Terrace of historic shops and buildings, Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, Irish Republic. (Photo by: Geography Photos / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
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DUBLIN – In March the Irish government unveiled a plan to revitalize the country’s rural economy by encouraging more people to work remotely.
A longstanding challenge for rural Ireland has been migration to urban areas. With the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic and what can be achieved through remote working, the Our Rural Future plan aims to encourage more people to stay in or move to non-urban areas.
The plan is to provide financial support to local authorities to convert vacant properties in cities into remote work centers. This includes a plan for “over 400 remote workplaces” across the country.
Grainne O’Keeffe has firsthand experience of attracting people to a rural town. She heads the Ludgate Hub, a start-up collaboration and support organization in the small town of Skibbereen, about 80 km west of the city of Cork in southern Ireland.
Ludgate Hub – named after scientist Percy Ludgate – was founded in 2016 and has been a pioneer in rural start-up efforts.
O’Keeffe told CNBC that Ludgate is a practical example of attracting founders and employees to a small town.
It works in an old bakery and opens a second facility in an empty school building later that year. It has mostly drawn people whose startups have the option to work remotely, including the Eric Yuan-backed start-up Workvivo.
O’Keeffe said significant investments in physical infrastructure like high-speed broadband and the procurement of suitable buildings are key to making any city viable for remote working.
Skibbereen is connected to high-speed broadband through a Vodafone-owned company called Siro.
“This is without a doubt a game changer for any region. That is fundamental, as is a building that is conducive to a work environment,” she said.
The rural broadband connection was a regular mistake in Ireland. The government’s national broadband plan launches services in previously underserved areas but has a fair share of delays. Other operators like Eir are in the middle of their own rural rollouts Elon Musk’s Starlink is testing in one place in Ireland.
Garret Flower moved from Dublin to his hometown of Longford on the Central Plateau. He is the managing director of the software start-up ParkOffice, whose team of 15 has now been completely removed.
“The landscape has so much to offer,” he said. “I think remote working can really bring people back to the rural areas.”
But he also warned against excessive reliance on home work. As lockdowns eventually wear off, the availability of office space or desks in towns and villages will be a key component of any strategy, he said.
“Not everyone has a comfortable living area to work in. You can’t pressure everyone to work from home. I grew up in the family home and it was a mess. I would never have worked with everyone there can.” in the house, “he said.
Separately, a government-funded start-up accelerator called NDRC, now operated by a consortium of business groups across the country, is focused on developing start-up ecosystems in different regions of the country.
One of its members is the RDI Hub, a facility in the town of Killorglin, County Kerry, in the southwest of the country.
“In Kerry we traditionally have a very deeply rooted migration. People are leaving Kerry. It’s rare that you would stay, most people go to college, most people go to start a job. Some come back, but the majority go and carry on. ” said Reidin O’Connor, the manager of RDI Hub.
Originally from the area, O’Connor moved with her partner and children from Dublin a few months before the pandemic.
She said the government’s efforts to create remote work centers need to focus not only on workers, but also on how they can be integrated into local communities.
“Hubs should be where your startups and your creatives work together. But you also have classes and it becomes the beehive of the community and this is where people gather,” she said.
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Housing construction is a persistent problem for the development of a region in Ireland. Before the pandemic, the housing shortage was a hot topic for a long time. However, since the outbreak of the pandemic, the problem has worsened as construction ceased.
Lately institutional investor activity in the real estate market has attracted much public disdain.
Ludgate’s O’Keeffe said that rural revitalization efforts are grappling with housing and that authorities such as county councils “need to recognize that the population is increasing and that housing is needed”.
O’Keeffe admits that transport links between rural towns like Skibbereen and nearby towns like Cork or further afield in Dublin are also challenging.
“It is certainly a problem we have for ourselves, this remoteness, but I think digital activation is reducing the physical divide,” she said, adding that narrowing the digital divide can help address deficiencies in the physical Fix infrastructure such as transport links.
Flower said there was a significant opportunity to revive large parts of the land that might otherwise be forgotten.
“A shipload of my friends in the last recession left for Australia and Canada and didn’t come back. We need to put pictures in people’s heads so they can come back and do these world-class jobs in remote areas of the country.”