court Houses, CIE buildings, unoccupied space above financial institutions etc in towns across the country can be sensitively repurposed. Our Chair Chad Gilmer has shown this model works by taking a long term unoccupied retail space in Dun Laoghaire and converting it into high quality coworking space which has brought 100 professional jobs to the main street of the town who all shop locally.
The economic future of our Town post pandemic
As noted in the draft County Development plan the role of town centres is changing (Reference chapter 7. Town Villages and Retail Development) with a move towards multifunctionality and what is called “experiential retail”. We agree with its position that footfall and retail spend can no longer be used as an indicator for a successful town centre. The focus is on the social, cultural, civic and economic role of the Town business and/or leisure, heritage and tourism.
Our prediction that coworking will account for 50% of main street occupancy will only come to pass if towns can provide a suitable environment for digital and creative talent. This is essential to creating sustainable local jobs as knowledge-intensive IDEs create high quality jobs and produce a positive multiplier effect for the locality. Moretti identified that for each knowledge intensive job 5 additional jobs are created in the locality. These five jobs benefit a diverse set of workers. Two of the jobs created by the multiplier effect are professional jobs, such as those of doctors or lawyers, while the other three benefit workers in nonprofessional occupations such as waiters or store clerks.
Research has found that the employees of innovation driven enterprises want to “work to make a life, not just a living”. As our advisory panel member Arnault Morisson says in his book ‘Innovation Districts’ “before even considering taking jobs in certain regions millennials prioritise a lifestyle that reinforces their own identities as creative people”. Connectedness and proximity to diverse and numerous amenities make urban-living the best way to participate in the experience economy that knowledge workers seek. Creatives and digital people seek business networks to share in and collaborative places to work in. They want the benefits of the sharing economy (e.g. Airbnb, GoCars, bicycles for hire by the hour etc) interactive shopping experiences (e.g. farmers' markets) and immersive cultural and sportive events (e.g. book readings, museums, photography classes in coffee shops), all manifestations of the experience economy.
Figure 2 - The three elements of DigitalHQ’s strategy for town centre regeneration
All these are available in Dun Laoghaire Town and we believe that the evolving demand for hybrid work space options post pandemic mean that the opportunity for Dun Laoghaire to become Dublin’s coworking capital is real and achievable.
Dun Laoghaire town as a new Digital, Technology and Creative Hub for the region
Our ask to DLR County Council is to act on the objective contained in Action No. 9 of the Dublin Regional Enterprise Strategy 2017 namely “DLR County Council will identify and promote Dun Laoghaire town as a new Digital, Technology and Creative Hub for the region in partnership with Digital Dun Laoghaire, Dun Laoghaire BID, Commissioner for Startups and IADT”. In order to do this they will need to create a collaboration on building the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Dun Laoghaire. Sufficient enterprise office space will be a key component of this ecosystem.
A new vision for our town centre as a remote working destination
Will there be enough demand for the step change in suitable office space we are proposing for the town? We would reply in the same vein as Henry Ford, reputedly when developing the Model T if he had asked people at the time what they wanted they would have said a faster horse. Dún Laoghaire town is ideally positioned geographically at a pivot point between Sandyford Business District and Dublin Docklands.
It is our belief that post pandemic increasing numbers of people will wish to work locally in their community rather than commute. Dún Laoghaire town and environs saw a sizeable population increase of approximately 1,900 persons in the last census – the strongest rate of growth in decades and a figure that is expected to continue to grow. There are approximately 8,900 within a 10 minute walk from town centre, 135,000 within a 10 minute drive, a high proportion of these are tech/digital professionals.
