Monday 16 September 2019

It's time we showed more respect for geeks bearing gifts in tech world

Actress Eva Longoria speaking to Jemima Khan at last year’s Web Summit at the RDS
Actress Eva Longoria speaking to Jemima Khan at last year’s Web Summit at the RDS
Bono throws a paper plane back into the audience. Photos: Steve Humphreys
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

There is something seriously wrong when Europe's biggest technology conference moves away from Dublin - the city where it all began. The Web Summit is a private business venture and its owners can decide to host it anywhere they want, as part of a wider business decision. However, it is a multi-million euro direct financial hit to the tourism industry and a setback for Dublin's image as a technology centre. The blow to our tech egos is harder to quantify but is very real nonetheless.

IDA Ireland won't suddenly find that it can't attract tech companies to Dublin because the Web Summit isn't there anymore. Irish start-up technology firms won't suddenly go out of business. It is hardly a crisis.

The real damage is more subtle. It deflates our own hype about how good we are in this sector. It is time for a reality check on Ireland's global footprint in technology.

Yes, we have attracted nine of the top 10 tech corporations to Ireland and they employ tens of thousands of people. But they have come for our tax rate, our workforce, the fact we speak English and the fact we are in the EU.

They are hugely valuable to the Irish economy but not as valuable as they would be if they had originated in Ireland or grown up in Ireland.

The Web Summit was an opportunity to broadcast that Ireland was one of the places to be when it came to the tech sector. Even if the next young Mark Zuckerberg from Salt Lake City or wherever wasn't sure where Dublin was on a map of Europe, it was one of those events that sent out a message and an image which contributed towards building a reputation.

The problems facing the technology sector in Ireland are not confined to whether the country has an events facility large enough to host a 30,000-person conference. They run much deeper.

On the multi-national side some of our tax advantages are being eroded. We have tried to attract international tech entrepreneurs to come to Ireland to set up or grow their businesses here. It hasn't worked.

We don't have the right tax system in place because we actually penalise entrepreneurs in the tax code. We don't have the right visa system as companies repeatedly encounter difficulties securing working visas for top IT engineers from places like India or China.

On a policy level there is deep suspicion among policymakers about the tax treatment of awarding share options to employees, something which has been the backbone of nurturing future technology giants.

Enda Kenny might talk about Ireland being the best small country in which to do business, but some Irish tech entrepreneurs are actually leaving the country to set up businesses, either as far away as the US, or in London.

We have some of the most innovative people working as employees for tech giants in Dublin, but we are not nurturing the indigenous sector enough.

Amid all of that inadequacy, a hugely successful international tech conference grows up in Dublin. In the space of just five years it attracts 30,000 attendees and becomes the biggest of its kind in Europe. It becomes so big, there is only one venue capable of hosting it. But there have been problems.

Sources close to the Web Summit have complained of a lack of general support for what they were doing. Not enough buses were laid on for thousands of attendees trying to get into town after the event or to the airport. The Wi-Fi broke down more than once.

On a bigger scale, sources close to the company paint a picture of an Irish Government that they believe was never really making the most of what had grown up on its doorstep.

There were stories that British government officials were more proactive during the summit than the Irish Government. The suggestion is that the British had a presence in Dublin and even flew some tech executives across to London to be wined and dined to try and persuade them to invest in the UK. Web Summit sources have claimed that other European governments were incredibly active and would organise side-meetings to try and build relationships with tech entrepreneurs.

If correct, this paints a picture of the Irish Government not making the most of what it had.

It is difficult to assess exactly how much more the Irish Government or its agencies could have or should have done to make the most of the Web Summit.

Enda Kenny referred to "demands" being made as the company tried to get the best deal possible.

Perhaps the organisers were always going to move it anyway, because it just made good business sense. The company received a reported €60m takeover approach but the owners declined to sell.

They may well make the company even more valuable for a future buyer by proving that it is a totally mobile concept and a business that is worth millions because it doesn't matter where its events are hosted.

In that case, the Irish Government and Dublin City were never going to be able to hold on to it.

As the Web Summit prepares for its last year in Dublin, future billionaire geeks from the US, India or China will gather and enjoy the so-called "Irishness" of its selling points - the pub crawl with Bono, the surfing in Sligo, the quality of Irish food.

It will all ring a little hollow. Moving the Web Summit to Lisbon proves the fragility of the guff we in Ireland tell ourselves about our unique selling points.

The geeks, who will drive so much of the world's future economic growth, are "location neutral".

They think globally and see one place as being just as good as another.

There is a lesson in it for Irish policymakers and for Irish business.

When it comes to the tech industry in particular, we cannot afford to take anything for granted.

Irish Independent

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