Inspirefest 2016 Day 1

Today was the first day of Inspirefest, a two day conference in Dublin which describes itself as an “international festival of technology, science, design and the arts” ( The format is similar to a TEDx but more interactive: one stage hosts keynotes throughout the day and there are also panels and Q&A sessions. Then at 6pm everyone bundles into buses to the Inspirefest Fringe in Merrion Square for music, theatre and the interactive expo tent.

The official theme of the conference is STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) with a focus on innovation and diversity. Most of the entrepreneurs, academics and executives speaking over the two days are women. Inspirefest is the brainchild of Ann O’Dea, founder of tech news website Silicon Republic (, who has championed women in technology, and the inagural festival was held last year. In opening the conference, she stressed the diversity of speakers – 70% are women and many are from very different backgrounds. She noted the richness and depth of conversation that diversity can bring, and encouraged attendees to look at the diversity on stage and think: “wouldn’t it be a good idea if that was the same in my organisation”.

Disclaimer: there were so many amazing speakers on the day and unfortunately I haven’t got the chance to mention them all, but hopefully the below gives an idea of what went on!


“The world needs curiosity, it needs understanding, it needs knowledge” – Enda Kenny opens Inspirefest

Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave the opening address, speaking of the importance of diversity and of supporting women in STEM. He stressed the role of the STEM careers program in secondary schools and noted that “the gendering of certain careers continues – STEM subjects are still seen by many girls as being for boys only”.


Education and diversity, and diversity in education, were the focus of much of the day, with speakers and panels on STEM and STEAM. In a panel discussion on “Building an Inclusive Education System in STEM”, Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland, raised the issue of quotas to increase the number of women applying for research funding. He and Chair Ann O’Dea agreed that without a level of positive discrimination, talented women will remain “hidden” in the system.  Good news came from Christine Loscher, Research Director at Dublin City University, who announced that DCU is renaming all of its buildings, and 50% will be named after women. She also highlighted that female students at third level need to see that other women hold key decision-making positions in the University, to know that “it’s possible”.

STEM career stereotypes also came up, with Mark Ferguson pointing to a survey which revealed that the number one factor for secondary school students when deciding what job they want is that they will “fit in”. Equally, parents want the same thing for their children. He suggested that we need to challenge the stereotype of a scientist as a man in a white coat with “slightly mad hair”, or, as Ann O’Dea pointed out, the idea many girls and young women have that they are “hopeless” at maths.


How do we get away from the “mad scientist” stereotype?

One woman who challenges those stereotypes is Zoe Philpott, who took the stage to talk about education in STEAM, and particularly her projects to link technology and the arts. Despite being told by a University tutor that she shouldn’t do coding because she was the “artistic type” and “a girl”, she immediately set up a dotcom on graduation. Since then she has worked in various creative ways to foster science education through technology and art, via projects including robots, crowd games and a collaborative event with the charity Girl Effect, which recreated for users the experience of a young women growing up living with poverty in Ethiopia. Her performance piece Ada.Ada.Ada., which takes its inspiration from Ada Lovelace, inventor of coding, will take place as part of the Inspirefest Fringe on the evening of Friday 1st July.

Adalovelace    Girl-Effect-Live-Walk-with-me

Ada.Ada.Ada. (left) and an installation from “Girl Effect live” (right)

Zoe also took part in a panel discussion on “STEAM: The Convergence of Tech and Arts”, along with Noel Murphy of Intel and Nora O’Murchu of the Interactive Design Centre in University of Limerick.  The panel considered the “productive convergence of Science, Technology and the Arts”, or what Ada Lovelace called “poetic science”. As Zoe Philpott explained, with the “triptych of arts, science and mathematics, you can come up with visions greater than what we see before us”. She also used the “stone soup” story ( to illustrate that when working on interdisciplinary projects people can cut through discipline-specific jargon by concentrating on the task itself.

