Tuesday 21 November 2017

Web Summit situation shows we're still not planning for the future

Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit founder
Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit founder
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Here's a question for you - What do Brexit jobs and the Web Summit have in common? The answer is that we're scared of hosting both.

Next week, we'll get a glimpse of how the Paddy Cosgrave's Web Summit is progressing in its new Lisbon home. The event is far bigger than last year's Dublin conference, with 50,000 people signed up and over 3,000 Irish travelling to it.

For petty reasons, this will probably be passed over by pundits and planners who dearly hoped the Web Summit would fall flat on its face after the row that marked its departure from Dublin last year.

But the opposite scenario appears to be the case. It's operating now at a different level.

As an annual visitor to the giant Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show and the Berlin-based IFA, conference, I can see that the Web Summit is starting to feel like one of these bona fide global events. Huge numbers of investors and tech executives are now attending it as a set fixture rather than something they're trying out. It's possible that dozens, if not hundreds, of Irish startup entrepreneurs will get some sort of result from it.

Is it this scale that scared off Irish authorities from helping with its expansion in Dublin?

There are still many planners and pundits who maintain that Dublin is somehow better off without a Web Summit, just as there are lots who frown at the prospect of banking jobs from London's post-Brexit carve-up.

These include Cabinet ministers. Many will remember (then) jobs minister Richard Bruton's remarks that Ireland wasn't at the level to host a Web Summit when the row over its location broke out last year. People will also remember finance minister Michael Noonan's remarks suggesting that as long as we kept call centre jobs coming in, there was nothing to lament about the passing of something like the Web Summit.

These weren't unrepresentative attitudes. When it comes to big ideas, such as hosting a global conference or capitalising on the industrial fallout from Brexit, most of our planners aren't very engaged.

For example, among the 3,000 Irish people attending will be IDA and government officials, trying to press Ireland's case as a place to do business. But their invitation will be limited to small companies, multinationals outsourcing processing jobs or other limited roles around which we don't have to plan or prepare anything new. Anyone with bigger plans that require a step up in national strategic planning (such as transport, housing or legal reform) will be quietly pointed in the direction of the French, Dutch or German officials.

Ireland, the government representatives will privately say, is not really a place to host a major original enterprise such a Web Summit, a Stripe or a big bank from London. Instead, it's primarily a location for side-offices, administrative re-routing operations and process or customer support workers. It's like Portugal, but without the future planning bit.

We don't want to be big, we want to be "grand".

This is also why we're only half-heartedly looking for a Brexit jobs dividend from London's big financial firms. Despite an open goal staring at us, we simply don't want to deal with any housing or transportation headache that come with such an industrial growth spurt.

The London banks are starting to realise this.

"They're looking here to see whether there is housing available for their staff, whether there is office space available and whether we've got the transport infrastructure but they're probably not seeing enough impetus," said Dublin Chamber's Graeme McQueen last week.

"If we're serious about taking advantage of opportunities in the wake of Brexit, we need to be responsive and at the moment we're not."

If we need houses or transport or legal reform, why don't we just plan for it? Hopefully, we will soon start accepting the opportunities facing us.

Sunday Indo Business

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