The distinctive smell of roasting hops and barley steals through the early morning air surrounding Dublin's St. James' Gate Brewery, a heady reminder that Guinness has brewed its famous black beverage there for more than two centuries. But these days, the fragrance drifts through cobbled alleyways and streets lined with shuttered shops and derelict houses. Today, only about 400-brewery workers stream into the sprawling 64-acre complex of faded redbrick buildings each day, down from a high of 4,000. It seems that this formerly bustling blue-collar neighbourhood has missed the economic high times that have swept Ireland during the past decade.
But that's about to change.
Guinness's ghost town lies at the heart of an ambitious government effort to transform Ireland from an island that services other countries' software giants to one that takes the lead in technology innovation. Prime Minister Bertie Ahearn is determined to build an Emerald Silicon Valley for his country. He's announced a development plan worth US$2.3 billion aimed at bringing scientific researchers into Ireland. Ahearn is even building them a home: The brewery buildings will soon be reborn as a district devoted to digital media and research.
His scheme is a logical next step up the IT food chain, many experts say. While the government's low corporate tax rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s succeeded in luring technology behemoths such as EMC, Dell and Microsoft to Ireland, most of the jobs created were in support sectors - such as manufacturing or call centers - which do not generate much intellectual capital. The jobs were also dependent on labor costs staying low. Once that was gone, so was the incentive to stay.
For Ireland's economic prosperity to continue, its leaders needed to build a framework to support homegrown innovation. So in 1997, Ahearn - known in Ireland as the Taoiseach (pronounced tea-shook), which is Gaelic for chief - created the Irish Council for Science, Technology & Innovation (ICSTI). Its goal: to build a strategic science, technology and innovation policy for the country.
After two years of analysis, the council found that technology research and development (R&D) lies at the center of many foreign companies' success. In fact, ICSTI studies linked R&D to both company growth and employee retention. Bolstered by those findings, ICSTI recommended that the government makes R&D investment an economic priority, and Ahearn responded with his multibillion-dollar five-year development plan.
Much of the money is going into three high-profile projects: the Digital Media District, the creation of MIT's Media Lab Europe as the district's anchor tenant and the Technology Foresight Fund, which will bring world-class researchers to Dublin's universities. By giving the Irish business community access to future innovations, the government hopes that this economic makeover will prove a lasting success.
The government's most ambitious project is the proposed cybervillage of startup companies and research facilities. The digital hub, as it is commonly called, will house companies that specialise in everything from special effects and digital TV to electronic music and technology R&D - all within a deeply traditional neighbourhood of about 20,000 people. Ahearn envisions a community where digital artists and scientists work cheek by jowl with costermongers and pub owners.
The heart of the digital hub is an 8-acre parcel of former Guinness warehouses and breweries on Thomas Street - the St. James' Gate Brewery area - currently under development by the government. But Ahearn hopes that by the time the hub is completed in about 10 years, it could sprawl throughout 30 to 40 acres. While Ahearn's development fund is providing seed money, he also plans to tap a variety of public and private sources for funding through the years.
Development company Digital Media Development Ltd. (DMDL) will face many of its biggest hurdles before the groundbreaking even takes place. The first challenge is to convince the community that the project is a good thing.
The influx of affluent dotcommers and university-bred yuppies raises the hackles of some community groups. "It's a very traditional community with a huge sense of pride in itself and in the historic area in which it's located," says Bride Rosney, a member of DMDL's executive services team.
DMDL has sought to involve neighbourhood residents, sending questionnaires to residents and business owners asking what they think of the plans, which buildings in their area they would like to see renovated, the kinds of jobs they want to see created and what kind of training they want. The development team has also asked more than 140 different area community groups to help draw up a mission statement that will reflect as many local perspectives as possible. To help smooth the way further, Ahearn has appointed a board of directors with representatives from local as well as national government, the digital media community, education interests and business leaders.
Many in the community also worry that with all the new money pouring into the area, housing prices will rise to the point where they and their children will be priced out of the market. The creation of affordable, new housing has become another top priority.
When it comes to new construction, DMDL is likely to run into another sticky situation, as the site sits on ruins dating back to the 12th century. "Chances are, start digging anywhere and you're going to run into archaeological remains," Rosney says. DMDL plans to examine the archaeological history of the areas likely to be affected by new construction. From that, the group will figure out how to develop the area while respecting its rich archaeological history.
MIT's Media Lab is built around a pioneering partnership of corporate financing and academic research - some world-class discoveries have come from its Cambridge, Mass., facilities. So when MIT started looking for a place to open a lab somewhere in Europe, the Irish government seized the opportunity. Media Lab Europe will cost Ireland about US$33 million in seed capital, as well as an additional US$17 million to renovate two of the old Guinness buildings.
Media Lab Europe's new home is a three-level brick warehouse that is still being renovated.
