January 19, 2015
In the early 1990s, I used to take the Dart from Dalkey to Pearse Station every day. Back then, Lansdowne Road station was the frontline. It marked the border where the leafy back gardens of upmarket south Dublin gave way to the gritty urban reality of the canals, old railway carriages and the abandoned commercial landscape of warehouses, docks and run down scrap metal yards. It was an urban wasteland.
The only beacon was Windmill Lane studios. And what a beacon it was! This was U2’s recording home and U2 was the biggest band in the world, in fact the only Irish endeavour that was actually world class. We may talk about world class this and that, but U2 were and still are, the only world beating artistic project that this 26 county Republic has actually produced. Even now, 40 years after getting together, their upcoming world tour is practically sold out. In the early 1990s, just after the release of Achtung Baby, the fact that they were still recording in Dublin was one of the very few thumbs up for this part of the city. U2 aside, there wasn’t much to sing about.
Having worked over in London during college summers and seen how Londoners were retaking old industrial buildings and converting urban spaces into high-end residential and commercial hubs, it always struck me as odd that Dublin developers wouldn’t reinvigorate this part of the city.
Take the same Dart journey today and the place is transformed.
Architecturally, the transformation is complete, but something much more interesting has happened. An industry is there that didn’t exist before; this is enormously important.
The industrial story of this part of Europe, I mean north western Europe, over the past 100 years is the story of the decline of industries and the redundancy of not only large swathes of the industrial population, but the industrial landscape too. The birth or re-birth of an industry is a significant development.
According to the IDA, the multinational technology sector here is conservatively worth over 40,000 direct jobs and about €2 billion in wages, excluding indirect jobs. It also accounts for close to €1 billion in corporate taxation, despite the low tax rate. Regular readers of this column will know that I have problems with the paltry tax that these companies pay. (They should pay more on a corporate level and their employees should pay less on a personal level, but let’s leave that to future articles). The point is that the days when I got the Dart into Pearse, these industries didn’t exist. Today, the Silicon Docks are transformed.
For Dublin, the transformation of the human capital and know-how of the employees is much more significant than the visual physical transformation of this part of the city. New industries bring new knowledge, new ways of doing this, new networks and new initiatives. If you are working with companies that are world leaders then, by definition, you will up your game as a worker. You will learn things that you might never have imagined and you will meet people who you may do business with in the future on different projects.
For example, your chances of setting up a small tech business on your own are made immeasurably more likely by having experience in a big global company because you will be having conversations with like-minded people. You will see opportunities, you might get an insight into finance or marketing or sales that you might never have had.
All these aspects of business are crucial and have a profound impact on the people who work in an industry. These networks are not quantified by immediate tax take or number of jobs or whatever metric the political class wants to apply to their cost/benefit analysis of an industry.
Sometimes, what is important is the things you can’t measure! The soft things, such as experience, know-how, networks or simply knowing who to pick up the phone to as a potential buyer. An overlooked aspect of business is that we do business with people we know, therefore, thousands of people working together in the Silicon Docks in Dublin is an enormously vibrant commercial organism that has nothing but positives for the city and the city’s economy.
Just consider how much experience and knowledge is wrapped up in this roll call of leading companies that are present in the Silicon Docks: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, PayPal, EngineYard, Dropbox, LinkedIn, HubSpot, Yelp, Tripadvisor, airbnb, ZenDesk and Zynga.
All these are enormous companies. All have become world beaters and changed the way we live. Sure they are American and they are here for lots of reasons – tax being clearly one of the most significant – but every city deploys what it can to attract industry that it couldn’t otherwise conceive of starting up. They were not here before and they are here now and we are only beginning to understand what their legacy might be in terms of new industries and start-ups that will come from the people who work there now and go on to other things.
If you doubt the impact that an initial core of knowledge and expertise can have, consider airline leasing. This is not an industry you would automatically think of when you mention Ireland. After all, we don’t manufacture any planes. We don’t have any aeronautical industrial pedigree, yet 55 per cent of all planes that are leased in the world are leased out of Dublin.
How did this come about?
It came about because in the grim 1970s and 1980s, an Irish company called GPA managed to come from out of nowhere to be the biggest airline leasing company in the world. GPA crashed and burned following an unsuccessful flotation in 1992, around the same time I was getting the Dart to Pearse, however, its legacy has been enormous. Not only is Ryanair – founded by Tony Ryan of GPA – the biggest airliner in Europe by a country mile, but Dublin is full of seasoned executives who learned their trade and made their contacts in GPA.
In short, a significant industry was created by people who initially worked together in the 1990s, then branched out on their own and taught others the ropes. Now we have a niche business in the city.
The commercial legacy of the Silicon Docks can be much, much greater than the airline leasing business can ever be.
It may well be another generation until we appreciate that.