Can linking digital hubs help regenerate rural Ireland?

Digital co-working hubs have sprung up across Ireland’s western seaboard, promising a flexible future for workers as well as a boost for local economies. However, hampered by skills and funding challenges, how sustainable are these hubs?

When the Western Development Commission decided to investigate the opportunities for remote working along the Atlantic Economic Corridor (AEC) the assumption was that there would be around 30 hubs operating between Donegal and Kerry.

But in fact with Udaras na Gaeltachta planning to help regenerate Irish speaking communities by opening 31 high speed hubs known as “GTEICs” in Gaeltacht areas , WDC research found that there are 114 along the AEC, including many already up and running and some still in development .

“One of our challenges is that the government is good at investing in buildings but not in people”

The WDC regards remote working as a key to reinvigorating the regions , in line with government policy, and has embarked on a three year AEC Hubs project. It will focus on such challenges as low occupancy rates in some regional hubs, lack of a centralised ICT system, and the need for improved marketing and branding.

The AEC hubs project has been enabled by initial funding of €1m euro from the Dormant Accounts Fund. Tomás Ó Síocháin CEO of the WDC believes the development of a network of 114 hubs, with a common booking engine and an easy to access map of such facilities, will benefit employees and employers. Already the WDC has been getting stakeholders together to identify challenges and explore opportunities for collaboration at two hubs strategy workshops in Limerick and Sligo in November of last year.

Ó Síocháin, believes the AEC Hubs project is timely for many reasons. “It’s a given that technology will continue to advance, increasing the potential for working away from head office whether that’s in Dublin or across the Atlantic,” he explained . “And obviously there is now a huge push towards a low carbon economy.”

He also believes that we are witnessing a fundamental change in people’s attitude to working, a concept which is much more fluid for today’s younger generation for whom “a job for life” is almost an alien notion.

AEC Enterprise Hubs Project

The AEC Enterprise Hubs Project caters for a range of facilities from Portershed in Galway where 135 workers mostly from the tech sector are now based, to more rural community spaces, some with just a handful of desks but high hopes of giving long-gone emigrants a route home.

“Remote working is an ideal tool for rural and regional development because it is sector agnostic,” said Ó Síocháin. “It’s not just about foreign direct investment or the med tech sector. Any job where people spend part of their day sitting at a computer screen is a candidate for remote working.”

To underline the scope technological advances are creating, Ó Síocháin cited companies like California-based Stripe, founded in 2009 by Limerick brothers John and Patrick Collison, which now locates employees in particular time zones rather than in specific buildings. “You can see how that makes sense for global companies who need people in a US time zone or a European time zone”, he points out.

Bank of Ireland community enterprise manager Tracy Keogh is one of the founders of Grow Remote which started in 2018 as a WhatsApp group for people who believed remote working could be a key to regenerating regional communities, ravaged by emigration and unemployment. Keogh was struck by the number of empty retail units in towns and villages throughout the country and realized that remote working wasn’t making an impact in some places.

“Some rural hubs had an occupancy rate of only 25pc”, explained Keogh. Grow Remote focuses on promoting remote working opportunities – with the emphasis very much on salaried jobs with protections such as sick pay, holiday entitlements and pensions. “It’s all about making remote work visible and accessible,” she said.

Grow Remote now has 110 chapters in Ireland and abroad, and in October 2019 it won a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland award, for its contribution to raising awareness of remote working opportunities.

Occupancy may be an issue in some rural hubs but not at Portershed in Galway which opened over three years ago. There are now 135 workers from 42 companies based there and demand for space is so intense that Portershed will open another city centre hub in 2021 with capacity for 250.

“You can feel the energy when you come in the door,” explained manager Mary Rodgers who said the opportunity to brain storm and to network often opens doors for those working in busy hubs. “We have a good coffee machine and the queue is where the deals are done”, she said.

The perks for the workers include having a receptionist and meeting rooms laid on, with “zero overheads.”

Given that the average salary for the 135 people based in the hub is €65,000, it also provides a hefty annual injection for the local economy.

WDC executive Pauline Leonard who has carried out a study of hubs along the AEC pointed out that there is huge variation in terms of occupancy.

“Some of the smaller hubs are struggling and may be at only 50pc occupancy or less, while hubs in urban areas or those associated with third level institutions are doing much better,” she explained. Her research showed that some hubs still take bookings on the phone or on email rather than through a website. A surprising number of respondents – 60pc – said they got most of their clients through word of mouth – but yet according to Leonard many are poor at fostering links with local communities.

Some regional hubs have evolved because so many in one catchment area were commuting to work in places like Dublin. Others operate as “second sites” for large city-based companies who have clusters of staff in one community. Hubs can also provide backup for people who normally work from home but occasionally need to escape the chaos of family life for important conference calls to clients or colleagues, Leonard explained.

With Vodafone currently trailing holographic meetings in the UK , Tomás Ó Síocháin points out that virtual meetings with people who could be in a different continent is not as Star Trek as it might have seemed a decade ago, “In five years’ time that technology could be the norm. Our Skype calls will be replaced by a hologram call” he said. The WDC intends to lead from the front when it comes to remote working and is currently looking at proposals that could see staff work up to three days a week from a home or hub.

Making hubs sustainable

Making hubs sustainable is a priority according to Tomás Ó Síocháin and it’s a concern shared by the manager of one of Ireland’s newest regional hubs, Cillian Murphy from the Elliott Centre in Kilkee, Co Clare.

“Clare County Council has a very good digital strategy – funded from the public purse – and clients pay just €10 a day to use their hubs,” he explained. “We just cannot compete with that. We have to charge €20 a day so we are at a disadvantage.”

The Elliott Centre did get significant funding under the Towns & Villages Renewal Scheme as well as from Enterprise Ireland, Leader and the local Chamber of Commerce.

“But one of our challenges is that the government is good at investing in buildings but not in people,” said Murphy who points out that staffing is an issue. The Kilkee centre is expected to cater for many with holiday homes locally who can now extend their weekends knowing there is a hub close by. “That benefits the town ”, said Murphy.

The Atlantic Economic Corridor held two stakeholder engagement meetings in November in Sligo and Limerick, attended by over 160 key stakeholders from across the region.

Key themes emerged from both including the need for centralised resources including a booking engine, marketing and promotion toolkit and knowhow, back office IT suite/virtual network supports, funding and procurement support and more.

It is believed the AEC can carve a very powerful proposition in co-working and remote working for rural areas to drive investment and regional growth. Interestingly, social enterprise represents 60pc of Hubs across the AEC.

This shows the local connection and strong reflection of community needs in both big and small hubs.

Written by Marese McDonagh

Published: 21 February, 2020