The Shannon region has been innovative for a long time. We all know about the invention of Irish coffee and duty free shopping over half a century ago, and that characteristic ingenuity has extended to the present day.
The result of recent successful pilots by Shannon Development in areas as diverse as indigenous companies, tourism products, food company start-ups, and by Forbairt in the National Technology Audit programme, the Techstart Graduate Placement programme for small and medium -sized enterprises, operated from its Shannon Laboratories, are being put to good use nationally.
Well over 100 international manufacturing, service and financial companies are located in the Shannon Free Zone (another innovation in its day), which is just a short drive from Ennis, while the town has its own industrial park, with land ready for development (including a digital business park). Now, Ennis is to spearhead what could be an evolution and a revolution in the use of information technology, not just for the country, but abroad.
Undoubtedly, the very polished and effective presentation given to the five judges when they visited Ennis in September, followed by their tour of industry in the town, was a major factor in Ennis becoming the winner of the Information Age Town competition.
The presentation, which took place in the West County Hotel, was quite unusual. There were 20 speakers, which could have been rather overpowering, but were distributed around the room at attractive stands devoted to the six pillars on which the submission was based, which helped maintain visual interest.
Ably co-ordinated by broadcaster and consultant Caimin Jones, the presentation took around an hour and 20 minutes. The entire proceedings were broad cast live on Clare Fm, which both T J Waters and Caimin Jones later admitted was a bit of a risk. In the event, nothing went wrong.
The six pillars were:
The speakers on these topics included a solicitor, a teacher, a nurse, an auctioneer, an accountant, business people and industrialists. There were also representatives from Ulster Bank, the University of Limerick, Clare County Council, Ennis Urban District Council, Ennis Chamber of Commerce, IBEC, Clare County Enterprise Board, Shannon Development and community groups and a British company promising to set up if in Ennis if it won.
The breadth and range of speakers clearly showed the strength of the community support for the bid.
Afterward, the judges visited an exhibition by local enterprises and businesses, also set up in the hotel. They then visited Vitalograph, a local healthcare company, the County Library, the Clare Business Centre and Clare FM.
The presentation to the judges was the result of months of hard work by a large number of people spread across many different organisations , from local government to community groups to educational establishments. "it has taken over my life for the last eight months," Triona McInerney, the development officer with Ennis Chamber of Commerce, told The Irish Times. "A lot of people worked very hard on it."
The initial impetus to think about the project came last October in an editorial in the Clare Champion, suggesting that Ennis would be a suitable candidate for the forthcoming competition, and that various bodies should work together to enter.
According to TL Waters, president of Ennis Chamber of Commerce, the editorial was at first greeted with some scepticism, but on reflection proved attractive, and various groups did decide to come together on it.
"When we grouped together I was asked to be the project leader for the entry, and we decided we were going to have a task force," says Ms McInerney. "We bullied people on board."
Fortunately, Ms McInerney has a keen interest in information technology. She took a diploma in business and marketing, with IT as a minor, in Tralee RTC, and followed this up with two years in the University of Limerick taking a follow-on degree in the same subjects.
While in UL, one of her lecturers was Professor Kevin Ryan, which may partly explain why UL is so supportive of this project. Professor Ryan was one of the speakers at the presentation to the judges.
There were 15 people on the initial task force, and then it was decided to have various sub-groups underneath, making a total of around 50 people.
"The logistics in getting everyone together particularly in the months of August, were horrendous," says Ms McInerney.
Nevertheless, it was gratifying how many people responded enthusiastically.
"Our idea was that we were not going to throw technology at anyone, but we asked them to look at their lives and say what they wanted," she says. Both young and old came into the project, and we were lucky that we were able to identify people who had been involved in the community for a number of years.
"For some people who have really been kept away from technology it is amazing how interested they became, it grew and grew, like a web, and we were able to harness that enthusiasm."
Help also came from Phoenix, a US town twinned with Ennis, which as well as giving advice and support, has promised a company start-up.
Early on, a key decision was taken to employ the services of an outside consultant, Farrell Grant Sparks. Lynda Gaynor, director of their Business Consulting Unit, takes up the story.
"It was not quite blood, but definitely sweat and tears," she says. "The effort put in by the task force behind Ennis’ successful bid to be the Information Age Town has been drowned in champagne but the struggle was long and hard.
"Meetings at eight in the morning, followed by full, tense working morning at the office, telephone calls over lunch to follow up on decisions, back to work and then evenings planning, rehearsing, checking and follow up. The cumulative mobile phone bill for Ennis rocketed."
Meetings ranged from three-people gatherings to long three hour discussions by the whole task force. From the very start decisions had to be made on the composition of the task force , potential sponsors , sources of support nationally and internationally, and contact with key people in Ennis who were already involved in bringing technology to their specialist areas. The first hurdle was to be shortlisted, the second was to make the best community presentation in the land.
"The momentum was slow at first," says MsGaynor. The concept had to be explained to each person and each group, in many cases, the words, such as teleworking, e-mail and Internet had to be explained and illustrated.
"These now trip off the tongues around Ennis, the Information Age Town, a town which entered the Information Age at high velocity."