20 January 2005 Edition

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Digital Liberties leads the way - MediaLab closure doesn't take away from success of Digital Hub

It is not every day a government flagship project crashes after burning up €35 million of taxpayers' money.

The imminent closure of MediaLab Europe and the 50 jobs that will be lost is a shame. However, it should not be let detract from the success story of Dublin's Digital Hub project, especially in a week where hundreds of other jobs are seeping from the Irish economy. Now, more than ever, we need new thinking that will help educate and employ the coming generations of Irish workers.

BLUE SKIES RESEARCH

MediaLab Europe was set up with considerable hype in 1999. The thinking behind the project is a simple one. It would be a partnership between business, government and MIT from the US, which would fund innovative research. In this case, it would be in the emerging digital media and communication technologies.

This type of research is new to Ireland in that it is not driven by a firm seeking to develop a new product. Termed as "blue skies" research, the aim was to engage in cutting edge research in new technologies, some of which might end up in new patents being registered. Indeed, in the press statement announcing the MediaLab closures, there was reference to 14 patent applications filed from the centre.

PRIVATE SECTOR FAILURE

So why did MediaLab fail? It wasn't a failure of the research being done in the lab; the gap here is in the funding. The idea behind MediaLab was that, after an initial kick start of funding from the state, including the acquisition of a substantial site, the private sector would invest and sponsor work in the lab.

This has not happened. Irish business has kept its hands in its pockets and so, if any blame could be made, it would be directed towards the private sector who, despite years of tax cuts since the lab was opened, have been unwilling to put enough money into the project.

Report after report has shown the dire levels of research and development (R&D) in Ireland. The MediaLab closure was just the latest sorry chapter in this saga. However the closure should not detract from the other substantial achievements in the Digital Hub.

LIBERTIES REVOLUTION

In fact, it could be argued that the Liberties area in Dublin, which over 200 years ago was a hotbed of revolution, is now again at the cutting edge of societal change. These days, though, it is a digital revolution, involving new businesses, a possible digital village and school-based technology initiatives that have the potential to enhance not just the Liberties but local communities throughout the island.

So what is Dublin's Digital Hub? According to its own hype, the aim of the Digital Hub is "to create an international centre of excellence for knowledge, innovation and creativity focused on digital content and technology enterprises". The site is spread across nine acres of the Liberties area of Dublin

The Hub's development agency want this part of Dublin by 2010 to become "home to a mixed use development, consisting of enterprise, residential, retail, learning and civic space. The Digital Hub aims to transform the Liberties into a new digital quarter of Dublin".

NEXT GENERATION OF IRISH COMPANIES

An Phoblacht spoke to Stephen Brennan, director of marketing and strategy at the Hub. His picture of the hub was a positive one. The aim of the hub was, he said, to act as an enterprise agency that would help "develop the next generation of Irish companies". The area the Hub was specialising in was digital media and the Hub was trying to create an enterprise cluster in Dublin's Liberties area. The companies range from software to wireless technologies, games, animation, digital editing, web design etc.

What's more interesting is that, since the state acquired the site for the Hub Development Agency, the project has become self financing.

It is hoped that the development of a mix of business units, residences and retail outlets on the nine-acre site will now help finance the enterprise elements of the Digital Hub. Right now the Hub has developed only two acres of the site.

DIGITAL HUB'S ACHIEVEMENTS

There are now 40 companies operating in the hub, with over 300 people working in them, and the number doubled over the last year. The Hub management are in the final stages of picking a contractor to start the next stage of development on the site.

They have also built a 3.5 km fibre optic ring between the different sites occupied by the Hub in the Liberties. Also of huge importance, and a vital part of how the Hub operates, is its role in learning and education in the local community. Last year, the Digital Hub was involved in running 20 programmes involving over 6,000 people.

The businesses in the hub are, according to Brennan, part of "a diverse cluster of digital media enterprises, including gaming, animation and mobile technologies". The companies have access to "some of the best telecommunications infrastructure in Europe".

DIGITAL LEARNING

A core part of the Digital Hub Development Agency's work is to promote what they call "digital learning" and particularly in the community where the hub is based. Top quality information and communications technology has been brought to 16 local primary and secondary schools.

Sinn Féin councillor Andrew O'Connell grew up and now lives and works in the Liberties area. He told An Phoblacht that, "the Digital Hub has brought huge investments into local schools and given children access to IT and digital media".

What impressed O'Connell was that the Digital Hub staff "went out and consulted widely and they still are today". He welcomed the regeneration that is ongoing in the Liberties, saying that it is bringing "new investment and opportunities to the area".

MediaLab had, according to O'Connell a different philosophy and didn't interact with the local community to the same degree as the Digital Hub, but had set up a partnership with the local South West Inner City Partnership that led to the creation of an Intel-sponsored clubhouse that allowed local youths access to digital technologies.

O'Connell stressed that the local community understood that the Digital Hub was not just setting up a yuppy town but that the whole area is growing and developing.

COMMUNITY DIVIDEND

Aengus Ó Snodaigh is the Sinn Féin TD for Dublin South Central, which includes the Liberties area, and he agrees with O'Connell's analysis. He told An Phoblacht that he was initially concerned about "what dividend would there be for the local community", but that "the linking of schools to the Hub's network and providing them with top of range technology and tailored education programmes was good for the local children".

"What is needed now is a way of bringing PCs into the homes in the Liberties and Irish businesses should be willing to subsidise the costs of this," said Ó Snodaigh.

He added that it was important the research being undertaken at MediaLab was continued, maybe he said, "in collaboration with Irish universities or institutes of technology".

The Digital hub concept works, said Ó Snodaigh and it could lead to thousands of jobs across the country in years to come. Stephen Brennan echoed this and told An Phoblacht that the Hub agency "wants to find people who live in the area to have meaningful work in the hub's campus". It seems that at the very least, the first steps in this process have been taken, so while the demise of MediaLab might be lamented the glass in the Digital Hub is way more than half full.

• Want to see more? Go to www.thedigitalhub.com


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