Are there enough digital and tech people living locally to turn Dun Laoghaire into a digital, technology and creative hub for the region? According to Sigmar:
2,500 IT Developers currently live in Dún Laoghaire
8,600 Multilingual Sales/Support Staff with experience in Digital Industries
13,500 English speaking Sales/Support Staff with experience in Digital Industries
Within 30 minute drive there are:
Additional 2,000 IT Developers
Additional 10,500 Multilingual Sales/Support Staff
Additional 15,200 English speaking Sales/Support Staff with experience in Digital Industries
This density of residence within close proximity to the town will increase significantly in the coming years in light of planned residential developments at:
Former Tedcastles site, Dun Laoghaire
St. Michael’s Hospital Car park, Dun Laoghaire
CBS site Eblana Avenue, Dun Laoghaire
Dalguise House, Monkstown
Cheshire Home site, Monkstown
Charleville, Harbour Road, Dalkey
Cluain Mhuire, Newtownpark Avenue
Temple Hill, Blackrock
Europa Site, Blackrock
According to Gartner 90% of HR leaders will allow employees to work remotely even after the COVID-19 Vaccine is widely available. The National Remote Working Employee Survey has found 94% of workers would like to work remotely some or all of the time when the Covid-19 crisis ends. Long-term remote and hybrid working plans have already been announced by companies which employ staff living in the Dun Laoghaire catchment area such as Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, Dropbox and Indeed. These employers account for a significant portion of the tech talent identified by Sigmar above.
However research has also identified the negative health effects of working from home. Almost a third (31pc) of regular company staff say that their wellbeing has deteriorated since they started remote working, according to an Arkphire survey of 700 people, the novelty value of working from home has worn off and tiredness, difficulty concentrating and mental health issues have all moved centre stage.
Also of concern for companies is that the innovation index goes down when teams are exclusively working from home, a decrease in innovation from not working in a collaborative space.
Our Chairman’s recent presentation to Minister English described DigitalHQ’s vision for a future post-pandemic Dún Laoghaire as “the Palo Alto of the east coast of Ireland, the Brighton of the Dublin region, bustling with innovation driven businesses that support existing traditional business, a hub for tech and digital talent and vibrant business networks.”
Such an influx of knowledge worker jobs would be a significant benefit to local retail, with the potential to upscale the offering and mix of retail businesses in the town. A good example of a local business that has deepened its offering as the town has evolved is JJ Darboven. This business has grown its presence in the town from their traditional coffee brewing to full coffee roasting and even a barista training academy. As noted by Philip Oltermann in “the age of Amazon, it seems the way to thrive is to specialise”. In some ways the hyper-specialist shops of Berlin show one way forward for small businesses in the future of retail.
JJ Darboven, Dun Laoghaire
However there is insufficient high quality office space available in the town to attract innovation driven enterprises on the scale that could create significant footfall with a high capture rate. Equally there is significant footfall on the seafront component of the town but this has a very low capture rate for the rate paying businesses in the main street of our town.
More residential in the town centre may hinder economic vibrancy
One approach to address this has been the granting of planning permission to allow the conversion of commercial/retail premises into residential. While we support the proportionate conversion of empty space above shops into residential we believe that larger scale conversion to residential is harmful to the town's long term viability both as a generator of rates for the Council (as rates income goes down the burden on the remaining businesses goes up) and a critical mass of businesses as an attraction of footfall and expenditure because:
1. Residential properties don't pay rates
2. Many residential properties recently built/converted in the town are owned by investors and remain largely unoccupied, we base this belief on passing a former office block on the main street which was converted to an apartment block. In the evenings the apartments are largely in darkness which suggests that the apartments are not owner occupied.
3. Families living in the town district do not necessarily spend their disposable income here, indeed for purchases beyond the low margin basics they are often more likely to travel to different locations such as Dalkey etc to eat out and Dundrum to do their shopping.
4. The main argument against converting existing commercial/retail space into residential is the multiplier effect, a small shop may attract 40 people a day into the town, a small office locates 6 to 10 people in the town for the working day, an equivalent residential dwelling would accommodate 2 adults and 2 children with a far smaller spillover benefit to the town.
We propose that an economically viable alternative is to look to the significant number of vacant buildings located in the heart of the town for the solution to creating an economically vibrant town. The government's pilot town centre living initiative found that incentivising the reuse of vacant buildings through financial and non-financials supports is key to town centre regeneration.
The context for our observation is that we wish to create a critical mass of suitable office space, a hive effect. For the purpose of this submission we will focus on those buildings where the owner has an economic interest in the vibrancy of the town, i.e. the County Council and state agencies.
