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Archive for October 10th, 2008

So it’s official, after 2 quarters of negative growth we’re in a recession. A lot of the businesses we are dealing with at West Cork LEADER Co-op are getting very worried. Yet amidst the anxiety there is a noticeable sense of relief too, a sense of getting back to reality and a sense that perhaps we have at last a chance to catch breath, to look at a new direction, a direction that’s about more than the housing market, overseas property shows, releasing equity and tax-lead foreign investment. With the US economy in severe trouble we can expect that the IDA have perhaps run out of road for a while and we’re largely going to have to get out of this one ourselves. So where do we look for new growth in our economy and a sustainable future? I’m convinced that the values we place in food and food production as expressed in our food culture can be strong contributors to that future.

Earlier in September, when the recession was still unofficial but clearly emerging, I had a chance to listen to Prof Kieran Byrne, the director of Waterford IT, address this topic of “Where to now?” He was speaking at the Slowfood Terra Madre conference and delivered a message of his Institute’s firm belief in a positive future for Irish food, food as a product but also food as part of the hospitality sector, and food as part of our culture. He talked about a return to what we are good at, valuing our own culture and from that deriving a wellspring of confidence. He spoke of the role of education in culturing young people, not just teaching them the raw facts or skills but instilling “confidence in our rising generations in our culture, our way of living”. This he argued offers the secure grounding for a new direction. “Perhaps now,” he said, “is the time when we have to transition and it is a challenge to transition. To transition from that era which marked the recent past, that era of the indigent. Perhaps we can turn now from that period in the lifecycle of the country, turn from it to something that is more gradual, more considered, that’s more reflective and surely that’s more healthy.”

Later this month, we will be launching the new LEADER programme for the region, which runs to 2013. In drafting a plan for the next 5 years we’ve had to take a hard look at the region and try to make sense of what works in West Cork and where the region is going. As part of the process we’ve undertaken an extensive review of the Fuchsia Brand, which we’ve published in the form of an e-book called Perspectives on the West Cork Regional Brand (you can have a look by visiting www.fuchsiabrands.com). It is now 10 years since the brand was launched and in that time we’ve learned a lot about branding and communication, but more importantly we’ve come to appreciate the value and input to economic development from West Cork’s society, its communities, culture and environment. We’ve joined the dots in thought and practice between a vibrant enterprise culture and a rich cultural and natural environment ,where there is a strong ethos of working together and a sense of responsibility for the world around us. At the time of writing I am in eastern Poland, preparing to present at a seminar where my main task is to expand on the LEADER approach, which is still fairly new here. I have been invited as an Irish representative, because all around Europe Ireland is held up as a real success story for LEADER. There are serious concerns in Poland about how well the LEADER approach fits with the Polish culture, in particular the notion of social capital, working together for a common purpose, has been seriously damaged here by 50 years of communism. Although there is a whole new generation that has not known communism, the generation that is now in power is very deeply affected by that period. Development workers here tell me that rural Poland really lacks an enterprise culture, a culture of doing and innovating. People here do not start businesses in anything other than retail or trading. There is huge interest in how LEADER groups can encourage the establishment of small rural businesses, particularly in food and tourism, which are so connected to the natural resources of the area, more embedded, more sustainable. My impression is that the biggest challenges are cultural and in particular that aspect of culture which is about values, and valuing what we know and do. As much as anything the successes that we’ve had in West Cork LEADER Co-Op have come from valuing – Fuchsia is all about communicating values – quality, tradition, pride and passion, but equally the projects we support at community level are about valuing – local heritage and the natural environment.

This thread was also picked up on in the Irish Times last week by Finbarr Bradley, a former economics professor at DCU and NUI Maynooth, when he set out an argument that national identity and traditions, and not solely academic research, provide the conditions for a society of innovation and entrepreneurship. He too has launched a book, it’s called Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference and has a lot to say about the role of culture in innovation. He argues that knowledge is constructed from experience not received through education or research. We can innovate only when we understand the meaning and value of information through our life experience. He says that “While knowledge is global, innovation is emphatically local. Countries and regions that successfully combine the benefits of global markets with local relationships based on quality and sense of place are likely to prosper.” I think that West Cork is very much a place where people learn by doing, certainly we would not have learned very much about regional branding without having put it into practice. The LEADER programme supports innovation by assisting people to learn by doing. We are taking this to a new level in the next programme by broadening the learning space to learning from doing with others. We are seeking to promote the emergence of a cluster of innovation among our food, tourism and craft enterprises.

The food culture that I have sought to document in this column over the last year is emphatically a culture of learning by doing. If you take a look at Perspectives you will read that the Fuchsia members between them have a combined turnover each year of over €106M, they are providing direct employment for almost 1000 people and are responsible for the creation of another 250 jobs in supporting sectors. Formal education and research play very little part in the success of the producers I have talked to. A major investment in science and advanced research is not I believe the way forward now for Ireland, as Finbarr Bradley and others have pointed out the return in terms of national prosperity is poor. As we look for responses to the recession, let’s look first to ourselves, what we know, value and can put into practice. Let’s look to learn from each other and how we can turn that learning into innovation and may other third level institutions follow WITs lead in culturing and valuing not merely producing recruits for jobs that may not be there or research that never gets off the shelf.

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