Dublin is so caught up in a maelstrom of ‘hyper-competitiveness’ that it barely has time to even think about what it is or what it means. At the centre of this is the tech industry, which influences everything from livable city agendas to housing discussions. It is a form of competitiveness that is presented in manner that makes it seem almost matter of fact or inevitable. When faced with this, the responses to recent announcement that the up-coming Web Summit will leave Dublin come as no surprise. The common mantra from various media sources (here and here) is one of ‘loss’, ’embarrassment’, and a sign that we must improve our infrastructure to cater for and attract events such as this. In a manner that would seem almost absurd to many, The Irish Times even went so far as to publish an opinion poll asking ‘Is the loss of the Web Summit a blow to Ireland’s reputation abroad’. In as much as such approaches are so dominant, it becomes completely accepted that the response must be for Dublin to reaffirm itself and ‘stay in the game’ or lose out. There is little reflection on what the level of mobility and ‘choice’ afforded to contemporary companies or organizations means for the city and for thinking about long-term sustainable approaches to economic development.
There are a number of factors worth remembering here. For one, the Web Summit is part of a culture of expectation, where every want and need is answered. If not, there is every chance that the relevant companies will move on. This reality is made explicit in this case, with the Web Summit blog stating: “We know now what it takes to put on a global technology gathering and we know that if Web Summit is to grow further, we need to find it a new home. Our attendees expect the best.” Thus, with one foul swoop, the birth-place of the Summit is rejected, with pastures new willing to cater to the wants and needs of the tech world. This is a world that is held aloft as proclaiming the arrival of a new world order of progress and betterment. Although most of us never experience it, it offers a luring image of inventiveness, youth, and progress all framed in a chic background of converted shipping containers and bright colours. Yet, in as much as this industry needs constantly innovate to remain competitive, it makes for a highly unpredictable outcome for host cities.
The Web Summit also forms part and parcel of a form of competitiveness that perceives and believes that any small dent in the shiny and glossy image of the city will end in a catastrophic result. It is yet another element in the firm belief of a ‘trickle down’ approach to economic betterment, even if we don’t know where it’s trickling. It is so normalized that it now presents itself as common sense – ‘we’ must fight for this agenda at all costs because these the outcome is ‘good’. As is nearly always the case, there is little to no questioning of why pursue this approach in the first place and of possible demerits.
If Dublin is playing a competitive game, it must be prepared for the possibility of losing out from time to time. It might be said that this is a small blip that we can recover from through the means outlined above. Yet, in so doing it must be remembered that in an industry that craves newness and innovation at every corner, a new venue every few years might be an inevitability, no matter how much is spent on infrastructure. In pushing the argument a bit further, we might also ask what might happen if this is just a pre-warning of an over-reliance upon the tech sector for the future economic viability of the city. We are playing an extremely fickle economic game and we need to brace ourselves for the possibility of failure based on overnight decisions for companies to move their location. Ireland is all too used to rapid economic busts, yet in entered into a game that is perhaps more unstable than the last, we remain blinded by the lights.
It is time to stop pandering to the mantra of ‘what they want, they get’ – who ever the ‘they’ actually are. It is time to turn around and actually really debate what it is we want as a city and ask how, in this example, the tech industry going to contribute to this – in the long-term. If nothing else, it is time to realize that in reality the hyper-competitive city is a fleeting and unstable entity with unpredictable outcomes.