THE ‘dream became a reality’.
That was the phrase repeated several times last week when the Ludgate hub was officially launched in Skibbereen.
The dream – that one, small West of Ireland town, relatively remote but doggedly determined – could become a magnet for new business and a reason for its sons and daughters to return home.
The initiative aims to create 500 jobs in five years in the West Cork region and provide a multi-million euro boost to the local economy.
So far, it looks like it could be well on target.
The word ‘community’ was also mentioned many times by the speakers last Friday, packed into the former bakery building. Sean Atkinson, the boss of SIRO – the company hooking up the hub to its 1GB connection – mentioned the fact that two very strong community-based businesses were formerly located in the same space: the bakery, and a cinema.
Now another cornerstone of the community – a communications hub – is in situ. Commentator Fergus Finlay, writing about Ludgate in a national paper this week, wondered if a digital space could be the IDA ‘advance factory’ of its day. There’s no reason why every community shouldn’t have its own Ludgate, he noted.
The building, which was the local cinema from 1941 until 1981, is yet again a centre of communication, having been transformed into a 10,000 sq ft digital workspace – the first of its kind outside of Dublin.
The hub is now fully operational and has over 30 people signed up and working from the premises. To date, the hub has attracted Irish emigrants such as David Carroll, a Skibbereen native, to return from Marbella with his wife and two children. It has also helped to attract people from abroad to relocate to the town, including Jane and Evan Sims from Chicago and Christopher Mason from Los Angeles.
Chief executive Gráinne Dwyer – who herself admitted she could easily have been another emigration statistic – says businesses operating from the hub have cited the ‘unparalleled broadband speed’ as a primary reason for establishing operations in Skibbereen.
David Puttnam’s stunning video showing the genesis of Ludgate – including the first meetings of the high calibre steering group mixed in with some stunning shots of local beauty spots and townspeople enjoying local festivals – brought a tear to more than one eye at the launch. ‘I was just so proud of Skibbereen when I saw that,’ one local business woman told me. ‘Now people realise why all this means so much to a community like ours.’
But a dream is nothing without the hard work and commitment to grow it.
Getting the best partners on board was key to realising the vision.
Vodafone Ireland was chosen as the telecoms partner to the project and SIRO, (the ESB and Vodafone joint venture) provided the 100% fibre-optic broadband network with 1 Gigabit connectivity.
The broadband infrastructure is three times as powerful as the market leading service in Dublin, Sean Atkinson noted. It is powered by light, making it different and better than any other network in Ireland, with no copper connection at any point.
The initiative is the result of the efforts of a very impressive group of entrepreneurs, digital ambassadors and local business owners, who were brought together by Drimoleague native and Glen Dimplex Group president, Seán O’Driscoll. The steering group – which also includes RTE director general Dee Forbes, Vodafone chief executive Anne O’Leary and Google Ireland boss Ronan Harris – operates as a non-profit company and has worked on a voluntary basis over the last two years to bring the initiative to life.
The board secured €1m in investment to kick-start the project and create a digital blueprint for the town. ‘The group aim to put the town on the map as a beacon of innovation and to provide start-ups with the environment and mentoring support required to research and commercialise opportunities to compete on a global scale,’ said Gráinne.
At the launch last Friday, Sean O’Driscoll said the rationale behind the Ludgate Hub is employment which will help to create a sustainable future for rural areas. ‘Over the last decade many towns and villages in West Cork, and indeed across Ireland, have been devastated by recession and emigration. The Ludgate Hub opens up enormous new opportunities for West Cork. This new digital age will make the impossible possible and consign geographic economical disadvantages to history and reinvigorate rural areas in its wake.’
The Ludgate Hub building was made available to the project by local businessman John Field, whose family has been involved in the business community of Skibbereen for over 80 years, bolstering the view that none of this would be possible without the West Cork ‘can-do’ attitude, as Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor described it.
As well as the creation of the digital hub, the Ludgate group has created a number of initiatives to facilitate community-wide engagement of the 1GB connection. One project is the development of ‘eStreet’ – a platform to encourage over 11 local retailers to trade online.
This platform, supported by An Post, will be the first of its kind in Ireland and will enable rural communities to trade on a global platform.
The local Coderdojo group, which teaches people of all ages and tech abilities to code, has also found a welcome residence in the hub and has subsequently doubled numbers.
To stimulate international and national scalable start-ups, a €300,000 seed fund was launched in May and the hub will now welcome the first teams of successful applicants to the fund in the coming few months.
The Ludgate Hub is also the proud organiser of National Digital Week, a highly successful series of digital events. The previously sold-out event, which last year brought 1,600 attendees through the door, and world-class speakers from the US, Europe and Ireland, is due to be held again this November in Skibbereen.
‘Skibbereen has begun a transition, and is leading the way for similar communities to become part of a Gigabit society in Ireland,’ said Vodafone’s Anne O’Leary. ‘We believe that the Ludgate approach will encourage other towns and villages across Ireland to galvanise local resources and think of a bottom-up approach to local economic development.’
While other towns may not have the likes of Vodafone, Google, Glen Dimplex and RTE bosses to call on so readily, there is nothing stopping them attempting to find their own local leaders, and using the Skibbereen hub as a blueprint for their own digital futures.
In time, every town could have its very own Ludgate. And that’s a dream that we now know can become reality.