SEVERAL VOICES RESONATE from Irish blogs on the question of how to spark entrepreneurship through a hothouse culture. Incubators, co-working locations, hothouses, and creative operating locations--all these things have been considered by State agencies. Sometimes the most creartive locations are rebadged venues like in the case of the Digital Depot in Dublin's Liberties or the Kedelhallen in Copenhagen (at left). Government officials in Ireland want to define infrastructure for the smart economy and Irish taxpayers want to know what that means too. A smart economy needs clever environments to spur creativity. Having worked in several environments that purport to encourage creativity, I've a few observations as well. Rewind to the early 80s.
Creative Writing in the shed. I had to produce no fewer than three pieces of creative writing every day I sat on the ground, downwind from jet exhaust, when not flying in California. No one wanted to do this job. It was creativity accelerated by headaches that inevitably followed two hours of inhaling JP4 fumes. Add to the fumes the noise of four Pratt & Whitney engines at takeoff power every 25 minutes and you get the idea of the setting. Still, the shed gave me isolation from the mundane and its formidable location (you got to its door by riding the honey bucket up the ramp or walking carefully to the outside of the yellow lines) guaranteed me relative serenity. I got stuff done because I was left alone. Would an Irish hothouse atmosphere provide the same? It need not but in my case, it would have to.
Breakthroughs near the purple water fountain. By the early 80s, I had moved to the office of the purple water fountain. By design, I could not look at the items on the desks of my coworkers because everything we did was compartmentalized. This means no one could confirm or deny what I was doing, nor could they inadvertently babble about the shapes, sizes, colours and dimensions of objects I used. Twice a day, I got a shopping trolley parked outside my cubicle. It often contained bore samples of sand or mountains of computer printouts. I had the responsibility of culling data and reporting on a longitudinal element. In the tech world, it's like being a tester who has to monitor one part of a system's operation. To do it right, I was given autonomy alongside a deadline. Two or three times a month, I would walk to a briefing room near the purple water fountain and explain what I had found. Years later, two things related to my work came to fruition. In one case, more than 200,000 Army soldiers were withdrawn from Europe. In another case, an entire fleet of USAF aircraft were decommissioned in one fell swoop. These breakthroughs happened because of confidence engendered by specialists working in parallel isolation. These specialists did not compare notes because that would contaminate results. The specialists who lagged were called out and reoriented in the office near the purple water fountain. I wonder if the hothouse philosophy envisioned for Ireland would accept this kind of operating philosophy. It would mean accepting the fact that in several third level Irish computing, multimedia and technology degree courses, different students often produce the same technology result as part of their third and fourth years. These projects are briefed to staff and often parked deep in an archive. I have seen at least seven quality third year creative multimedia projects that have business applications but like Joe Drumgoole knows, I have no charter to extend these projects beyond their Skunkworks code base. An Irish hothouse collaboration could take existing third level work as a starting point and let it blossom during a summertime development cycle.
Underground with no escape. I spent three years in the late 80s working 156 feet underground. It was not pleasant. It was unhealthy. In the event of a fire, the concrete-lined doors would power shut and we would have to clamber up an escape chute. I had no confidence in that route of escape. I hated the overpowering effect of flourescent lights and the incessant noise of teletype, bat phones, and ringtones chirping around the clock. I don't think a hothouse should be underground or in any place without mood lighting.
Above ground in a culture hub. The most creative time of my life happened in the middle of Dublin, watching Temple Bar go from drunks urinating in holes in the streets to a lively arena at night. (They still piss in the streets.) Actually, I have overstated the creative output of Temple Bar because I actually did a lot more work in Dublin 4 and in Dublin 9 but in all three cases I had big windows and a like-minded crew to share the load. We even had a balcony in Arthouse where we held summertime flaming sangria sessions. I don't like many of the incubation centres that Enterprise Ireland forces new companies to occupy. Some are unused classrooms, relaunched meeting rooms, or at the far ends of antiseptic buildings that look good on paper but have no soul. If you're in your twenties, you need a buzz around you. It might be as simple as being one door away from a street where the Lucozade fountain beckons at the corner. It should be near a shop where you can chat up the staff. Better still, the shopkeep ought to be the kind of merchant who gives you a cup of coffee early in the morning and occasionally lets you walk free with a breakfast roll. When that happens, you got the respect of a peer group who couldn't give a toss about your creativity. But those shopkeepers recognise the look of hard-working energy and they actually absorb some of the karma when it's emanated in their premises.
I plan to discuss the Hothouse issue at Limerick OpenCoffee next week (1100-1300 Thursday 12 July 2007 in The Clarion) and hope to follow interested threads as they emerge online in the Irish blogging community.
Conor O'Neill -- "How to Get an Irish David Heinemeier Hansson"
Joe Drumgoole -- "Bootstrapping startups in Ireland"
Dennis Deery -- "How do we create startups?"
Alan O'Rourke -- "Response to Conor"
Damien Mulley -- "Starting Startups: Hothouse Discussion"
On LinkedIn the discussion resurfaced in March 2010.