As the year draws to a close, we look back at twelve months that saw seismic changes in rates that we’re still digesting. Unsustainable inflation levels, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and sudden challenges to supply chains collided with sharp changes in the mix of goods and services that consumers wanted to buy, leading to shortages across the economy.
While labour market remains remarkably strong at year-end, it seems inevitable that it will weaken. The only question is the pace and severity of that weakening. All of this followed what was a very difficult time for our SME sector and our communities who stayed resilient through multiple lockdowns and the pandemic.
Against this challenging backdrop it’s been a productive year for the organisation.
The Western Development Commission is a unique entity set up over twenty years ago to tackle these types of ongoing issues. Because the multitude of factors above requires different approaches, the organisation has a number of teams who each take a different methodology but have the same end goal. These strategic themes guide the WDC decisions on key regional projects in a coherent way that continues to drive both social and economic development of the Western Region.
The Western Investment Fund in 2022
The WDC emphasises strategic investments to develop the region’s most productive activities. We focus on local specificities to generate new competitive advantages. In 2022, we released a report highlighting the success of the Western Investment Fund. This unique fund set up 20 years ago to invest public money in West of Ireland-based businesses has generated a return of almost two-and-a-half times its original value and helped provide Ireland’s economy with a €3.3 billion boost. The fund is currently valued at €75m and has been self-financing since 2010. Over the past twelve months the fund has disbursed over €10m across 39 projects including €6.6m invested in SME’s and €3.1m across community and social enterprises. Read more on our recent report HERE.
Policy Analysis in 2022
The flow of people, goods, and materials shape and give form to rural lives and livelihoods. Furthermore they require new modes of analysis and understanding in an increasingly interconnected world. Our Policy Analysis team look at these long-term trends, challenges and solutions that can affect or improve the quality of life in our region. In 2022 the team continued to make submissions on a range of local and national issues including the Electrical Vehicle Charging Infrastructure Strategy, the Governments Enterprise White Paper, the All-Island Strategic Rail Review, submission to the Shannon Estuary Economic Task Force and many more. See submissions HERE.
In May, alongside NUIG and the Whitaker Institute the policy team released the third annual remote working survey. The research that in 2021 helped to inform ‘Making Remote Work’ Ireland’s National Remote Work Strategy is the most comprehensive study carried out on the topic on an on-going basis in Ireland. The team continued to produce their Timely Economic Indicators to help assess economic activity in the Western Region (WR) and wider Atlantic Economic Corridor (AEC) closer to real-time. A comprehensive Rural Towns Mobility Index on 35 smaller towns in the western region with a working group of experts from across the country is also underway with results expected in Q1 2023.
Promoting a sense of place in 2022
Sense of place refers to the identification that people express a specific place as a unique entity. This sense of place can refer to an individual feeling but also to collective feelings, such as a collective sense of belonging towards a locality. Our communications team are experts at creating content that promotes a sense of place and highlights the benefits of living in, moving to and working in the West of Ireland. We target those looking to move home, those looking for a challenging career and those looking to find balance. In 2022, the team filmed their second series of Moving West, a six-part TV series for TG4 which will air in January 2023. To support the regions promotion, they launched their industry-focused image bank for counties Donegal and Leitrim building on work in previous years. Our podcast series Pulse of the West continued examining innovation, remote work trends, the future of small towns, attracting talent and more. As part of our More To Life campaign, the team shot a new series with Connacht Rugby and a new promotion video for Co.Donegal. They also launched a new event series focused on supporting regional social enterprises. Our free online jobs platform for the region, WesternJobs.ie continued to perform well linking job seekers with open roles from Donegal to Kerry.