The panel also noted that, in Art-Industry collaborations, the artist must maintain authenticity within the corporate context. Nora O’Murchu gave a fascinating example of this in the form of the “Empathy Machine” created by artist Joanna Hopkins –!the-empathy-machine/c14u3. The artist created a pop-up booth with a virtual avatar that, in the style of a therapist, would ask anyone who entered how they were feeling. However, to illustrate that “technology is not the answer”, the Empathy Machine was deliberately flawed, the message being that what is most important is the well-being of society and the humane way we must look at the world. See more about Joanna Hopkins’ work here:


Throughout the day we heard from a number of social entrepreneurs and activists who are working to promote equality and diversity. Alexandra Bernadotte is the founder of Beyond 12 (, an organisation which aims to increase the percentage of lower income students graduating from college in the US by supporting students at the intersection between school and college. She highlighted that in the US, only 8% of individuals from the lowest income quartile can expect to earn a Bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties, compared to 82% in highest income quartile. Based on her experience of growing up in Haiti and ultimately graduating from Dartmouth and Stanford, she observed a considerable gap in the standard required at school and at University; schools were producing students that were “college eligible, but not college-ready”. Beyond 12 works at three levels, Track, Connect and Coach (see below). Alexandra stressed the role of technology in supporting a social enterprise; it allows Beyond 12 to “amplify” the work it is doing.


Beyond 12’s approch to bridging the gap between school and University for low-income students

Mid-morning featured several fascinating keynotes on “Change Through the Power of Social Media”. Lian Bell of Waking the Feminists ( shared how she used social media to gain support for her campaign for equality and economic parity for all people working in theatre. Sinéad Burke, blogger and PhD student, ( explained how social media enabled her to bypass people judgement of her physical appearance. Frustrated with the media’s tendency to define women according to what they wear or who their partner is, she began to interview inspirational women on her blog. Sinéad has secured interviews with many famous women by promising that “I won’t ask you about your husband, your children, how you achieve a work-life balance and what you wear to work”.

How women are portrayed in the media was a thread taken up by Judith Williams, Global Head of Diversity at Dropbox. She drew our attention to unconscious bias; when we see someone who is “like us”, for example when reviewing a job application, we immediately get a good feeling and are more likely to hire them. Judith pointed out that, as recently as 2013, 83% of Google doodles featured men, who were chosen as significant contributors to science. Now that they have broadened the criteria to include people who contribute to society, the ratio is 50:50. Furthermore, as Alexandra Bernadotte also pointed out, diversity is not just about women. Judith Williams illustrated this point using the example of Louboutin “nude shoes”, which were recently made in a variety of colours after an employee pointed out that her legs were not beige.Google-Doodle

A diverse Google doodle


Nude, not beige, Louboutin shoes

Diversity at work was one of the afternoon’s unofficial themes. In a panel discussion on “Workplace Diversity and Inclusion”, Ellyn Schook of Accenture implored delegates to not only use our own voices to create change in our organisation, but also to listen to other people’s voices. She outlined how an Accenture employee was the catalyst for the company’s new policy of allowing parents – both mothers and fathers – to work from home for a year after birth or adoption. Judith Williams urged that we need to “be allies to people who are different from us”

In a panel discussion on Board Participation and Executive Leadership, Lauren States, Harvard Leadership Fellow, stressed that diversity, in bringing different perspectives to a problem, boosts innovation and competitiveness. Raju Narisetti, a Senior VP at NewsCorp, stressed that female representation at Executive level is a significant issue: more companies in the S&P 1500 have CEOs called John than CEOs who are women. Diversity has also been a focus for Enterprise Ireland, and CEO Julie Sinnamon explained that through their work, 22% of start-ups are now founded by women, compared to 7% before this work began. The panel agreed that there are not enough women at middle and top management level.

The focus on business continued with Katherine von Jan of Salesforce, who spoke of how people can maximise their potential at work. She suggested that “retention tactics” e.g. yoga at lunchtime, foosball tables,  which have become popular, particularly in tech companies, and are often much lauded, actually “create a mousetrap that holds you in the job you’ve outgrown, to keep things more efficient for the organisation”. These retention tactics, she argued, limit the potential of employees. Monica Parker, founder of HATCH, also spoke of job satisfaction, using her company’s research to illustrate that “we have created a culture that worships at the altar of overwork”. She also highlighted that a sense of community with the people we work with is essential for job satisfaction.

