Cork: Rebel county, smart city

photo credit: The Abbot's Ale House, Cork via photopin (license)
photo credit: The Abbot’s Ale House, Cork via photopin (license)

Everyone’s getting excited about smart cities these days. Often planned from scratch, these ultra-modern metropolises bristle with the latest innovations in technology: environmentally friendly buildings and infrastructure; computers that control many aspects of urban dwelling; wi-fi as ubiquitous as oxygen.

The UAE and South Korea already have their own smart cities; China and India aren’t far behind. In Europe, meanwhile, the concept is taking hold and influencing the redevelopment of existing cities.

But policy advisor and nation brand strategist Simon Anholt thinks all this smart city stuff is a waste of time. “It’s boring,” he says. “It’s the sort of discussion that may mean something to architects, planners or consultants but I’m sure conveys very little to most people who live in or visit cities.”

That might be why planners in the Irish city of Cork are trying something different. They liked the idea of the city being known as “smart”, but wanted to develop its reputation in a more lasting way. So instead of going for the hi-tech, impersonal route, they’re trying to build on the city’s existing assets – and take the meaning of “smart” in a different, more human direction.

“Stakeholders were creating a Tower of Babel effect, with too many dissonant messages coming out about Cork,” explains town planner and place-making specialist Malcolm Allan. “It was hard to discern exactly what was special about the city. Lots of people said, ‘The whole fecking place is wonderful’, but part of our job was to figure out the ‘proof points’ – to actually highlight and back up what Cork could offer.”

Cork is the name of both Ireland’s second city and of the county that contains it. It was the birthplace of Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, a key figure in Ireland’s struggle for independence; consequently, it’s known as the “rebel county”. It’s always been seen as independently minded and a law unto itself; a great trading place from which many departed to seek a new life in the US.

According to Malcolm Allan, who has been developing Cork’s place-making strategy, Cork people see themselves as the “better city” of Ireland. It’s similar to the way Brummies define themselves against London, or Glaswegians against Edinburgh.

“There’s this idea of the ‘fierce pride’ of Cork,” Allan says. “The smart city concept is something we investigated along the way. Politicians wanted to develop this angle, but they didn’t want the brand to focus on being ‘Ireland’s smart city’, because so many other European cities are already doing this. Living the brand became the priority, by attracting hi-tech firms and hiring talented people.”

To burnish its smart city credentials, Cork decided to play up and develop its long-time associations with large tech companies. Apple has had an office in the city for the last 25 years, attracted, in large part, by Ireland’s generous corporate tax breaks.

The tech giant stayed and expanded partly due to Cork’s top-quality education system, which produced excellent IT graduates. Over the years, an influx of other tech companies such as EMC have created a critical mass in the industry, giving Cork a well-deserved reputation as a genuine smart city.

“Ireland is well known for its ability to attract tech companies,” says John Dennehy, founder of Make IT in Cork, an initiative designed to attract more techies to the city. ”The big pull factors are availability of talent, track record, and low corporation tax. There are some clear competitive advantages over Dublin including lower cost of housing and office space, easier access to schools, shorter commutes and the different lifestyle associated with a smaller town.”

Cork has strayed away from the usual “smart city” path, with all the associated trappings of innovation and ultra-modernity; instead, it’s chosen to interpret the smart city concept in its own way, by focusing on existing “smart” assets.

Cork’s city planners realised that investing in a bunch of flashy technology and promoting Cork as “Ireland’s smart city” would not differentiate the brand, but would simply get it lost in the already over-crowded European smart city niche.

So they took a more subtle long-term approach, by investing in knowledge and producing/attracting smart people to do smart jobs. In the long-term, this new take on the “smart city” brand is likely to serve Cork well  – because it reflects the city’s real strengths.

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