Guest Feature

David McCourt: Ireland can show the world the way

By Business & Finance
28 June 2021
Pictured: David McCourt, founder and CEO of Granahan McCourt Capital and the Chairman of National Broadband Ireland

David McCourt is the founder and CEO of Granahan McCourt Capital and the Chairman of National Broadband Ireland. He is the author of bestseller Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries and is an Emmy award-winning TV producer. 

Note: This piece was originally published in Business & Finance magazine, vol. 58, no. 2, available to read, with compliments, here.

Ireland can show the world the way

When animals in the wild graze their way across the landscape, you can’t help but notice they don’t stay in one spot for an extended period. This is their way of eating enough vegetation to satisfy themselves, but not take every leaf off a tree or bush until it’s dead. They take what they need and move on, leaving behind nutrient exchanges that trigger biological activity. 

In other words, most wild animals eat what they need, leaving the plant or bush stronger for the trim. That’s the way politicians and businesses used to operate as well. 

In most urban areas, the sense of community is gone, leaving the big pillars of stability, consistency, and a sense of what’s considered civilised behaviour, to the policymakers and enterprise. In other words, politicians and businesspeople. 

Now the obvious problem here is that both politicians and businesses have become more short sighted than ever over the last 50 years, each taking not only the tree or bush for themselves, but the entire forest. And they want it now. 

What’s needed is a total rethink around business and policymakers and Ireland is in a position to lead this type of thinking. 

Let’s step back and look at why Ireland can lead this long overdue revolution. Ireland is a small country that’s played a big leadership role for over 100 years. I read the 1916 Declaration recently – it was written during World War One when Ireland was fighting for independence. It mentions three times in the document that women will be equal partners in the future of Ireland. This was a full four years before America allowed women the right to vote. 

Ireland was bold in its electrification of the country, and recently with its road network. Ireland was the first country in the world to institute a nationwide comprehensive smoke free workplace law. Ireland was the first country to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote. The free education scheme of the 60s led to what we have today, which is a country that at last measure had the highest share of population in Europe with university graduates. Despite European Union protests, Ireland developed a very business friendly tax scheme to attract the largest companies in the world to set up shop, hire, train and employ thousands of Irish people.  

Recently, Ireland was among a tiny elite group that made it a human right to have high speed broadband available to every man, woman and child in the country through its National Broadband Plan. It is these brave long-term policies that come at significant, short-term cost, that have allowed Ireland to claim a leadership role as a tiny country. 

This mentality is also what has taken Ireland from being a small farming country to a global player – still geographically small, but today ranking number six in commercial service exports globally.  This is no small feat. 

Ireland has had one of the fastest growing GDPs in the European Union every year for the past two decades.  All this success came the hard way, by policymakers making difficult decisions and sticking with them, supported by the business community. This way of thinking and acting is dying fast globally because politicians seem to care more about elections than people, and businesses seem to care more about profit than communities. 

Ireland doesn’t need to change to meet the world. The world needs to change to meet Ireland.  Our small country has a chance to show the world a new disruptive way forward. 

As we look around the world for other examples, you see few.  China, of course, is one that stands out as playing the smart hand for long term prosperity.  Similar to Ireland but on a much bigger scale, China also started as an economy reliant on agriculture, before embarking on a mission to futureproof, diversify and then lead on the world stage.  The same mentality is not seen around other parts of the world where there’s a pattern of knee jerk, short-term actions that risk disastrous consequences for us all. 

Ireland doesn’t have the scale or ambition of China but has a huge advantage. It can lead a new way forward without the overhang of wanting world domination. This gives Ireland a seat at the table by desire and inclusion, not fear. 

As we look at the future of Ireland’s ability to come through the pandemic stronger than its peers, we can lead in creating positive disruption on a global scale. To achieve this, Ireland must commit to two more bold moves: decentralisation of opportunity and active participation in tech rules and regulations for Internet 3.0 and 4.0. 

David McCourt. Photographer: Claire Wood.

Decentralisation of opportunity 

For way too long, rural areas around the globe have been left behind and rural Ireland is no different. The best schools, the best hospitals, the best jobs, the best public transport, the best infrastructure, all gravitate toward the urban areas.  

Across almost all developed countries, what we see today is a digital divide, whereby urban areas have an incredible advantage with access to connectivity and digital services, but many rural areas have been left underserved, creating all sorts of knock-on issues and problems. 

This problem is not unique to Ireland or any one country. Urban areas around the world have been growing by three million people a week. That means every three weeks, we as a globe are creating another London, Hong Kong or New York. That’s unsustainable for our environment, our housing costs, congestion, carbon footprint and quality of life. 

This trend can only be turned around with the planned and well executed decentralisation of opportunity. We need to create jobs where people live and empower them through connectivity and technology to create new companies, grow existing companies and attract employment remotely from global companies.

