If the last decade was dominated by ‘creativity’, then ‘innovation’ has surely now been well and truly adopted as the current buzzword of choice. This can be witnessed throughout various institutions and endeavours, from the recently re-titled Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, to Innovation Dublin (an outcome of the ‘Creative Dublin Alliance’), and the  TCD/UCD Innovation Alliance. It is hard to trace exactly where the focus on innovation came from. Perhaps notions of ‘culture’ and ‘creativity’ are too difficult to clearly define, too loose around the edges, so to speak. Innovation is clear. It has a direction and a specific output. It represents a desire to connect diverse elements such as scientific output, technological change, the creative arts, and, at times, the social sciences towards largely economic goals. The new Provost of Trinity College, Professor Patrick Prendergast, recently emphasised this perspective as follows; “When James Joyce wrote Ulysses he was being disruptive in changing the way we think about the novel. Joyce was a true innovator. A century later he might have created Google” This might have been a throwaway comment, yet it highlights the current desire for that which might once have sat on the outside to be brought centre-stage. Certainly those areas associated with ‘culture’, the arts, and ‘creativity’ remain a feature of current activities and debates, but increasingly there seems to be a desire to quantify their actual impact. While I am not questioning the role that those sectors focused upon innovation in various guises (such as the afore-mentioned tech and science sectors) will play in reshaping the Irish economy in the coming years, there seems to be a very real danger that the role of those elements that are less tangible, such as the ability to critically engage with, and challenge, the structures of society, will become lost in the search for direct  and measurable outputs at every turn. While economic recovery is paramount, the current period also offers the potential to challenge the very structures that shape our society.

'Trees on the Quays': Proposal for 'Vertical Park'. Source: http://www.treesonthequays.com

To narrow the focus a little here, the recent plan,  by Mahoney Architects to convert the half-built Anglo Headquarters into a ‘vertical park’ raises some interesting questions about the relationship between innovation, the built environment, and the widely accepted norms of property markets. As outlined on the project website; “The Trees on the Quays project  proposes to radically transform the shell of the abandoned Anglo Irish Bank Head Quarters into an innovative Public Park which will become a focal point for the commemoration of the Centenary of the Irish Republic.” There is much to be admired in this proposal, both in as much as it would stand as a permanent reminder of the problematic nature of a system so orientated towards property development, and the ability to transform it into something completely different for public use. Crucially however, the potential for such a project to gain traction or receive support lies in the willingness of different agencies, such as NAMA and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, to challenge the status quo. It will take a willingness to show that land-use is not simply at the mercy of booms and slumps, and that the alternative use for the Anglo Headquarters (or similar half-built developments) is not just about finding temporary solutions until, as The Irish Times recently stated, “…the property market recovers.” If Irish society is to get past the obsession with property that so dominated the last two decades, there must be a willingness at different institutional levels to challenge the meanings of urban space beyond that which is related to the property market. Ideas such as the Vertical Park, and similar proposals by NamaLab, can help redefine the meanings of our towns and cities, so long as they are allowed to. This requires critical reflection of the structures that contribute to and shape urban space in the first place.

Philip Lawton

Brian Cowen had an editorial in the Irish Times on Saturday arguing that Ireland will recover as a global innovation hub – ‘the best place in Europe to turn research and knowledge into products and services’ – guided by a policy of creating a smart economy. Presumably this would necessitate a highly trained workforce and a well developed research culture and facilities?

Apparently not.  At the same time that billions of euro are being pumped into propping up the banking and property sectors, there is presently underway a massive disinvestment from the education system – core budgets are being drastically trimmed, staff are being cut, supports slashed, capital programmes terminated, research funds hacked, etc.  And this is despite the fact that the the OECD reports that Ireland, pre-the crash, was one of the lowest spenders per capita on research and development, and on education in general, with very large teacher-student ratios and weak support infrastructure (see paras 18 and 23; Tables 4 and 7; also see here).

At a time when we should be investing heavily in education, we are undertaking savage cuts and doing serious damage to the limited capacities that have been built up over the past few years.  How this helps to foster innovation and entrepreneurship, attract inward investment, and create a smart economy is anyone’s guess.  Without a clear roadmap, accompanied by proper financial investment and political will – as opposed to a list of hopes – it is difficult to see how Ireland as an ‘innovation island’ will materialise.  Perhaps if we repeat our desire to be an innovation island enough, it’ll simply happen?  Or perhaps we could invest in education and research capacity building, or at the least seek to maintain pre-cut levels?

Here’s an interesting research question for the government – who do they think will want to move their research and development operations to a country where they are actively disinvesting in the creation of talent?