Fionn Murtagh’s Blog

Themes: information economy, intellectual property, research

Archive for the ‘Public sector procurement’ Category

Towards the Renaissance of the Irish Construction Industry

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The Irish construction and property sector powered the post-Celtic Tiger period in Ireland, and had many bubble characteristics. But while dysfunctional in various ways (building in flood-prone regions, giving rise to long work/home commutes, lack of facilities such as high speed broadband connectivity) nonetheless there is a “real economy” rationale underpinning the property sector. Yes, there was a bubble economy there, but there was also an underlying “real economy”. The latter is what I want to focus on.

By 2008, construction had 13% of Irish employment, or 280,000 people, compared to 10% in 2000. Employment in the sector has taken a huge hit. For the sector, and for some if not most employment in the sector, to recover in Ireland, there is a need for a renaissance of construction, – a new, innovative industry that breaks with the past.

The Irish construction sector collapse started in 2007 and preceded the global, financial crisis of 2008. This is a reason to probe future technology options for Irish construction, to some extent in its own right relative to banking and lending.

The Irish construction sector is (admittedly in bubblish manner) largely privately financed. So much so, in fact, that very considerable volumes of Irish investment took place in the sector across the globe. Irish property investment abroad according to reports amounted to €10 billion in 2007, €11 billion in 2006, over €5 billion in 2004. A cash-rich sector therefore, with lavish spending even if not for the right reasons. Can we spur investment that comes anywhere close to that again in the future?

The first part of the response to this is to see where a major job of work is needed now. The report “Greenprint for a National Energy Efficiency Retrofit Programme” (end 2009) points to how “there are 1.2 million dwellings in Ireland in need of an energy efficiency retrofit, creating at least 30,000 direct construction sector jobs with additional indirect and induced jobs” and that is only the start of it. Buildings of all sorts need mutualized telecoms, energy and waste infrastructure too. In the natural order of things there are big needs to innovate in areas such as those. As families grow up and as mobility becomes less sprightly with age, homes have to adapt in significant ways. A building, any building, is continually changing and, we might even say, a living entity. A real job of work is needed, that extends into the future as far as the mind’s eye can see.

Recommendations arising from the Greenprint report include this: “Create regulatory certainty for businesses and service providers” – and consumers, customers, and you and me. That is part of the core issue. But there is a way to go in establishing anew anything like the confidence that the construction sector enjoyed before its internal (and admittedly quite rotten) collapse.

To create confidence and trust what is needed is linked, open data including all aspects of planning processes and investments and contracts. Pointing the way here is Obama’s Open Government Initiative, for transparency, participation, and public/individual collaboration. The UK’s open data initiative too is hugely active in giving access in a meaningful way to data. Highlighted just from July 2010 alone, there are data and resources for housing and planning, landfill, weather and flood warning, schools, building energy usage, …

Ireland needs now an open, linked data initiative for the construction sector, including data and tools to interpret and exploit the information in new ways, from central and local government, environment, regulatory authorities, finance and banking, transport, schools, hospitals, and all other areas of our built environment. This transparency is necessary in order to start to restore confidence and trust, and to focus where, when and how regulatory, financial and other policy instruments can be brought into play.

Semantic web technology is capable of elucidating open information and data. That is what we need to start to remedy the huge errors of the past.


Pre-Commercial Public Procurement

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An ICT response to the current economic crisis is discussed in the following recent document:

A Strategy for ICT R&D and Innovation in Europe: Raising the Game”, 13 March 2009.

A joint focus is needed by researchers and those who deploy the results of research, not least – and this is something new in Europe – by the public sector.

A synopsis of what this relates to is as follows:

“By acting as technologically demanding first buyers, public procurers can drive innovation from the demand side. In addition to improving the quality and effectiveness of public services this can help creating opportunities for companies to take international leadership in new markets.”

Pre-commercial procurement of ICT to modernize public services is greatly underutilized in Europe compared to the US. This effects not only the quality and efficiency of public services but also it entails missed opportunities for opening up new markets and creating “first mover” advantage for the innovators.

There is insufficient coordination between public authorities and those carrying out R&D and innovation in ICT-based solutions. Examples are such areas as health, transport, energy. (Page 10 of the report gives further examples.)

Education policies have a special relationship with what is at issue here. In practice, across Europe, the educational arena is fragmented leading to lack of ability to focus all efforts on the big challenges that our society faces. Some sectors like nano-electronics and web-based services urgently require a shared European vision.

The report makes this observation: “… barriers to growth pose a bigger problem than barriers to starting a business in the EU. The reasons why European SMEs are not growing are multiple, e.g. sub-optimal conditions for their access to markets, innovation and finance; excessive regulatory burdens.”

Further information is available on the Commission web site at

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2009/04/24 at 17:27

Software, SMEs and public sector procurement

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There has been debate in the software engineering community about highly profiled and problematic cases of large software projects (IT, information technology, in the health sector comes to mind in some countries). The debate has gone sometimes in the direction of (i) broken management, versus (ii) insufficient or even no take-up of formal methods and best practice in tools.

My own view is that we should be looking elsewhere. The issue is not really one of good management versus good software engineering. What we need is for innovative software companies to demonstrate success and consolidate and grow in the process; and (the other side of the technical/management coin)  contract and project management to accommodate creative diversity, which is a big challenge.  

To address these we need to look at public sector procurement vis-a-vis software SMEs.  Some notes follow.  I am pointing to how this is a European problem too, and recognized as such.

The public sector represents 40% of GDP in Europe.  It could do a great deal more for innovative small companies and for deploying ICT research and application results.

There is a need for public sector procurement to be more open to SMEs.  The role of public  sector procurement in driving innovation featured in the Aho report [1].  SMEs have real difficulties in tendering and winning public sector contracts due to monolithic regidity and cost.  The Irish Software Association has proposed instead: pre-commercial engagement, unbundling of contracats, targeting desired performance through innovative means rather than prescribing the solution, and some other recommendations [2].

Echoing the Aho report, the report [3] focuses on how innovative R&D is far more readily deployed in the US through defence and space contracts.  A lot more could be done in Europe.  Front-line candidate application areas include health, inclusion, e-government, security and transport.

[1] “Creating an Innovative Europe”, Report of the Independent Expert Group on R&D and Innovation appointed following the Hampton Court Summit and chaired by Mr Esko Aho, European Commission, Luxembourg, 2006,

[2] Irish Software Association, “Improving SME access to public procurement”, June 2007, submission to National Public Procurement Policy Unit of the Dept of Finance,$File/ISA+response+to+SME+consultation+with+NPPPU-final.pdf

[3] National IST Research Directors Forum Working Group on Public Procurement in support of ICT Research and Innovation, “Pre Commercial Procurement of Innovation, A Missing Link in the European Innovation Cycle”, March 2006, 33 pp.,

(I am just recently a member of the National IST Research Directors Forum.)  

Written by Fionn Murtagh

2009/01/14 at 22:14