An expert panel joined UCD EGA last month for a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion to examine Ireland's digital future at Belfield's Clinton Auditorium

“We are moving from the age of carbon to the age of silicon,” Dr Brian Motherway, CEO, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), told the UCD Engineering Graduates Association autumn panel discussion, which also also heard from Vodafone CEO Anne O’Leary, Google vice-president (EMEA) and CEO Ireland Ronan Harris, IBM research director Dr Eleni Pratsini and Atlantic Bridge investment director Dr Helen McBreen.

“There will be 80 billion devices in the world by 2020 in our homes, pockets, businesses – not only iPhones but iKettles and iToothbrushes. We will move from the ‘power of capital’ to the ‘power of knowledge’ with all the intellectual property implications that will bring,” added Motherway.

“On sustainability, we spend €6.7 billion each year on the import of fossil fuels which is some 89 per cent of our energy costs. What is the biggest environmental challenge on the planet – climate change – is going to become the biggest social challenge we have ever faced. Ireland has one of the largest carbon emissions of greenhouse gases per capita in the world.”

Internet-enabled devices replacing textbooks

On education, Anne O’Leary, CEO Vodafone, stated: “The classroom will be transformed by internet-enabled devices replacing textbooks but they can’t replace teachers as the primary source of learning. Learning analytics will allow teachers to monitor teacher outcomes. Access to numerous resources on the internet for teachers will allow teachers the opportunity to increase their skills.

“We must not, however, allow the digital classroom to become impersonal. Education is as much about social and cultural as it is about course content. We should not seek to suppress body language and peer-to-peer learning which remain integral to the educational process. It must not demote the role of the teacher in the classroom. As Bill Gates said, technology is just a tool but in terms of getting the kids to work together and motivating them the teacher is the most important.

“On healthcare, the digital economy will bring remote treatment to patients at home and thus avoid overcrowding in hospitals. We have a lot of problems in the Irish health system while the digital future will help us navigate this perfect storm. It will bring world-class healthcare to peripheral areas through ehealth systems. Connectivity will allow for remote monitoring and diagnosis so that hospitals become a last resort rather than the first port of call.”

Major challenge is inclusivity

A major challenge to Ireland’s digital future is inclusivity, she stated. “In my view it must be a shared future as innovation can often widen the gap between urban and rural rather than narrow it. There is the potential to have a two-speed Ireland across urban and rural which we must avoid. Rapid innovation has the potential to leave people behind. In my mind Ireland cannot afford to have a digital divide to further increase the divisions already created by the economic turmoil of the past number of years.

“There is one Ireland which is the poster boy of economic rebound and another Ireland which still bears the scars of economic crisis and poor access to credit. There is therefore the danger of two Irelands unless there is access to universal high speed broadband to all homes and businesses. Connectivity is the key to consistent economic recovery across Ireland. Vodafone and ESB are partnering to provide ‘fibre to the home’ which is four times faster than what is currently available.”

Ronan Harris, who now runs the Irish Google operation and is vice-president Europe Middle East and Asia talked of the primitive digital world when he was a UCD engineering student in the early 1990s. “Convergence only happened in the UCD bar and search engines only had two feet venturing into the UCD library,” he said. “Now Google technology particles can be injected into your blood cells which can monitor your health and wellbeing transmitted to a ‘wearable’ and then transmitted to the cloud.

Moore’s law and other laws that define digital transformation

“In UCD I learned Moore’s Law and other laws that define the digital transformation. We are only at the dawn of this transformation and innovation, only starting to get a glimpse of what the day ahead looks like and the next 20 years will bring huge changes. These changes will be driven by computer technology, connectivity and storage. We are looking at technologies that would not have been possible five years ago. Google can use large ‘Lunar Balloons’ 19km into the stratosphere to provide access to the internet at a low cost in remote rural areas not previously capable of being served, for example, Africa, Asia and South America,” he concluded.

Dr Eleni Pratsini leads the IBM Research Lab in Dublin working on Smart Cities. “One-third of food is wasted across the world while others starve. Europe wastes 20 per cent of energy due to inefficiencies. The US wastes 58 per cent of its energy produced. Water wastage varies from five per cent in Northern Europe to more than 30 per cent in Ireland and 60 per cent in some US States. The number of cars will double from 2010 to 2020,” she stated.

“About 70 per cent of people will live in cities by 2020. By 2020 an extra billion citizens will be middle class. By 2025 the top 600 cities will account for 25 per cent of global population and 60 per cent of global GDP. Can you imagine life without a smart phone? We have 35 per cent penetration of mobile devices in Ireland, and that is expected to increase to 50 per cent by 2020. About 90 per cent of data was collected in the past two years and some 90 per cent of collected data is never used or analysed.

IBM working with UCD on collaborative consumption

“IBM has examples of close collaboration with cities in the case of the current Dublin City Council – a relationship especially in the transport and traffic area. IBM has also been working with UCD on collaborative consumption or the ‘sharing economy’ on electric cars, parking etc, for example, GoCar. Cars can be idle 90 per cent of the time so can we not use them more efficiently and more collaboratively?” she concluded.

Dr Helen McBreen, of Atlantic Bridge Capital, looked at Ireland’s entrepreneurial spirit. She puts an investor lens on people, technologies and markets. “About 80 per cent of the world’s digital investment deals happen in Silicon Valley as the principal world investment hub in California. That led to the formation of Atlantic Bridge Capital to ‘bridge’ Silicon Valley to Europe, headquartered in Dublin. We have $450 million under management across offices in Dublin, Silicon Valley, London, Beijing and Hong Kong. Entrepreneurs will have a deep curiosity and will search to get to the root of the problems. These are particularly in global challenges such as healthcare, climate change, education, energy and computing.

“We challenge the traditional way of doing business. Yet in this business there are more often failures than there are successes. That’s why there is a star quality to the profession of entrepreneurs who eventually succeed. These people look for sustainable growth. They produce products that people want to purchase over and over again. The dynamics of the venture capital asset class are a little strange. We look for decent valuations, disruptive technologies so we seek entrepreneurs who can build businesses of scale in a short time frame. The technologies that we seek are disruptive becoming cheaper and faster, for example, drones and robots.”

PJ Rudden is president of UCD Engineering Graduates Association, former president of Engineers Ireland and currently director of RPS Group in Ireland O'RiordanTechcarbon,Google,Ireland,SEAI,UCD,Vodafone
“We are moving from the age of carbon to the age of silicon,” Dr Brian Motherway, CEO, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), told the UCD Engineering Graduates Association autumn panel discussion, which also also heard from Vodafone CEO Anne O’Leary, Google vice-president (EMEA) and CEO Ireland Ronan Harris,...