On the finished top floor, wheeled whiteboards and office chairs roll across the well-worn floorboards of the former Hopstore. A makeshift lab has been set up in one back room, and research is already under way on projects like iCom, a next-generation (meaning one that actually works) interactive videoconferencing tool between Media Lab Europe and Media Lab Cambridge. The lower floors - where the pungent smell of hops still lingers - will eventually house various lab zones, a 200-seat stadium-style auditorium, offices, classrooms and a demo area. Eventually, Media Lab Europe may also turn an adjacent vat house into residential accommodation for students and visiting faculty, additional lab space, and facilities for an incubator.
The announcement of the government's investment in the MIT-branded media lab sparked a fair amount of controversy within both government circles and the Irish research community. While Parliament members initially complained about the public funding of what's essentially a private enterprise, more persistent griping has come from academia. Why, ask Irish researchers, did the government fund a research facility with an American university's brand rather than an Irish one?
According to Media Lab Europe CEO Rudolph Burger, the research critics have missed the point. "This has little, if anything, to do with the quality of the research at MIT versus Irish universities," he says, and much to do with importing a unique blend of academic research and corporate enterprise. For an investment of about US$200,000 per year, companies that sponsor the lab get access to - and the right to license - all the intellectual property that is generated at both the Cambridge and Dublin media labs. To put that figure in perspective, Burger points out that US$200,000 is about the cost of one fully loaded research scientist. But instead of one person, companies can pick the collective brains at two of the most prestigious research centers in the world.
The lab is a mixture of university and commercial research - academics working alongside corporate sponsors (Media Lab Europe currently has five major sponsors: 360 Networks, Compaq, Eircom, Ericsson and Hewlett-Packard). "There is no substitute for being able to send teams of [creative people] into the media lab for a day or two," Burger says. "They can immerse themselves in the work of people who are thinking five to 10 years ahead of the curve."
For example, employees at NEC, a sponsor of Media Lab Cambridge, gathered insights on safety by examining the sensor chair, a creation that Media Lab Europe is currently tinkering with. The chair uses the electricity conducted by the human body to create music. NEC researchers realised that they could apply the same principles to build a safety device that would detect the presence and position of a baby in the front seat of a car. This information could be used to control or limit the deployment of an air bag during a collision, preventing babies from being smothered.
Much of the genius behind the lab can be attributed to the mixture of diverse specialties that they seek. "I want anthropologists sitting next to social scientists sitting next to electrical engineers," Burger says, adding that the cross-pollination between the various groups is often where the magic happens. Some of the projects under development include virtual reality and rehabilitation practices, the development of new technologies to help children learn music, and learning at the primary school level using programmable robotics.
Currently, Media Lab Europe has 20 full-time employees, and Burger expects that the lab will eventually employ 200 to 250 people. "I have a strong bias toward bringing in young people that are at the beginning of their careers, highly ambitious, visionary and are looking for a career-defining experience," Burger says. With four principal researchers hired already - two of whom are Irish expats - he hopes that they will attract the necessary graduate students and interns, and that critical mass will start to build.
The third major project that the government has undertaken is a long-term plan to lure world-class researchers to Ireland with comprehensive grants in key strategic areas, such as biotechnology and information and communications technology.
The Technology Foresight Fund, for which US$600 million has been set aside by the Irish Parliament, will support small numbers of researchers and their teams for a three- to five-year period. The fund is designed to upgrade the level of technical research, a problem identified in ICSTI's analysis. "We were not in the high-level bracket in terms of research excellence in the country," says Conor O'Carroll, senior policy adviser to Forfas, Ireland's national advisory board for enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation. "If we want to create companies in this country and encourage indigenous industry to get involved in high-level research, the way we have to do it is by supporting high-level research in Ireland."
Within the research community, deals like these don't come along too often. Unlike fellowships or project grants, which usually cover only some salaries and equipment costs, these Foresight grants - up to US$1.2 million a year - will cover the full costs associated with running a research team of 10 to 12 people for five years. This includes salaries, equipment, travel and materials. The comprehensive packages free researchers from endless rounds of begging for funding. Forfas also discourages fundees from teaching, a time-consuming task that many undertake to buttress their slim research grants. This allows researchers to focus solely on their projects, and "it makes them ours," O'Carroll says, an important benefit for a country that is trying to attract and grow its own cadre of talented scientists and researchers.
In its first call, the fund received 77 proposals from researchers in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Slovakia, the United Kingdom and the United States - just the sort of diversity it was hoping for. "When you think about it, what [the researchers] are saying is that if successful, they will move lock, stock and barrel over to Ireland for five years. And that's what we want," O'Carroll says. If everything goes well, they'll want to stay and perhaps pursue further research through the fund.
Because the goal is to get Ireland on the map in terms of scientific and technological research, only world-class individuals will receive funding. The fund's board of assessors rated applicants on a scale that ranged from fair to outstanding and chose only those scientists who were stars within the top 10 percent of their field. "We don't want the excellent; we don't want anything below that. We're setting the mark at outstanding," O'Carroll says. They care as much - if not more - about the calibre and potential of the researcher as they do about the specific research proposal. "The [research assessors] might come back to us and say, 'We've got 42 proposals in bio, but nobody is outstanding there,'" he says. "Fine. That's the way it is. We only fund if the quality is there."
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