In light of DigitalHQ's objective in respect of the balanced economic development of the town we believe due to the prominent and pivotal position in the respective quarters of the town any proposed use of these buildings should -
1. Generate footfall that provides a high capture rate for the local businesses in that quarter of our town.
2. Take cognisance of the economic, social and town regeneration benefits of smart working and the role of incubation centre/coworking/social innovation hubs documented in the report of economist Jim Power - https://n.vodafone.ie/aboutus/press/regional-digital-hubs-could-generate-over-300-million-and-create.html
3. Take account of the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy which advocates land uses that will act as a support to local economic development.
Our Observations in respect of the draft County Development Plan - A new model for town regeneration and support of existing rate payers
“To create a successful town, it is necessary to create an environment where people want to work, live and socialise.” Jim Power - Stimulating Regional Economic Growth, a socio-economic analysis of smart working 2019
Since 2017 we have had discussions with officials in DLR CoCo outlining that DigitalHQ clg seeks a permanent base in the town to support the scaling up of our activities. This space would ideally be aligned with our mission, i.e. to repurpose unoccupied listed buildings with limited alternative uses. A number of locations in Council ownership in the town were examined over the years but no further progress was made.
We have identified a number of buildings in the town which are strategically located and, if repurposed appropriately, have the potential to be an economic engine not only for the footprint of traditional businesses in that quarter but, as a whole creating a critical mass which will ‘raise all boats’. If implemented our proposals will deliver a major boost for the town and could likely lead to a transformation of the fortunes of many businesses in the town, while also increasing the likelihood of new investment.
Draft Dún Laoghaire Interim Urban Framework Plan
We support the framework's objectives for placemaking and creating vitality. Supporting the commercial activities of the Town, particularly along George’s Street, is a key objective of our submission. The intention to create distinct ‘Quarters’ is a good approach to building on the natural strengths of each individual area.
Our submission suggest that an engine of economic growth in the form of a top quality coworking space needs to be included in the development of each proposed Quarter to achieve the twin objectives contained in the Urban Framework plan namely:
Provision of a variety of small shops with well-defined frontages that help create a busy village character with improved shop-fronts and signage, will continue to improve the general character of the area
Creation of the conditions to attract internationally mobile investment and provide opportunities for indigenous enterprise growth.
Putting an economic engine in each Quarter of the town
At Digital HQ we believe that within the next 10 years up to 50% of currently unoccupied retail space and buildings in town centres will become remote working hubs.
On the basis that the greenest building to build is the one that is built already our proposal identifies four unoccupied, listed buildings in Council/State ownership which would benefit from refurbishment, conservation and repair that repurposing would entail. The State’s Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines cite the benefits of adapting historic buildings to meet changing needs being remodelled to accommodate new uses, and especially those that have outlived the functions for which they were constructed.
Dún Laoghaire Town has benefitted from significant investment in the public realm, the capital cost of works carried out by the Council on projects adjoining Dun Laoghaire town seafront over the past 10 years totals approximately €55m. An investment that is a quarter of that spend could be sufficient to sensitively repurposing the vacant buildings identified in this submission with the added benefit that the earn back would be within a finite time.
Activating Council and State owned unoccupied buildings to make Dun Laoghaire Town a new Digital, Technology and Creative Hub for the region
We have identified below a series of unoccupied publicly owned buildings in each of the Quarters of the town that can be repurposed to remote working hubs in support the objective of making Dun Laoghaire Town a digital, technological and creative hub for the region.
We have mapped the 4 locations in figure 4 as A to E, each in the Quarters proposed by the draft County Development plan.
We have also included below the location we currently operate with the support of Bank of Ireland, operating as Dún Laoghaire Enterprise Centre which acts as a digital growth hub for the Town Centre Quarter.
The current condition of a number of the buildings is of concern and our proposal to convert them into remote working hubs would be the best way to secure its long term conservation as publicly owned buildings. The buildings identified by our research comprise unused sites located within the town proximate to public transport and other amenities.
