Irish Innovation Rooted in Place

Published in: ‘Decision Magazine’, Dublin, Winter 2012, pp.14-15 

text version follows:

Abstract: The best-selling author on globalisation, Thomas Friedman, has written that if Ireland is to operate successfully in today’s economy, it must “develop sufficiently strong cultural and environmental filters”.  A sense of place, an emotional attachment to a distinct geographical and cultural space, does exactly that.  It informs people’s sense of who they are, where they are, where they have come from and where they are trying to go.  Presenting a compelling view of the past it offers a guide to the future, a spirit of self-discovery, while contributing to integrity, civic responsibility and ecological stewardship.


Experience Economy

As societies undergo a paradigm shift from the techno-economic age of goods to the sustainable age of experiences, meaning is becoming crucial.  In their quest for self-realisation, individuals want to spend time and money on compelling personalised experiences, not commoditised goods and services.  As the significance of the material diminishes, it is capacities of the mind, meaningful experiences emanating from right-brain aptitudes like empathy, that foster innovation.  Imagination, the most valuable resource of all, is driven by emotions and feelings, the heart rather than rational mind, founded on inspiration, memory and trust, deeply rooted in the social and economic fabric of local relationships.


Corporate value is increasingly tied up in intangibles like relationships and brands.  Value rises as meaning deepens, illustrated in digital media by content, originality in crafts, local expertise in food and tradition in farming practices.  Many high tech companies spend more on the symbolic aspects of their products than on technical developments per se.  Progressive businesses realise the way to differentiate their offerings is to infuse them with emotion and artistry.  Steve Jobs was brilliant at embedding passion and poetry in Apple products to create engaging experiences.



In today’s economy, where almost anything can be made anywhere, identity really matters.  Consumers want to know how a product were made, the materials used in its creation and where it came from; in other words, its story.  An expensive location can still compete in manufacturing where products possess characteristics such as originality, aura or are identified with a special place.


Valuable knowledge depends on a distinct cultural perspective, as in French fashion and Italian cuisine.  Both countries have great reputations for artisan industries based on the terroir of their soil, and the social and cultural attributes of their regions.  Champagne, wines, beers, cheeses, breads and other foods have subtle nuances and characteristics attributable to their place of origin.


Authenticity, the heart of heritage, is seen, felt and sensed in a product.  Take Harris Tweed of Scotland.  Produced for centuries in the tiny Outer Hebrides island of Harris, and once the favoured attire of upper classes and country sports enthusiasts, tweed producers fell on hard times.  Yet Nike, the giant global sportswear manufacturer, recently chose a Harris Tweed design to adorn a range of designer trainers, generating a turnaround in the fortunes of a unique but ailing industry.


Ireland has also a great tweed heritage.  Molloy & Sons of Ardara, Co. Donegal is one of a handful of companies creating authentic Donegal Tweed.  Father-and-son team, Shaun and Kieran Molloy, building on a rich heritage spanning five generations, are gaining an international reputation with an entirely local craft.  Inspiration surrounds them from the dramatic beauty of the ocean, sky, hills, and mountains, elements echoed in the intricate beauty of the colours and tones found in their tweeds.


Ireland has advantages in certain natural resources such as seaweed whose gathering and properties are deeply ingrained in the Irish tradition.  Enter VOYA of Strandhill, Co. Sligo which began its “voyage” in the wake of the long tradition of seaweed baths that once numbered in the hundreds along the west coast.  The baths were famous for their therapeutic and recuperative qualities, yet by the end of the twentieth century, only a few remained.  In 1999, Neil Walton, joined by brother Mark and his wife Kira later, revived this tradition by re-opening one of the original bathhouses.  VOYA launched organic seaweed products in 2008 but its range now is over 100 and it currently welcomes 40,000 visitors annually to 12 “treatment rooms” at its facility.  Turnover has grown by 100 per cent every year, doubling in the past four years.  VOYA exports to over 30 countries, punching well above its weight in winning business, supplying a range of luxury hotels and spas, including Richard Branson’s private yacht.  VOYA knew “Oirish” products had limited appeal so it created a brand that, while based on the Irish seaweed tradition, is contemporary, luxurious, organic and sustainable.


There are many other exciting stories throughout the country.  Like Cartoon Saloon in Kilkenny, set up by Paul Young and Tomm Moore in 1999, which had a huge success with its Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells.  This entrancing animation film centres on Ireland’s national treasure, the illuminated Book of Kells, created by monks around 800 A.D.  Drawing on the Book’s exuberant colours and intricate lines for inspiration, the film links old and new: combining the ancient art of manuscript illumination with digital-age animation.  The film gently melds beliefs and traditions into a unified whole, mixing folklore and history.  But this film was not completely indigenous, nor need it be!  It was partly produced in collaboration with foreign studios with the bulk of the work done in Ireland, utilising Irish creative and technical talent.


Future in the Past

While there is much discussion on the need to develop a creative economy, commentators generally remain blind to the fact that creativity flourishes when embedded in a  deep sense of place.  Any economy entitled to call itself ‘smart’ must capitalise on indigenous resources to foster creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.  Pride in place and heritage along with a new emphasis on sustainability and biodiversity, should form the bedrock for Ireland’s future economy.  Valuable insights may be gleaned from the history of the Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDWs).  Though lasting only from 1963 to 1988, the KDWs harnessed the ideas of leading international designers, developing products with distinct characteristics inspired by all that was good in the native tradition.


There is a future in the past, though this is not often recognised by Irish businesses in emerging markets like Asia.  But as the chief executive of a major European luxury brand said,  “China has a desperate need of the past.  It is really important to them to find something that is authentic – they want to go back to original roots.”  Ireland similarly needs to embrace its unique heritage and traditions which are fostered by belonging, purpose and idealism.


If Ireland is ever to make its knowledge economy more than mere rhetoric, it must draw on its own rare and inimitable resources, no matter how ‘soft’ these are.  A critical mass of indigenous, place-based enterprises is critical.  Inspired by culture, mediating between the traditional and modern, these represent an essential element of a well-functioning and balanced economic system.  Distinctively Irish, such enterprises compete fiercely in international markets, selling to the most sophisticated and demanding consumers while battling world-class rivals.  Linking past and present, they build on tacit resources, creating valuable products for the 21st century.  They represent Ireland’s great opportunity to achieve a truly creative and dynamic experience economy.


Finbarr Bradley, a former professor of finance at Dublin City University, teaches at University College Dublin.  He is co-author of Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference [Blackhall Publishing, 2008].