Friday, March 18, 2016

Dublin in 2050

This is the text of my speech last week at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce breakfast briefing on Dublin in 2050:

Good morning everyone.

Let me begin with a confession: I love science fiction, so when I was asked to talk to you about Dublin in 2050 I thought, great, how many references to Bladerunner, The Matrix and Terminator will I be able to fit into my speech this morning!

I should also tell you that I passed on my love of science fiction to my son at an early age. I remember sometime around 1995 I was thinking about getting a new car, and I got to test-drive a couple of different models. I brought my son with me – he was about seven at the time – as I thought he would enjoy the experience.  He did, but his patience began to wear a bit thin by the time I took a third, different model for a test-drive. Anyway, as we were driving along I asked him what did he think of the car from his vantage point in the back seat and he said to me:

“Dad, why don’t you wait ‘til the year 2000 and get a hover car instead?”

The future is a bit like that, isn’t it? We tend to project on to it all manner of fantasies and imaginings, some good some bad, even if the future eventually proves to be a bit of disappointment when it finally arrives. Alas, the year 2000 has come and gone, and I’m still waiting for my hover car…

The story is also a reminder that we can be very wrong about the near future, let alone the far future. And 2050 is far: as distant from us in time as is 1982, to be precise. But sometimes there is value in taking the long term view. It allows us to step back and see bigger trends and opportunities than might otherwise be the case if we simply focus on the short term.

As it happens, 2016 is a very good year indeed for taking a long term view. The centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin reminds us that there are moments in our nation’s history when we can change course; when we are called to an ‘august destiny’ that challenges us to think anew about the choices we make and the course we are on.

Today as it happens is ‘Proclamation Day’, the day when every school in Ireland is invited to unveil and read their own ‘Proclamation for a New Generation’, using the 1916 Proclamation as a foundation to reflect the values, ideals and aspirations of the generation of 2016. I think it’s a great idea. Indeed, I could even go further and say that it was actually my idea, as I wrote a book a few years back called: ‘2016: A New Proclamation for a New Generation’, though I’m not precious about it, honestly!

There is an old saying that ‘politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’. The 1916 Proclamation was certainly more poetry than prose – but perhaps that is why it still resonates with us a century later?

So if we are going to create an inspiring vision of Dublin in 2050 then I believe we need poetry of our own.  Now don’t worry, I’m not about to regale you with rhyming couplets for the remainder of my speech!

But I would like to challenge the way you and I think about the future. In my book I suggested that we need to tell a new story about our future here in Ireland, one woven from three distinct themes I identify as ‘The Three Cs’, namely: commerce, creativity and compassion. So let me elaborate a little on each of these in the context of imagining Dublin in 2050.

Let’s begin with the theme of Commerce. I am an economist by training and they say that economics is essentially the study of how humans allocate scarce resources. The key word is ‘scarce’. Much of what has occupied economists, entrepreneurs, business people and indeed politicians since 1982 (and well before that) has been the question:

How do we meet so many needs with so few resources?

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure the question is going to be as relevant in 2050. I think we are leaving behind an Age of Scarcity and entering the Age of Abundance. Though it might not feel that way to many right now. Still, I am certain that many of the fastest growing, commercial opportunities in future will be those that use an abundance of time, resources and finance to help people lead flourishing and fulfilling lives as individuals and in their families and communities.

Okay, you probably think I’ve gone all ‘science fiction’ on you, but I haven’t. Just look at what has happened since 1982. According to the IMF, Ireland’s GDP per capita on a purchasing power parity basis was just under $8,500 in 1982. This year it is expected to reach more than $56,000: nearly a seven-fold increase. By the way, there were 3.5 million of us back then, there are 4.7 million of us today. So both the numerator and the denominator have grown substantially.

Just think what we could do if over the next 34 years we grew GDP per capita to two or three times what it is now? What would we do with the abundance such a future would bring? If you think this is all a bit fanciful then let me tell you about some research Amárach has done recently.

We asked a representative sample of broadband users in Ireland how much they pay every month for their service. Let’s say the answer was €100. We then asked them: how much would you need to be compensated every month if your broadband was taken away? The answer was roughly €400 a month. In other words, broadband users are getting a ‘surplus’ of about €300 every month in terms of the benefits they receive from their provider.

I suspect that a great many of you here today are also in the business of creating a ‘consumer surplus’ in the lives of your customers. And if you’re not, then I would argue that in the coming Age of Abundance you will end up doing just that.

But where does Dublin fit into all this? Let me conclude my speculations with some thoughts on the other two Cs I mentioned earlier, namely: creativity and compassion.

Take compassion first. On most measures we are a generous people here in Ireland. One unanticipated consequence of the Rising and independence was the emergence of the Irish missions as a global force in the first half of the twentieth century, operating through thousands of schools, hospitals and churches in dozens of countries less fortunate than our own. Today, our NGOs, development agencies and charities are recognised internationally for the extraordinary work they do.

So here’s an idea: why not make Dublin a home for global NGOs and other charitable and philanthropic initiatives, a kind of IFSC for compassion? Some of the same ‘attractions’ could apply - tax breaks, vat rebates etc - but others might work too: like using the resources of the Department of Foreign Affairs to leverage the global impact of new or early stage social entrepreneurs with global ambitions who are willing to relocate to Ireland (as well as our home grown ones, of course).

Even in 2050 I suspect there will be many in the world a great deal less well off than we Irish: and we will be a great deal better off to do something about it.

Finally, a few words about Creativity. Oscar Wilde once said that ‘the future is what artists are’.

In other words, he envisaged a world in which abundance might enable all of us to explore our innate capacities for creativity and imagination, often suppressed by the daily grind of earning a living. So here’s my final idea: what if we set ourselves the goal of making Dublin one of the most beautiful cities in the world by 2050, one renowned internationally for its passionate commitment to beautiful architecture and human-centred urban design. Why not? In an age of abundance, we could finish the job Georgian Dubliners began all those centuries ago with far fewer resources than we have now and will have in future.

If we could do that, then I would even be happy to forgo my hover car.

Thank you.

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