The Potential to show us the way

Ennis always had a strong sense of its own identity. Rose Doyle looks at how it will cope with its new role as Information Age town.

WHEN it won the Telecom Éireann Information Age Town competition Ennis really put itself on the line, wired itself up, got itself and its people out there and at the cutting edge of technology. The phraseology used, and promises made, about Co Clare town in the weeks since its win have become, almost, the stuff of legend. Thing is, with the dust settling and that laser spotlight a little dazzling, the town’s potential for great things appers no less dimmed.

Ennis has always been a town with a healthy scence of identity and large amounts of the vibrant energy to be found along the western seaboard. With an urban population of 15,373, it has enjoyed a 12 per cent growth rate since 1990. Three-quarters of its population are under 45 years of age and 27 per cent are under 25, and all of its citizens threw themselves wholeheartedly behind the competition project.

Land too, was made available for digital age factories; a future was planned and the town prepared. Ennis, in fact, became the nation’s Information Age Town precisely because of its potential to make the most of all that high-tech equipment and training has to offer. And now, with every child from the age of five promised intensive training in the use of computers, Ennis looks set to produce a generation of Cyberspace wizards, or at least computer literate adults. The Co. Clare town has, most definitely, the potential to become the future.

Triona McInerney, development officer with Ennis Chamber of Commerce and a driving force in the task force behind the town’s winning project, isn’t at all fazed by their win. She expected it. "We always saw tecknology as something which would inhance the lives of the people of Ennis. The way we see it, Ennis is a natural place to be an international showcase town in Ireland. One of the unique selling points for Ennis was its people and its structure."

ENERGETIC, enthusiastic and on top of all that’s happening for Ennis, she’s nevertheless at a loss to concisely list all of the potential advantages to the town. They are, it seems, almost limitless. "Once we’re equipped with up-to-date technology and the infastructure, an awful lot of people will be given a chance to get back into the workforce. People with disabilities, those who need re-training, they’ll all be given new opportunities. Technology is an inclusive thing, it takes in everybody. The whole idea of the Information Age is to inhance people’s lives. What we’ve now got is a fantastic opportunity to work together for a change for the better."

But what if people are shy, wary, even afraid of new technology and those dramatic, all-embracing changes to life as they’ve known it?

Triona McInerney says they’ve considered that, too. "We’re sensitive to people’s feelings about it and careful not to alienate anyone. A huge amount of training will be given. People will go on courses before they ever use the technology, and know all about it before it’s put into their homes. The whole implementation process will be a continuing job for the Ennis task force, Telecom Éireann and the community itself". In practical terms, the town’s potential looks bright. Once all, or even most, of the fifteen million pounds technological experiment is in place Ennis will, as Triona McInerney says, became an international test-bed for emerging technologies and services. Furthermore, clean industry will be attracted to the town, a fact which will in turn create hundreds of new, high quality jobs in telecommunications-dependent companies and new media, including multimedia, on-line services and telephony.

A natural progression will be that those who choose to work from home will be able to do so. ISDN technology - high-speed ISDN lines and multi-media computers are to be made available at reduced price - will make link ups to large multinationals inexpensive and efficient. This will allow for rapid access to the World Wide Web and expand telemarketing and teleworking job creation possibilities.

Add to these potentialities, the advantages to businesses able to file PAYE and VAT returns electronically, to solicitors and accountants able to carry out searches in the companies office from their own practices and to banks’ ability to facilitate the movement of money between bank accounts. Ennis, with its cutting edge technological infrastructure in place, will have the potential to attract home and foreign industrialists as well as offering the ideal environment for local employment to prosper.

But what about the intrusive nature of technology, the perception that it invades personal and private life, that is stunts imaginative development? Is there a danger that the proposed intranet, a localised version of the Internet which will link all the computers together, could become the death knell rather than beating heart of the community.

Triona McInerney is reassuring. "It’s not intended that it will be used in that way. It’s not going to change people. In fact, it will allow for more leisure time. There’s no way technology will kill human contact," she laughs at a thought, "people said that the JCB would stop digging and, of course, it didn’t. Nor has television killed the art of conversation. Technology in the home has the potential to open things up more. There will be a ‘gig guide’ to consult, and a community bulletin to check what’s happening. The technology will work alongside what’s already here and will, if anything, promote and develop the life of the town and it’s people. As well as all of this, we will be able to sell our culture abroad, and attract new people and tourists to the town."

The future is technological. The time is not far distant, we are told, when information based jobs will represent a quarter of all employment. In this State, according to Alfie Kane, chief executive of Telecom Éireann, "if we play our cards right, we could get a disproportionate amount of this global 25 per cent, Ennis has the potential to show us the way."