Engineers Ireland report calls for quicker national broadband roll-out, the implementation of the national digital strategy and more investment in R&D. 

Ireland should take a leadership role in the development of a new ‘supergrid’ that would coordinate energy supply across Europe and drive the reduction in global carbon emissions, according to Engineers Ireland.

Unveiling a new report on Ireland’s digital future, the body has said Ireland is ideally positioned to play a leadership role in creating a new European smart grid that could coordinate the national back-up systems of countries to support renewable energy usage across the continent. 

Global digital leader

The Engineers Ireland report, ‘The State of Ireland 2021: Infrastructure and a digital future’, recommends that Ireland needs to expedite the National Broadband Plan, implement the national digital strategy, secure its own energy grid, and invest more in research and development to position the nation as a global digital leader.

Damien Owens, registrar at Engineers Ireland, said: “Ireland should play a vital European leadership role in creating the smart grid of the future, in effect a ‘supergrid’, to drive renewable power.  Countries need back-up systems to ensure security of supply, and while countries and major cities have their own back-ups, a co-ordinated pan-European grid could streamline this and create further carbon-reduction benefits. 

"The Programme for Government clearly outlines the need for Ireland to build its energy interconnectivity with our European neighbours and the need for us to become a major contributor to a pan-European renewable energy generation and transmission system. 

"As a hub for engineering and technical innovation, now is the time for Ireland to drive forward by expanding the capacity of our interconnectors and green energy networks to help future proof national and European energy requirements.”

The report highlights that Ireland is currently performing well in many digital areas. The World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2021, published by the Institute for Management Development (IMD), ranks Ireland 19th worldwide.

The Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), published by the European Commission, ranks Ireland 5th highest among countries in the EU, behind Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. However, to take a leading position in these rankings and better prepare Ireland for the digital needs of the future, the report says Ireland can still do more to improve its digital environment and become more competitive globally.

Further investment in higher education

Infrastructure improvements are critical to encouraging positive developments in the digital space, as is further investment in higher education to support the labour needs that are required to build this infrastructure, according to the report.

Professor Orla Feely, president of Engineers Ireland, said: “Over the past decades, technology and digitalisation have become woven into the fabric of society and business, including engineering firms and businesses, at every level.  Digitalisation is now an integral part of the engineering sector, meaning today’s engineers need to be all-rounders.

"Core IT skills are more important than ever and digital expertise on sensor networks, artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, and virtual reality are becoming a basic prerequisite."

Damien Owens concluded by saying the report sets out several recommendations so that in Ireland “we not only integrate emerging technology, but also become a world leader in digitalisation”.

Key recommendations

1.       Expedite the National Broadband Plan

  • Prioritise more populated areas for the rollout of the plan
  • Investigate the viability of low earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband as an interim broadband solution for rural communities
  • Offer subsidies (through for example, a tax credit) for satellite broadband while the network is being built

2.       National Digital Strategy

  • Publish and implement the forthcoming National Digital Strategy, (building on its first phase).  It is needed to provide a whole-of-Government approach to supporting the digital sector and encouraging digitalisation across all areas of business and society

3.       Secure Ireland’s energy grid and supply to ensure energy security

  • Expedite construction of green energy networks
  • Expand the capacity of interconnectors to other countries

4.       Invest more in Research and Development

  • Offer more support for entrepreneurs and early-stage investors
  • Encourage spin-out companies from third-level education through more investment in technology transfer
  • Implement in full the National Cybersecurity Strategy 2019-2024
  • Educate businesses and the general public about the need for cybersecurity professionals
  • Expand tax credits for companies to undergo R&D in Ireland

In addition to the recommendations, the report provides an overview of digital technologies that are being implemented in Ireland. These overviews include, but are not limited to, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, digital construction, and Industry 4.0.

As part of its State of Ireland series on the country’s infrastructure, this Engineers Ireland report aims to contribute to the debate on Ireland’s future, to stimulate that debate and to recommend actions needed for the future prosperity of Irish society as well as informing the general public.

The report follows on from the Engineers Ireland National Conference ‘Engineering in a new world: Digital and sustainable solutions for society’, held on 13 October 2021. Many points from the conference are reflected in the document, along with a number of case studies presented.

The full report can be found on Engineers Ireland’s website here.