Inspirefest Fringe

Turning to the evening program, the Fringe festival in Merrion Square kicked off with ResearchFest, supported by the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, where eight PhD students were given the opportunity/terrifying task of explaining their research in simple terms in three minutes, with (the caveat that strikes fear into the heart of every academic) NO SLIDES. All of the presentations were brilliant and the winner was Shauna Flynn of DCU, who used the analogy of lego blocks to explain how she is working on maximising the amount of transistors on a computer chip. Quite an achievement considering the actual title of her PhD is: “Plasma based surface nano-patterning of semiconductor materials using block copolymer lithography”.


The ResearchFest presenters – eventual winner Shauna Flynn fourth from right

This was followed by a performance by Echo Brown of her stunning play Black Virgins are not for Hispters ( The play is far broader than the title suggests; it is a compelling story of race, gender, self-worth, inequality, and urban poverty, and received a standing ovation from the crowd. Finally, we were played out by  all-female Bray trio Wyvern Lingo. Come back tomorrow for Friday’s report, featuring Tech, Finance and more Fringe!


Wyvern Lingo on the Inspirefest Fringe stage


The bucolic surroundings of Dublin’s Merrion Square

Cloughjordan Ecovillage Experience Day

On Saturday 25th June Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Co. Tipperary held one of its regular “Ecovillage Experience” days, where people are invited into the ecovillage to learn about more sustainable living. The day is a balance of classroom and interactive elements, combining presentations on the history and science behind the village with tours of the community farm, research gardens, green enterprise centre and some residents’ homes.



At the entrance to Cloughjordan Ecovillage


What it’s all about

The first residents moved into the village in 2009 and it is now home to over 100 people in over 50 houses. The village is powered by a wood power heating system (soon to be supplemented by solar) and, according to a recent study, its ecological footprint of 2 global hectares is the lowest in Ireland. This is equivalent to one planet living, as opposed to our standard 3 planet living.

Walking around the village, it is striking how the common spaces and “gardens” are natural, rather than cultivated spaces. Some of the residents had “edible gardens” and one of the highlights of the village is the apple tree walk, featuring 65 varieties of native Irish apple trees. In the future it is hoped to build a large kitchen on site and produce Cloughjordan ecovillage food and beverage products.


Artichokes in one resident’s edible garden  


Thriving wildflowers on the village streets

Enterprise is a feature of the village. The Riot Rye Bakery is on site, and runs regular bread-making workshops (, while the co-operative Sheelagh na Gig bookshop and cafe is in Cloughjordan village ( Djangos eco-hostel is situated at the pedestrian entrance to the village. The impressive WeCreate centre has also been created, with shared workspace and the “FabLab”, complete with laser cutter and 3D printer. Individuals or organisations can rent out these spaces.


Riot Rye Bakery, with fuel for the wood-fired oven

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The 3D printer at the Fab Lab (left) and some Fab Lab creations (right)

The village is registered as an educational charity, and provides certified permaculture courses, along with workshops and courses for schoolchildren in the Fab Lab. Academic research has also been conducted in partnership with the village; during our tour we visited the “RED Gardens”, where eco-villagers are exploring how much land is required to grow enough food to sustain a family, using a variety of different farming methods. See more on the RED Gardens Youtube channel:

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Onions in the polytunnel at the RED Gardens (left) and the entrance to Apple Tree walk (right)

The community farm operates adjacent to the village, and each villager takes a share of the produce every week, with the excess sold on site at the entrance to the village on Cloughjordan’s main street. The farm is an operational example of Community Supported Agriculture, with the aim of connecting producer directly with consumer. A biodynamic farming method is used, as are horse-drawn ploughs. The vegetables included in Saturday’s excellent lunch illustrated the quality of the farm’s produce (particularly when combined with Riot Rye bread).


Polytunnel on the community farm (with grapes in the foreground)

Prospective residents of the ecovillage must subscribe to its eco-charter when designing a house or starting a business there. Many of the houses we saw were built using permaculture design principles, and alternative materials such as hempcrete and cob were often used. All of the houses have extremely high BERs (Building Energy Rating), with over 6% of Ireland’s A rated houses situated in the ecovillage.