Figure 3 - Putting an economic engine in each Quarter of Dun Laoghaire Town - map is reproduced from the draft County Development plan
LOCATION A in Figure 3 - Quarter: Old Town Quarter
No. 9 Georges Place and No. 3 Kelly's Avenue, Dún Laoghaire (Formerly Offices and Stores for the Council Depot)
According to DLR CoCo there are no current plans for the possible future re-use of these buildings which are “Protected Structures” in the County Development Plan 2016 to 2022. These buildings are vacant since 2013.
‘Dunlaoire Enterprise Centre’ opened approximately 20 years ago in the former fire station which is located beside No 9. It provided 17 individual units of office space and closed in 2019. A further loss of enterprise space in the Old Town Quarter occurred in 2020 when the Harbour Business Centre closed with the loss of 8 offices for small businesses.
In terms of the planning context for these two adjoining buildings in George’s Place “the Plan supports the adaptation and reuse of the existing buildings on the site including the sensitive redevelopment of the Protected Structures.“ Specific Local Objectives - 31 To seek the redevelopment of the obsolete area at the Fire Station in accordance with the objectives of the Interim Dún Laoghaire Urban Framework Plan and the forthcoming Dún Laoghaire and Environs Local Area Plan.
The building was built by Mr. Les Kelly in approximately 1830 as Kelly’s Hotel. The first meeting of the Kingstown Town Commissioners took place there.
DigitalHQ have submitted a detailed proposal for how the two adjoining empty properties in George's Place could be sensitively repurposed as a vibrant enterprise campus giving new life to the listed buildings. We believe that the proposed DigitalHQ Enterprise Campus in George’s place would replace the economic activity lost in that locality when the Dun Laoghaire Enterprise Centre closed and will act as an economic engine for the proposed Myrtle Square civic area and what the draft development plan's interim Dún Laoghaire Urban Framework Plan terms the 'Old Town Quarter'.
The enterprise campus would cater for a mix of small businesses, social enterprises and digital/creatives.
LOCATION B - Former Carnegie Library Building – corner of Library Road & Lower Georges Street, Dún Laoghaire; Quarter: Old Town Quarter
This key building sits in the heart of what was referred to in previous documents of the Dun Laoghaire Business Improvement District as the "Old Dunleary" quarter of Dun Laoghaire Town (i.e. from St. Michael's Hospital to the York Road junction).
There are no current plans for the possible future re-use of this building which is a
“Protected Structure” in the County Development Plan 2016 to 2022 – Record
No. 680 refers.
This building has been vacant since 2015.
LOCATION C - Former Senior College Dun Laoghaire building, Eblana Avenue Quarter: Town Centre Quarter
Is in the ownership of the Department of Education.
This building has been vacant since 2014 and has temporary occupants currently.
LOCATION D - Dún Laoghaire Enterprise Centre operated by DigitalHQ at 101 George’s Street. Quarter: Town Centre Quarter
Thanks to the support of Bank of Ireland we operate a 10 office community enterprise centre at 101 George’s Street.
LOCATION E - Park House, 66 Lower Georges Street, Dún Laoghaire (on the corner with Park Road). Quarter: Park End Quarter
This building has been vacant since 2010 apart from the temporary popup shop on the ground floor.
Benefit to the council of the proposed strategy
We believe that our proposed strategy would have the following benefits to the County Council
Will contribute to the physical regeneration of Dún Laoghaire Town.
It is the best use of those buildings in the context of the need to justify the expenditure on the refurbishment.
Is the most appropriate approach to leverage the embedded carbon in the buildings identified in our submission.
Is in line with the EMRA RSES 2019-2031.
Is in line with the DLR strategy of applying the principles of the circular economy to land-use management through the proposed intensification and redevelopment of existing strategic employment areas.
Helps minimise the divergence between the places people live and work, increasing the efficiency of land-use, reducing sprawl and minimising carbon footprint.
Supports the LECP 220.127.116.11 Policy Objective E11: Enterprise Incubator Units - namely to promote and assist in the provision of enterprise centres in association with other agencies and in the context of local need.