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Learning from Dublin: Urban Cultural Heritage as Differentiator

Rana Amirtahmasebi's picture

IFSC Dublin, IrelandA few weeks ago, John O’Brien, the chief strategist for Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency, was at The World Bank, Washington DC to address an event on the role of cultural heritage and historic cities in Local Economic Development. The theme of the event was creating jobs by supporting historic cities and cultural heritage. Urban Sector Manager Abha Joshi-Ghani began the day’s session by underlining the significance of cultural heritage in city development: “We have started to look at cities as drivers of entrepreneurship and innovation.  It is important to understand how cities attract skilled people and industries to create jobs and what role they play in economic growth. Therefore it is very helpful to find linkages between cultural heritage assets and job creation.”

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is very important to Ireland’s economy. It brings in about 115 billion pounds in exports, creates 240,000 jobs, generates 7 billion pounds in payroll, and counts for 65 percent of all corporation tax in the country. Eight of the top 10 ICT companies, 9 of top 10 pharmaceutical companies, 15 of the top 25 medical devices companies, and 10 top “born on the internet” companies chose Ireland as their home and most of them reside in Dublin. Many technology companies, such as Google, Facebook, eBay and Yahoo have chosen to make Dublin’s historic urban fabric their regional abode. Google alone hires about 2,000 people in Dublin, who come from 65 countries, and speak over 50 languages. The international financial services sector hires more than 30,000 people in Dublin. IBM chose Dublin as one of its smart cities pilots, stimulating a lot of local talent, and working with local companies… So what’s so great about Dublin?

A city of literature and culture, home to three Nobel laureates for literature (Yeats, Shaw, and Beckett), and the hometown of the famous rock band U2, Dublin has it all. It was designated a World Heritage City because of its Georgian architectural significance,  manifestation of modern planning systems and establishment of the first official town planning authority in Europe in the 18th century. In addition, the World Heritage inscription also acknowledges the city’s extraordinary contribution to world literature, starting in the 18th and early 19th centuries, continuing with the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century to the present times with Shaw, Beckett and Flann O'Brien.

But why do we talk about the literary and architectural significance of Dublin in a blog on sustainable cities? Because, as John O’Brien reminds us of this quote from Albert Einstein, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.” 

When it comes to attracting FDI and skilled labor to a city, tax incentives and labor market strategies are not enough.  “You have to have labor supply, a decent business environment, a reasonable tax regime... But other cities can copy this easily. Any strategist will tell you that the key to a successful strategy is differentiation.” In the case of Dublin, its culture and architectural heritage are the key differentiators.

To win the global search for talent, John highlights how companies are increasingly relocating to cities that are attractive to talented people. “You need to make the city attractive for talented newcomers,” he said. And how do policy makers differentiate Dublin? “We keep its reputation as a cool and cultural place. Cultural heritage is the differentiator. Remember, you cannot create the heritage so if you don’t preserve it, you cannot use it as an asset and as a differentiator.”

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