Cob house in the village


This ecovillage house contains the European offices of the US South by Southwest festival

Our hosts explained that the ecovillage is striving to be a sustainable community, building resilience through growing together, building together, celebrating together and using a consensus-based approach to decision-making. Future plans include co-housing – where a number of invidual houses are built in a cluster, with a “common house” containing a laundry room, large kitchen and guest bedrooms – and a community ampitheater. In August of this year, the village will host the All-Ireland Permaculture Gathering. In the meantime, residents have the book swap and Unicycle-versity to keep them busy.

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Book swap in the market square (left) and Unicycle University (right)

For further reading, here’s some resources and links on ecovillages and self sufficiency:


Click to access John_Seymour-The_Complete_Book_of_Self_Sufficiency.pdf

Click to access e2e_ulab.pdf

Brexit: Business, Sustainability and Ireland

Two days to go to Brexit. On June 23rd the UK will vote on whether to Leave or Remain in the European Union. What does this mean for sustainability, business and for Ireland?


Straight to what is for me the most interesting issue here: corporate accountability. In the event of a Brexit, the UK would no longer be subject to EU legislation on reporting and transparency. This includes the forthcoming Directive on Integrated Reporting, which  from FY2017 will require the EU’s largest businesses (approximately 6,000 companies) to report on social and environmental issues. Furthermore, the EU has begun to implement the first steps of a comprehensive anti tax-avoidance package. In 2015 the EU proposed a Directive which would require the EU’s largest companies to report on how much tax the company should be paying in each country it operates in, versus how much tax it is actually paying. Brexit would mean that UK companies would not be subject to these regulations, and represent a step backwards for corporate accountability. Some further info on the EU’s plans here:

Click to access 160412-factsheet_en.pdf

Brexit could also shift the balance of power between business and society in the UK. Enrico Reuter writes in The Conversation that, while the EU promotes economic competitiveness over social well-being, if the UK were left to its own devices, it would have an even stronger focus on competitiveness, with less regulation. He points out that:

“the EU, for all its obsession with pleasing businesses, does continue to hold the UK back from some of its more radical attempts to prioritise business interests over employment rights. It has, for example, stopped the UK from repealing the working time directive or undermining parental leave

Finally, in a more general way we can turn to the Guardian to find out how Brexit would affect British business. This is a straighforward, informative article considering the implications for employment, multinationals, agriculture and research funding for universities:


Britain is our largest trading partner; we export 15% of all goods produced here to the UK. Here’s the Irish government’s official argument for Remain, as outlined by Enda Kenny in yesterday’s Guardian, where he cites four reasons for his position – the economy, the “EU itself”, the relationship between Britain and Ireland, and Northern Ireland:

For a more in-depth view, TV3 recently aired “Matt Cooper’s Brexit Dilemma”, where the broadcaster considers the impact of Brexit on Ireland through interviews with academics, business people and politicians:

There’s also an useful opinion piece in the Irish Times about Brexit, trade and the Irish economy:

Right down at the individual level, the Irish Times looks at how Brexit might affect Irish citizens. Seguing into the next topic, this article also contains some small but telling facts about how much the EU has done for the environment i.e. banning powerful vacuum cleaners and, from 2022, menthol cigarettes.


Jonathon Porrit, writer and former leader of the Green Party in the UK, has been vocal in his support for Remain, citing a long list of EU legislation created to protect the environment. In the blog post below, he also highlights a useful table produced by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), which illustrates the implications of Brexit for the environment under two scenarios: the “Norway scenario”, where the UK remains a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), or if it chose to sit entirely outside all European institutions.

Perhaps the key message when it comes to sustainability is that a Brexit would be a step away from the “common future” envisaged by the Brundtland report on sustainable development. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are based on collaboration, not isolation. As Porrit’s consulting firm Forum for the Future suggests:

“Our sustainable future will be based on people choosing to work together to common goals, beyond the boundaries of sector, age group or nation, recognising our fundamental interdependence. A Brexit would be a massive lurch away from ‘our common future'” (

Or as the Guardian argues in its’ excellent Brexit editorial: we need the UK to “keep connected and inclusive, not angry and isolated”.

