It’s up to all of us to take the opportunities

As she prepares to step down as chair of it@cork, Caroline O’Driscoll reflects on how the tech sector and the people of Cork depend on each other.

True story. I once asked my husband “where is the internet”. Just five years after that ill–fated question, the accountant-turned-tech- enthusiast found herself as chair- person of the technology industry group it@cork — the girl had learned something, it seemed.

“A city rising”, the proud banner on the grand parade reads. There is certainly much to celebrate when it comes to the technology sector in the region, a sector filled with people who are innovative, inspiring, different, and challenging.

The tech sector is now the fastest-growing sector in the southern region, employing an estimated 29,000 people. IDA reports 63% growth in IDA-supported companies operating here in the last five years alone. That is simply astonishing, but no surprise either given the global pace of change.

Last year, the tech giant Apple became the world’s first trillion dollar company — you don’t need an accountant to tell you that’s an awful lot of zeros.

The IDA does a superb job in attracting companies to the region and we punch above our weight by international standards.

Cork plays strongly in areas like cyber, internet of things data analytics and cloud. We are seeing emerging sectors such as fintech, blockchain, and artificial intelligence (AI) featuring across the tech landscape.

Our entrepreneurial landscape is also very strong, with over 60 Enterprise Ireland-supported tech companies in the region.

We see increasing trends in entrepreneur-led companies innovating and collaborating with large tech companies — but they do need more supports, particularly in the area of tax policy.

Enhancing the entrepreneur relief from capital gains tax would allow us to better compete with the more attractive UK equivalent, and would be a welcome step to encourage entrepreneurship by those who take the greatest risk.

The often-referenced Project Ireland 2040 plans gave Cork a much-needed boost, with a renewed sense of activity and optimism across business, with Cork set to become the fastest-growing region in Ireland.

It is fantastic that we have over one million square feet of office space coming on stream imminently. However, we need to continue our focus on building out the docklands area in a sustainable way, with the right infrastructure, public transport, and, most crucially residential housing.

The tech sector attracts individuals who are highly mobile, and often seek city-centre living that is so commonly found in other cities across the world. We simply must find a way to build more residential units and make the economics work. Housing now joins talent as the number one challenge it@cork members say they face.

Access to talent is extremely important to companies — large and small. We are so fortunate to have third-level institutions like CIT and UCC here on our doorstep — UCC have new degrees in data science and analytics, and psychology and computing.

CIT has introduced MScs in cloud, info sec [information security] and AI over the past few years to name but a few. This plays not just an important role for our homegrown talent, but also to attract much-needed tech talent from overseas.

At a schools level, Cork-born movements like Coder Dojo inspire a new generation to think about technology, while initiatives like I Wish encourage greater female participation in STEM, helping companies have the broadest pool of talent available to them.

But as we build out technology on a global scale, we do have a responsibility to be part of the interesting global debates that are emerging. Each May, it@cork runs a Tech Summit in Cork and the questions we are considering are becoming more complex as we navigate this new tech-enabled world.

Last year, for example, a local tech leader had a microchip implanted live on stage. Imagine the uses it has for storing vital medical information. But how far is too far in terms of privacy?

When it comes to technology and children, what should the appropriate age of digital consent be? We see huge gender imbalances in STEM — how do we develop AI responsibility to ensure that biases in society are not codified into AI?

The answers to these questions are not easy, but leaders right here in Cork are at the heart of debating these global and important issues.

As my term as chairperson of it@cork ends, I reflect on what a privilege it has been to be involved with a sector that is so energetic and fast-paced, and work with leaders who I respect and admire.

I see so clearly the opportunities that Cork has, but it is up to each one of us to have the vision and bravery to grab them.

Cities don’t rise. People do.

Caroline O’Driscoll is Chairperson of it@cork, co-founder of I Wish and a corporate and international partner at Deloitte Ireland LLP.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner on 26 April, 2019.

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