Globally, we need to be in a position where people in rural environments can see a bright future to start or grow a business, or global companies can feel confident to recruit, hire and train a remote workforce that has the tools and technology to do the job. That doesn’t mean access to Netflix, it means access to remote healthcare, access to remote education, training, information, career progression, and all the future benefits that technology offers.  In a new world in which sustainability is crucial, this has to be part of the answer. 

Ireland can and should lead by example in the inevitable decentralisation of opportunity. 

Active participation in the tech rules and regulation for Internet 3.0 and 4.0

Another area Ireland should take the lead in, is the new rules for the future of the Internet.

I’ve been blessed to spend 30 years in the technology, media and telecommunication industries. In this time, I’ve seen a lot and benefited from technological, regulatory and consumer behavioural changes.  But the changes I’ve seen over the last 30 years, while dramatic, are baby steps compared to what’s about to happen. 

This past December, the Federal Trade Commission and 48 Attorney Generals in the United States sued Facebook. Around that same time, the EU started the process to usher in a new era, through the most revolutionary regulatory changes in 20 years with the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts. 

Europe and America both recognise the problems around big tech and the problem is more than size alone.  The problems are around who owns the data and misinformation.

Do you own your usage data? Of course not. The company sells it to the highest bidder. If you did happen to own your own data, like you should, and Instagram, Facebook, Google or whomever paid you for access to that data, verification would become the normal behaviour. This solves both problems. The rightful owner gets paid for the data and the verification process will go a long way to solve the platform’s trust issues. Fake news and misinformation would have no incentive to exist if the platforms weren’t making money from it. 

Think about it this way.  If Facebook owns all the data on a fake news or misinformation site, what incentive do they have to take it down? The answer is none!  If you own the data, and you get money for its usage, what incentive does Facebook have to let fake news and misinformation exist if they don’t get paid for it? Again, the answer is none! 

David McCourt

Think revolutionary to be disruptive

Ireland can play a leading role in solving this problem with bold regulatory moves taking shape with very different objectives on both sides of the Atlantic. While the world is waiting for what the future is going to look like, both sides need to balance individuals’ rights to freedom of expression with tech companies’ interests and everyone’s desire for a robust economy – an economy where technological advances will be the main drivers for the foreseeable future. 

America is home to the biggest technological giants in the world. In recent years, most have set up shop in Ireland as a European base. Not only is tech now the lifeblood of the economy, but its role has been accelerated during the course of the pandemic, growing by hundreds of billions of dollars of value since COVID-19 hit.  

Goldman Sachs just reported that the yearlong pandemic has already caused three to five years of “online penetration growth” in several sectors. The burning question now is will policymakers continue to be the protector of big tech and allow it to continue to self-police, or should the US join the EU in trying to force tech firms to take more responsibility, around transparency, interoperability, use of data, discrimination, and truthfulness? This is where Ireland should take the lead and bridge the gap. 

Clear, specific, revolutionary regulation must be a priority for the new Biden administration, as well as for Ireland. I believe Ireland can help the US to develop a new worldview and be the bridge with the European Union on how to set the rules for the future of tech, where Internet 3.0 and 4.0, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing are set to change the game as we know it. 

The current pathway of siloed competing regulation with the EU on one side and the US on the other won’t end well for either party. America is going to fight with the EU to protect the past, and the giant US based tech companies will work together to set the ground rules for the future. All the while, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to forge one set of global rules in collaboration to create the next generation of tech. If done correctly, this must include digital object architecture, data portability, data sharing and other trust building essentials.

The end result of these initiatives, if implemented, is that the West maintains its tech dominance through a strengthened transatlantic alliance with all the benefits of increased GDP and more jobs. For Ireland, what’s at stake is also whether these tech firms continue to see Ireland as their European home.  

However, if the West continues to funnel all of its focus on looking backwards and introducing new policies to regulate the past, then China is certain to step in and take the lead on web 3.0 and 4.0, writing its own rulebook and creating dominance – not only in industrial manufacturing but in tech, as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown both the US and the EU in no uncertain terms that technology and innovation has the opportunity to transform people’s lives, businesses, jobs, education and healthcare.  As a new dawn in US policy emerges with President Biden, we can but hope for a long-term strategy to these issues, where cooperation with transatlantic partners, and between the public and private sectors, sets out a path where tech is harnessed to shape people’s future without fear of corruption or bias. 

Such is the way technology has infiltrated our lives, the future of its evolution and consequential regulation will impact us all. Now is the time for Ireland to take the lead in what the future looks like and work with Biden and other world leaders to build a transatlantic partnership that’s needed. 

Ireland does not need to wait to follow the world. Ireland must work with the US to lead the world. 

David McCourt is the founder and CEO of Granahan McCourt Capital and the Chairman of National Broadband Ireland. He is the author of bestseller Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries and is an Emmy award-winning TV producer.