Introduction

.IE is a committed advocate of the benefits of the internet and digital technology for local communities, governments and businesses. Through our initiative the .IE Digital Town programme, we seek to empower these groups, help them make better use of digital technology and celebrate the towns that successfully integrate digital into social and commercial life.

To help town leaders and policymakers embed their own digital town programmes and action plans in empirical data, .IE partnered with The Irish Institute of Digital Business at DCU to fully explore the concept and value of the “digital town” through a comprehensive research project. The resultant framework is the first of its kind in Europe. “Digital” is a broad term that encompasses technology, telecoms, society, politics, culture, and the economy. For the purposes of the .IE Digital Town Blueprint, we define a digital town as a geographic and information space that adopts and integrates information and communications technologies in all aspects of town life (adapted from Hervé-Von Driessche, 2001).

The Department of Rural and Community Affairs (DRCD), recognising the value and impact of this approach, has funded a Digital Town Blueprint assessment for the 26 towns as part of the Town First Policy.  This work is now underway and will be completed by the end of 2022. The Blueprint reports will provide observations for decision-makers that these towns, and others like them, should consider in digitalisation initiatives that positively impact the local economy, public services, communications, social cohesion, and overall quality of life.

Why digital towns matter

The world of the twenty-first century is a connected one. It is a fact that all international societies and economies, no matter how local or small they are, are linked in some way, directly or indirectly, via the internet and digital technology.

The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated this. Ireland’s towns have remained mostly open and connected via the internet despite national restrictions on physical travel and business. The necessity of remote working has returned many commuting professionals to towns. Bricks-and-mortar stores have sold online for the first time. GPs have consulted patients via video calls. County councils have adapted their services.

While some Covid-19 changes may well prove transitory, others, particularly those that reduce costs and improve wellbeing, will endure. Towns that acknowledge this and prioritise continuous digitalisation will recover faster and become more competitive, attracting investment of capital, funding, expertise and tourists.

Facilitating and improving digitalisation in towns creates sustained, long-term benefits for local communities, businesses and public services. There are at least eight rationales for town level digital technology adoption and use:

 

  1. Societal: Digital technologies can help towns and their residents participate and function more fully in a Digital Society.
  2. Accessibility: Digital technologies can increase accessibility to services and opportunities to those who may be disadvantaged or vulnerable in society.
  3. Vocational: Digital technologies can help citizens prepare to work in a Digital Society.
  4. Sustainability: Digital technologies can reduce adverse environmental impacts and build a resilient habitat for existing and future residents.
  5. Quality of Service: Digital technologies may increase the range, quality and efficiency of service delivery whether public services, commercial services, or community services.
  6. Catalytic: Digital technologies can cause or accelerate other innovation across a community.
  7. Economic: Digital technologies may attract greater economic growth and employment to a town.
  8. Opportunistic: Digital technologies can differentiate a town from other towns and may make it a more attractive place to live, work or visit, or competitive from an economic and investment perspective, when compared to other towns.

 

As part of our membership of the EU, we are committed to building an inclusive digital society. This includes building smarter cities, improving access to e-government, e-health services and digital skills. However, closing the technological, urban-rural, and socio-economic digital divides is a key challenge for all policymakers.