In regional development, rural areas are often seen as passive recipients of urban-driven growth processes, rather than active contributors. Over the timeline of the WDC we have instigated or kick-started projects that have scaled and had an impact, including the WRAP Fund, CREW Enterprise and many others. Following a successful trial as part of our Atlantic Economic Corridor initiative, a project to connect the digital hubs, co-working spaces and incubators was launched first in the West and has grown to become a national project of strategic importance. ConnectedHubs is now a partnership with our parent department at DRCD. Our team provides a vehicle for individual hubs to come together under a shared identity to maximise the economic opportunity of remote working. On the digital platform, we have reached 300 hubs with a target of 400 in 2024.
Equally important is the ecosystem development as these hubs share knowledge and best practice, receive training and benefit from the on-going promotion of the network. This project has again reached several key milestones in 2022 with our first in person National Hubs Summit taking place with over 250 hub managers, agencies and stakeholders. The addition of some new staff members, including an economist to track the impact in our towns and villages and our corporate communications manager, who is tasked with building relationships with both Irish-owned and FDI who may look at the hubs as a third space outside of the home and office as hybrid working continues., We launched our first National Media campaign, a new voucher to help drive trial was released with 10,000 free hot desk days and we partnered with global company Zoom to support the collaboration of hub managers and users across the country. With key partners, we also launched ‘Ireland’s inaugural Digital First’ Day, a nationwide initiative to tackle the digital divide at all levels of our society and to advance economic and social regional development across the country.
The West as a Testbed for Innovation
We have been working with EU partners to access funds for projects that test ideas, support niche areas of development and build relationships with stakeholders across other EU member states since 2009. These projects support the remit and strategic aim of the organisation by bringing knowledge, funding and partnerships that can impact the region. In 2022 we completed many projects including those focused on Literary Tourism, digital mentoring and the Blue Circular Economy. Simultaneously, we’ve applied to lead or partner on over 40 new projects including those through the West and North West Regional Enterprise Plans, both of which currently work under the remit of the WDC.
In 2022 we released a new report, Creating an Atlantic Innovation Ecosystem’ with an aim to establish the West of Ireland as a region of innovation. This model sees academia, civic society, government and industry work together to build networks and support innovation. Key projects already up and running include the Clare Island Digital Health Living Lab which aims to provide an integrated digital health solution to the people of Clare Island and to proactively monitor and intervene for the islanders health. The ambition of Atlantic Innovation Region is to build a World Class Place-based Innovation Ecosystem. In early 2023, three new staff members will join the WDC to drive this ambition. Over a five-year period this project will help to develop a pipeline of investment for the WDC investment fund and seek to create a sustainable competitive advantage for the Western Region in the long term.
As the state agency tasked with the Economic and Social development of the West of Ireland, we often act as a catalyst between industry and academia and advocate for the region. Throughout 2022 we collaborated with partners to bring projects to life and highlight opportunities. In October, through the NW Regional Enterprise Plan we released a new report that identifies an unprecedented opportunity for the Atlantic Region in the Growth of Onshore to Offshore Wind. Some of the key findings show that by 2037 there could be upwards of 5,000 jobs supported directly by the offshore wind sector and up to €400 million in Gross Value Add annually. Our team also announced a partnership with CISCO to explore opportunities for the digitisation of the West of Ireland, including strengthening rural connectivity and mobility across the region.
Throughout the year our teams participated in panel discussions, gave key note speeches and held stands at events including The National Ploughing Championships, Dublin Tech Summit, the OECD Rural Development Conference, the InterCeltic Business Forum in Lorient and many others.
This is a summary of the work of the team across the WDC during 2022. This work would not be possible without the support of our colleagues in the Department of Rural and Community Development and other key stakeholders in the public and private sectors at local, regional, national and EU levels. In particular, we would like to welcome the new Atlantic Technological University and look forward to our continued work together. Our public representatives continue to inform this work through their constant contact with the needs and ambition of communities, and we look forward to working with all through 2023 and beyond.
Finally I would like to thank Tomás Ó Síocháin who was CEO of the WDC up until November of this year. We wish him luck in his new role as CEO of Údarás na Gaeltachta
Guím Nollaig Shona oraibh ar fad agus gach rath oraibh do 2023.
Allan Mulrooney – Interim CEO