Friday 16 November 2018

Dublin tech's era of social unrest

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TCD provost Patrick Prendergast and Betty Ashe, community representative, at the Grand Canal Innovation District launch
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TCD provost Patrick Prendergast and Betty Ashe, community representative, at the Grand Canal Innovation District launch
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Thought GoogleTown was the summit of Dublin's tech takeover? Nope. Last week saw a 'big bang' in tech expansion planning that could make the Grand Canal Docks look like an early settlement.

Amazon signalled a new city tech zone to rival Google's mega-demesne.

Meanwhile, TCD announced plans to build a €1bn tech neighbourhood.

Both areas are within a mile of the existing cluster around Google and Facebook, with their 10,000 staff.

They add up to a massive new tech footprint in Dublin that has the potential to tie together an even bigger area, all the way from the North Wall in Dublin 1 to Dublin 8.

Some people talk about 'clusters', but this is inaccurate: what is emerging in Dublin is a skeleton for a new, tech-dominated city in 10 years' time.

It's a takeover: jobs, revenue, cultural impact.

Take Amazon's plans. As reported last week, the company will lease a huge new tranche of space in Charlemont Square, adjacent to Portobello and Ranelagh.

Amazon is also reportedly involved in supporting the co-working firm WeWork, which plans to lease a building close by.

Amazon, lest we forget, had only just announced 1,000 new jobs in its current Dublin building, a few hundred yards down the Grand Canal.

As if this wasn't enough, the city's universities (led by Trinity College) have unveiled a giant new €1bn Pearse Street technology 'quarter'.

The idea is for even more tech companies to come into the area, either from abroad or from within our own borders.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that this "spoke eloquently of the vision to make Ireland the tech capital of Europe and plans to ensure that the jobs of the future were created first in Ireland".

I'm not an economist or a politician. But it's plain to see that while all of this is very good for Dublin deepening its globalist tech aspirations, it also signals an acceleration in the kind of problems that always come with cities that get rich very quickly from tech.

Superficially, these problems manifest themselves in the shape of astronomical accommodation costs.

If you think €2,000 for a two-bed apartment is high today, you really haven't seen anything yet: Dublin is easily heading for €3,000 per month in a couple of years, or €750,000 for ordinary two-beds anywhere within a couple of kilometres of Dublin 2. But there's also a more subtle cultural shift, one that's already visible in Dublin.

Booming industries, especially those that depend on importing high-end skills from abroad, bring about a new kind of detached existence in the places that host them.

So Dublin should prepare for a good chunk of its people living as they would in London or Paris or Amsterdam.

In those cities, there are large enclaves of workers (local and expat) whose geographical surroundings are largely superfluous to why there are there or how they live their life.

The dominant culture is internationalism. You're in a job at a company, but it just so happens you're in Amsterdam, rather than San Francisco. It may be the other way around next year.

I know quite a few people in this culture. It can be very productive and rewarding. But it also typically brings a cultural by-product of dissociation. You don't vote. You don't bother too much about local community issues. You don't feel a kinship with others, civically.

This is a common thing in many cities of the world, but has been - so far - not typical of Dublin.

But how it can not develop along these lines?

The companies behind the boom are increasingly looking to higher-end European workers and management to help scale the businesses here in Dublin. This is natural: Ireland is too small a country to attract 100 talented engineers, designers or project managers locally.

Are we ready for this?

Are we ready for what is clearly shaping up to be a fundamental reshaping of how Dublin, as a city, feels?

More importantly, are we taking the proper precautions to make sure that social division and resentment don't start being a real thing?

Already, there is grumbling when new tech expansions are announced. What used to be greeted with universal praise is now met with a much more mixed welcome.

For many, the first thought that pops up when a new Facebook building or Google facility is announced is: "does this mean my family hasn't a hope of buying or renting anywhere with five miles of that place?"

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week promised that the new €1bn tech quarter development would "help to ensure the continued balanced development of the area to the benefit of the local community".

It's very hard to see how this bears out, unless he means the local community of TCD graduates, venture capitalists and multinational firms.

Working people in the area who work in non-tech roles in food, retail or transport may benefit in terms of more plentiful tertiary jobs. But their chances of their kids living in the area in a few years look slimmer and slimmer.

Much of this is simple economics. Tech jobs are, on average, much better paid than non-tech jobs. It's normal for a 27-year-old to make €80,000 at a tech firm.

But are we planning for the social and cultural changes that all of this is now certain to bring?

Depressingly, there are many signs that we're doing our congenital thing of sitting back and seeing what happens instead of accelerating plans for infrastructure, housing and transportation.

The less we do to prepare for the coming transformation, the more potential division and social unrest there will be.

Perhaps our Irish talent for integration will overcome things and we'll all get along just fine.

But this is a serious inflection point.

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