“All reason tells us that the great issues of our time have little respect for national borders… corporate power, migration and tax evasion to weapons proliferation, epidemics and climate change. Not one of them can be properly tackled at the level of the nation state” (The Guardian, 20 June 2016)

Sustainability and Business in Costa Rica and Cuba

MSc Business students here in University College Dublin recently took a trip to Costa Rica and Cuba to study “Reputation, Business and Society” in these two very different countries. Today they presented their experience of “Eco-tourism in Costa Rica”, “Sustainability in Business” in Costa Rica, “State-owned companies in Cuba” and “Private Business and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Cuba”, wich revealed some fascinating insights.

Eco-tourism is a major industry in Costa Rica, which is the most biodiverse region in the world. 50% of all tourism in the country is eco-tourism and 25% of the country is a preserved area. Costa Rica uses its Certification for Sustainable Tourism programme as a benchmark for hotels and resorts ( Some of the hotels the students visited included Eco Termales Fortuna, where the infrastructure is made of recycled waste and melted plastic, and El Faro, the world’s first “container hotel”, constructed from used shipping containers. The students highlighted that the focus on eco-tourism encouraged Costa Ricans to be environmentally conscious themselves, but noted the negative impact of the construction of hotels and resorts on the environment.

El Faro – the “container hotel”

El Faro under construction

To explore “Sustainability in Business”, students visited a number of sustainability-focused enterprises in Costa Rica. At Doka Estate Coffee (, which now supplies Starbucks, 25% of the land is planted with banana crops along with coffee, to encourage biodiversity. Villa Vanilla spice plantation ( practices “biodynamic farming”, whereby a farm aims to operate as a “unified sustainable ecosystem” and the ingredients used must come directly from the farm. Reinventing Business For All ( is a local business consulting firm which aims to bring together the public sector, private sector and communities. What the students did not look at, however, was the environmental implications of the vanilla and coffee products after they leave the plantations e.g. packaged, flown to Europe, disposable coffee cups. This highlights the importance of taking a life-cycle approach when considering the challenges of “sustainable business”, as this article (Lamberton, 2000) shows:

Doka Coffee Estate

Spices drying at Villa Vanilla

On to state-run business in Cuba, where the students spoke of Cubana Airlines, Havana Club and La Corona cigar factory. They began with some basic facts: 75% of economic activity in Cuba is generated by state-owned enterprises or government investments and spending. This is a decrease from 95% in 1990. As of 2013 there were 73% of Cubans working in the public sector, down from 83% in 2005. The average basic salary is 20-25CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos) per month, roughly equivalent to US$20-25, and healthcare and education is free. The students noted, however, that workers in the La Corona cigar factory can earned up to 90CUC per month. A dual currency system is in operation in Cuba, with 1CUC equivalent to 24CUP (Cuban Pesos). Locals use CUP, but this is very difficult for foreigners to get hold of, and they usually use CUC.

Preparing tobacco leaf at La Corona cigar factory

The students concluded that not all of the state companies were run in the same way, with employees more empowered to make decisions in La Corona and Havana Club than Cubana Airlines. In relation to the latter, no figures on revenue or employees were available, but the airline does state that it aims to achieve profitability not in excess of its competitors, but “at the same level of our competitors”, a goal which struck the MSc student presenting as “very strange”. (He could do with reading this: On that note the students did point out in their summary that among the Cubans they encountered, they observed that “relationships and happiness are more important than money”.

Private Cuban taxi

Benetton shop in Havana

Finally, we learned of private business and FDI in Cuba, with a particular focus on the restaurant and taxi industries. Both industries were reformed shortly after Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl came into power in 2008 and Havana in 2016 has over 2000 private restaurants, as opposed to just 75 in 2010. Only state-run taxis are allowed to transport foreigners, but private taxis frequently risk the fines to do so. Transporting foreigners contributes to making taxi driving a lucrative profession, with some taxi drivers earning up to US$60 per day. FDI in Cuba is still strictly regulated, despite 2014’s Foreign Investment Act. This act provides for joint ventures and Full Foreign Ownership. In the case of the former, generous tax breaks are given i.e. no tax for the first 8 years of operation, while in the case of the latter, there are taxes of 15-50%. Havana Club was given as an example of a joint venture and Benetton as Full Foreign Ownership. Since 25th May 2016, private SMEs have been legalised, but what an SME is or the terms under which it operates have not yet been defined. Interesting times ahead for this man:

Raúl Castro