Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Economics 20/01/2010: Knowledge Economy and Dublin Water woes

It is beyond any doubt that Ireland has had its share of bizarre unlucky events and disasters:

  1. Man-made crises: economic recession, banking collapse, fiscal meltdown, construction/property bust and policy/regulatory legitimacy, a schism between the public sector and the ordinary folks trying to make a living (yes, it is back - industrial strife is now clogging our transport and threatening our healthcare system);
  2. Natural: swine flu, measles pandemic (remember that one?), floods, a snow storm, a freeze, most current - vomiting bug is apparently back;
  3. Natural/man-made: water shortages (with parts of the country still covered in floods).
There have been severe costs imposed on people and the economy at large. And there are lessons to be learned and, hopefully this time around - few people responsible for (1) and (3) to be punished.

But one lesson has not been discussed to date. Recall a year ago, the Government came out with a grand plan for creating a 'knowledge' economy in Ireland. This plan is still alive (as plans go), although, of course, nothing has been done to deliver on its promises. Now, the EU is about to come out in February with a comprehensive platform for building a brighter better Union through 2020. I've seen the document. It too aims for 'Knowledge Economy' thingy.

So now to the lesson of our crises: 'Knowledge Economy' needs functional, efficient and excellent services. Public and private. Functional, efficient and excellent services is what our public sector simply cannot deliver.

That was, of course a two part proposition.

Let us take the first part: 'Knowledge Economy requires functional, efficient and excellent services". I hope this is pretty much apparent:
  • PhDs and high quality entrepreneurs who will fuel the 'Knowledge Economy' will require good housing (as opposed to substandard shoe-box apartments we built for cheaper laborers during the Celtic Tiger boom), good on-time and on-schedule transport systems (as opposed to completely random travel times at Dublin Bus), cheap and quality air connections to the rest of the world (as opposed to what passes for airport out on the North side of the city), high quality healthcare (as opposed to waiting lists for tests and procedures measurable in light years instead of days), affordable and superior in quality education for their children (as opposed to schools where teachers do not engage in any post-university life-long training and where doors are shut after 3 pm - when the rest of us, mortals - have to be at work) and so on. They will require parks that are safe and pleasant, the sea front that is free of industrial rubble and incinerators. And air that is clean.
  • PhDs and high quality entrepreneurs who will find these services wanting in Ireland will require either a much higher rate of pay, making their output, no matter how much 'Knowledge'-infused it might be, uncompetitive in the world markets. Alternatively, they will simply move on to build 'Knowledge Economy' somewhere else - in Paris or Singapore or Hong Kong, where such services (also known as inputs into the 'quality of life') are better and more efficiently supplied.
Agree? Ok, second part of proposition needs to be proven. Does it? Really? Anyone still believes that our public sector delivers excellent services? Or that the shambolic quality of these services has nothing to do with knowledge economics?

Instead of proof - an example. We all can agree that our nation's top university is and must be at the centre of the 'Knowledge Economy' activity. It must be its heart. Well, the speed of the body is related directly to the speed of the heart beating. Here is a snapshot:

From today's email to faculty and students (this is a second such notice this week):

"Dear all,

As we are all aware following the severe cold weather...

Within College we use a large amount of water and must during this period make an additional effort to reduce our water consumption. ...The following water saving tips should be considered by all [I omit the measures proposed that actually should be a normal practice for all times, not just at the time emergency]:

· In laboratories reduce water consumption for vacuum pumps and water cooled condensers

· Ensure all water supplies are turned off when experimental work is complete

· Only run dish washer, glass washers and autoclaves when full

· Consider can any experimental work consuming water be stopped during the current water crisis"

Of course, conserving water is a good practice - it is a scarce resource and should not be wasted. But if three days of snow and -3 degrees temperature can stop experimental work and lead to reduced operational capacity of our best University, are we really getting the public services that can support 'Knowledge Economy'?

I personally don't think so. So why on earth have our policymakers - wise enough to set numeric targets for PhDs well into the first half of the century and capable of producing tomes after tomes of white papers on 'Knowledge' economics - have so utterly failed to even mention the need for proper electricity supply (yes, TCD routinely warns staff that the University is teetering on the top edge of its supply capacity and that ESB supply might be disrupted) and decent water supply?

Before science and technology policy proposals, shouldn't we be first served with a decent emergency response system that can make sure flooding is contained when it happens, roads are gritted when the icy conditions advance and water/power/communications/gas/energy are delivered when adverse weather hits? It might be not 'Knowledge'-intensive and not too glamorous of a task, but it would serve a much greater purpose.
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