Wednesday 20 February 2019

It's time big tech gave more back

VW, which sponsors Wolfsburg, also employs 70,000 in the German town.
VW, which sponsors Wolfsburg, also employs 70,000 in the German town.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Is it time for big tech companies in Ireland to start giving a bit more back to communities? Right now, it seems that some chuck a few quid at local charities with others donating staff hours. But it feels de minimus.

As they grow bigger and richer, as they increasingly dominate cities such as Dublin, is it time to think again about the balance of community responsibilities that such entities have?

The relationship that huge companies have with their host cities or towns goes back well over 100 years.

In the early 1900s, Dublin had a giant company: Guinness. At the time, social conditions in the city were shocking. Whole families lived in single-room tenements. Homelessness was chronic.

But Guinness was booming.

So the Guinness family, through the Iveagh Trust and other initiatives, took action. Dublin Corporation couldn't, or wouldn't, build enough housing for citizens. So the company and its offshoots started to build shelters and homes for people.

To be sure, it served the long-term interest of the corporation itself. But some of it was also done in a spirit of inclusion. Dublin was what made Guinness great. So Guinness had a responsibility to look after Dublin.

We can still see the legacy of that Guinness community action in Dublin today. Much of the housing and cottages still standing around the city - from Stoneybatter through the Liberties to Crumlin - stems from that era.

No-one thinks Dublin today resembles the dilapidated city of 100 years ago.

Guinness' golden era was also in a much more patrician setting: that society had some shocking attitudes of caste and discrimination to balance the laudable philanthropy. We're better off now.

But the general vibe - that if a company is unfathomably large and rich, it has some sort of large responsibility to the place it is located in - remains an interesting one.

It endures in a strong way in many parts of the world. Extreme examples include towns such as Wolfsburg in Germany, home to Volkswagen. Around 70,000 people are directly employed in Wolfsburg by the giant car manufacturer, despite the city only having around 125,000 residents. Volkswagen is the life and soul of the city, from sponsoring the area's Bundesliga football team to making Wolfsburg Germany's richest city, with an average income of over €110,000. There isn't much that happens there without some sort of input from the car company. Volkswagen knows that it has a greater responsibility to the area than simply to be its main employer.

Historically, US towns and cities have had some similarly dominant - yet generous - corporate entities.

The American town of Endicott, in New York State, was once basically run by IBM. Of the town's 13,000 residents, 11,000 worked for the company.

(IBM eventually scaled back and today only has a handful of people left in the area, with its former industrial premises mostly used by other companies.)

The booming city of Seattle has two dominant tech companies: Microsoft and Amazon. Microsoft sponsors the city football team while Amazon has donated a 47,000 sq ft space in one of its swankiest new city buildings to a homeless shelter. It's probably that that kind of community engagement is due to the city being those companies' primary 'home' location.

What about Ireland? Multinational tech companies here employ anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people, depending on how you cut the numbers.

In Dublin alone, almost 10,000 Dublin city workers work for one of just two companies - Facebook and Google.

More than anyone else, they are the engine of Dublin's current tech boom and the ones setting the pace for a range of other conditions in the city, from rents to tertiary service contracts.

Should such big tech companies be giving more back to society?

Most tech giants here do have what is called 'corporate social responsibility' (CSR) programmes.

For example, Google gave around €750,000 to various causes, with another half million to a charity (Camara) teaching tech in schools. It also supported a handful of other initiatives through staff time or office resources.

Facebook raised €150,000 last year for various causes and helps with some school programmes. It also sometimes gives access to its office to students and other groups for workshops.

Other companies, such as Salesforce, point to company-wide programmes such as their 1pc pledge drive, which asks people to give up 1pc of their wealth (or time) to worthy causes.

Obviously, Dublin isn't the only tech city in Ireland. In Cork, Apple has arrangements with local schools, while employees have raised over €400,000 for various local charities and volunteered over 5,500 hours under the company's Matching Gifts programme.

It's clear that there is significant goodwill throughout these companies to 'giving back'. But it does all feel limited to micro-programmes, small gestures that individuals within the companies want to do rather than large-scale corporate plans for the local community. In other words, it doesn't feel wholly commensurate with the extraordinary success and wealth of the biggest tech companies in Ireland.

Obviously, there will be an alternate view of this. It might feel a little paternalistic and Victorian to start expecting that corporations fix societal problems, such as homelessness or a lack of affordable housing. Clearly, it is the state's responsibility to look after its citizens and not rely on charitable programmes from big companies.

That said, we're all aware of a natural balance to things. Some companies are doing really, really well.

And while most people are genuinely delighted that they are providing highly paid jobs to Irish people, it sometimes feels that they could be a little more in local communities.

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