The recent death (August 25th) of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, prompted quite a bit of discussion. Now it’s prompted this short piece which makes the point that the Apollo project has a lesson for Ireland at this time, i.e. just before the Irish state at last gets access to some limited investment capital.
Back in the day there were arguments against Apollo, that the money would be better spent in other ways. However, Apollo was a big, big project which asked new questions, pushed research, came up with answers and materials, and left an engineering legacy scattered across the U.S.
From a political perspective there is a tendency to see Apollo as a cold war project trying to give America a lead in the great technology race of the time or as an attempt to wave an American flag in everyone’s face. All of this can be true but still hide a more useful truth. What is usually forgotten is that Apollo was a state objective, that it was state funded and state managed. If it is viewed as an economic and development success, it is telling us something. It is telling us that despite protestations to the contrary, the US can adopt socialist approaches and that they are effective.
Ireland will have limited capital. What seems to be about to happen is that entrepreneurs, innovators and ideas will compete for a slice of the money. This is a depressingly familiar approach. Most people know that it will result in waste but it’s hard to argue with nonsense when it’s expressed in the only terms that receive attention but terms that have been drained of all useful meaning. Only in some mad, neo-liberal fantasy does a bag of money of itself call forth enterprise, innovation and ideas. That wasn’t the Apollo way and it shouldn’t be the Irish way.
In the real world of projects success is tied to effective management. That means breaking the big job down into its constituent manageable parts, then delegating, contracting and controlling finance until bit by precious bit the parts come together. On anything remotely of a national scale research, innovation and enterprise will start with a major project – a huge idea – and a considerable budget. Realisation of the big idea requires that same disciplined project management but writ large and it relies on defining the building blocks, costing and financial controls. The building blocks are projects in themselves necessary to the big idea. They can be to do with manufacturing or building but in the early stages they will mostly be to do with research and development, trying to solve a problem, to find a way of doing something that hasn’t been done before or in a way that hasn’t been tried before. Each building block for the big idea is put out there for innovative companies to see. Then they compete to convince the management of the big idea that for a price they can solve the problem and deliver. The successful companies then get finance and are expected to deliver; over the course of their work they will be regularly progress chased. This is the Apollo way. It’s the sane, business-like way, the complete antithesis of scattering money among entrepreneurs and hoping for some undefined good outcome.
In a nutshell the idea is to deliver on some enormous but useful mission and in doing so, fund and drive a plethora of development projects that will leave a legacy of expertise that will survive long after the realisation of the big idea.
Here’s the fundamental problem: Ireland doesn’t have a big idea. There’s no Irish equivalent of “going to the moon”, no obvious Apollo. Ireland too seems to be particularly cursed with just one view of capitalism and enterprise: that of feeding SMEs as if they were all the same. However, a talk with any small manufacturer or developer reveals a keen awareness of thriving by serving a larger operator which generates projects requiring answers.
What is needed is a fresh look at state enterprise (That will mean abandoning the tired orthodoxy which limits public discussion today.) and a search for one or a small number of national projects. Defining a national project means looking at what Ireland wants to achieve with limited capital. The conventional approach would be to build or install labour intensive things. However, Irish commentators witter on about research, development, knowledge economy, hubs, expertise etc. Clearly building and installation – while they might deliver useful infrastructure – are not enough. What is needed is a huge project which keeps installation of imported technology to a minimum, which will generate many, many new/original technical problems – the sort of problems that can be addressed locally so as to create and leave a coherent pool of expertise and active companies. Ireland needs to be the site of expertise in an emerging industry or the site of expertise in a new approach to an older industry and one way to do that is the Apollo approach to a national project.
When discussion goes down this road, it can be hi-jacked by yet another piece of tired conventional Irish wisdom: that because we live on a green, windswept island surrounded by choppy seas the simple answer is renewables. There might be a big idea left there on which a new industry could be built but clearly development of wind and wave technology now has limited scope and the bulk of technology will be imported.[i]
Taking the argument beyond this point and giving examples risks the ridicule of conservatives and cynics. It also risks diverting the discussion away from the proposed method and into a limited discussion of the respective merits of big ideas. Suggestions are for a later debate. For now the debate involves two very different approaches: the familiar neo-liberal approach of scattering investment money versus a much greater degree of care with scarce capital.
[i] While nothing like the Severn potential exists in Ireland, there may be possibilities in becoming expert in small scale tidal energy but that’s for discussion if and when the argument presented here can be carried.