When Telecom Eireann announced details of its Information Age Town sponsorship in April, Kilkenny’s diverse communities took up the call to secure their city’s future in the 21st century. Eager to be part of this dynamic and epoch-making project, they lost no time in establishing a taskforce representing the public sector, business, tourism, education and community groups.
The taskforce’s first submission document, presented just a few weeks later, was overwhelmingly supported by a broad cross-section of interests drawn from among the city’s 18,000 strong population.
There were endorsements and detailed submissions from more than 100 different groups and more than 1,000 individuals, including Radio Kilkenny, the Kilkenny People, Kilkenny Community Action Network, Young Irish Film Makers, Kilkenny Active Retirement Association, James Stephens Barracks, Kilkenny College, Maynooth University Outreach Campus, Loreto Primary School, the South Eastern Health Board and many others.
"The determination to make the step from medieval Capital of Ireland to Information Age Capital of Ireland caught the imagination of almost everyone," says taskforce chairman, John McGuinness. "Within a very short space of time after we learned we had been shortlisted, we received more than £100,000 in donations/financial commitments. Absolutely everyone involved with this project is still fired with enthusiasm. Even a torrential downpour the night we made our final presentation to the judges on 26 August failed to quench that enthusiasm. Despite the appalling weather, an estimated 5,000 Kilkenny people stood in the rain for hours to demonstrate their public support for the Telecom project."
To the outsider, the city of Kilkenny’s image is not generally associated with high technology. It tends to be associated predominantly with tourism, sport and with success stories like the internationally acclaimed annual Arts Festival, the Comedy Festival or the spearheading design concepts developed in the 1960’s by Kilkenny Design Workshops, as it was then known.
In terms of industrial infrastructure, the reality is quite different. Kilkenny is now home to the fourth biggest food company in the world, following the merger of Avonmore and Waterford Foods. Guinness brews Kilkenny Beer there. Great West Life employs 100 local people toprocess insurance claims transmitted electronically from its US headquarters. Touchscreen Technology is a leader inthe area of teleworking. The Young Irish Filmmakers, a unique group using digital technology to make films for Channel 4 and others, is based in Kilkenny.
Kilkenny also has the country’s only ‘virtual’ third level campus. It is linked to Carlow Regional Technical College by way of an outreach centre established in 1995; ISDN line connections are used to transmit data to and from Kilkenny.
More recently, Kilkenny has reached agreement with Maynooth University to set up Ireland’s first virtual university campus. The people of Kilkenny have contributed heavily towards the cost of developing this venture and as a result of their initiative, courses are now being beamed into the ancient and historic buildings of St Kieran’s College.
Says McGuinness: "One of Kilkenny’s most outstanding features is its cooperative and self-help ethos. Whether it’s ventures like approaching Queens University in Belfast for advice on how to set up a virtual university campus like the one they have in Armagh, or establishing the country’s biggest credit union, we believe in taking initiatives wherever we can. We don’t sit around waiting for state agencies or anyone else to do the running for us.
"For example, we recently raised substantial funds locally to cover the cost of employing a consultant to market Kilkenny inernationally as an information technology centre. We embarked on that with the total cooperation of the local authorities, Chamber of Commerce and Kilkenny Tourism. Our young people are also very much part of that self-help and cooperative ethos. Youth groups have set up innovative information databases networks designed to help people find jobs or courses that match their skills and interests. Groups dealing with the challenges of living or working with a disability are using the internet to coach others and have designed their own software packages to provide the kind of information resources and home-based job creation ideas that could otherwise be very difficult to access.
"There are so many examples of local people grappling successfully with high technology. These range from Revere Richardson, who recently made international headlines after he used his technological expertise to make contact with the astronauts on the Mir space station from his home in Bennetsbridge, to children with severe learning disabilities mastering touchscreen technology, to adults with severe physical disabilities coaching others with similar disabilities on the other side of the world by using Internet link ups", adds McGuinness.
The Kilkenny Information Age Cafe, which was set up in the Market Cross Shopping Centre, has acted as a focal point for much of the goodwill that the Information Age Town project has attracted. Among the 4,300 visitors to the cafe have been several computer experts visiting Kilkenny on holidays. Many of them were so taken with local enthusiasm for the bid that they volunteered time and resources to offer ideas for marketing Kilkenny internationally both as a tourism destination and as an information age technology centre.
Public sector commitment to the idea of exploiting the kind of Information Age technology that winning the bid would bring has also been very keen. The key motivation is to provide the best quality, most accessible and most cost-effective services to the public and the general consensus is that information age technology offers an excellent opportunity to deliver exactly that.
As John McGuinness explains: "Public sector decision maker’s reaction to the opportunities the Telecom project would bring can best be summarised in general terms by saying access to information would become more readily available and response times would be reduced. The processing of official documentation and application forms would be simplified. Openness would be enhanced. Different public bodies would share common databases."
In terms of specifics, the South Eastern Health Board has expressed interest in introducing a range of telemedicine services, including consultations with medical specialists located elsewhere. Other applications for that technology would include videoconferencing for case conferences involving a number of professionals located in disparate locations.
The Revenue Commissioners are interested in looking at ways in which businesses could file PAYE and VAT returns electronically.
James Stephen’s Barracks has been looking at ways of exploiting e-mail and videoconferencing facilities for families of Defence Forces personnel serving overseas.
"The process of making this Telecom Eireann Information Age Town bid has been the most extraodinary experience.
"Several dynamics are in play at the same time. Because of the extra-ordinary level of attention the project has attracted, business people are already exploiting information age technology in ways they would never have thought possible before. The project is harnessing the experience of something that was already there, but it is now giving it focus. To an extent, the task force members have only acted as facilitators. There’s a fantastic amount of exchange and cross-fertilisation of information going on between business people, community groups and special interest groups of all kinds.
"Even competitors are cooperating. For example, AIB and Bank of Ireland have come together to design a process whereby a huge range of banking facilities could be provided on our interactive technology system, K-Net, should our bid be successful.
"Telecom has unleashed something very positive here.
"What it has done for Kilkenny more than anything is it has now focused us firmly on Information Age Technology and whether we win this bid or not, we have a commitment to continue with what has now become an unstoppable process," John McGuinness concludes.