Kilkenomics 2017


Last month the annual Kilkenomics Festival, a economics-comedy festival, took place in Kilkenny, and as usual featured a number of interesting panels on environmental and social issues.

Doughnut Economics

This year UK economist Kate Raworth came to Kilkenny to discuss her theory of “Doughnut Economics”, which reorients traditional economics around the planetary boundaries concept, as the diagram below illustrates. She began by explaining that “at the beginning of the 20th century economics had no goal and it got a cuckoo goal of GDP growth”. Now “it’s time to chuck out the cuckoo from the nest and get a goal we actually want”. Kate explained that the hole in the middle of the doughnut is where “people are falling short of lifes essentials”. She stressed that “we want to get everyone into the doughnut but not go outside the crust of the doughnut”. Related image

The panel went on to discuss how 20th century economic theories are not appropriate in the context of 21st century ecological changes. Much of the discussion focused on the difficulty of valuing natural and social capital in pounds. One of the panellists, Henry Leveson-Gower, founder of Promoting Economic Pluralism, noted that the approach to environmental economics in the 1970s and 80s was to value everything, but “for this to work you have to keep the threat to the environment in place; we’re going to destroy it unless you pay us money not to destroy it”.

Another panellist, Peter Antonini, an economics lecturer in University College, London, suggested that a common denominator is needed for decision-making and that money is a useful measure in this regard. He suggested also that economics is not suited to being used in an activist way, to achieve a goal.

Henry countered that some branches of economics e.g. complexity, feminist, institutional economics, “don’t need pound signs”. He suggested that measuring everything in terms of money means we “crush things and don’t properly value the things that don’t fit neatly.”

Kate agreed, arguing that the assumption in mainstream economics that money is the best incentive is not borne out in behavioural economics. She noted that “different approaches bring out different behaviours in people”. She also highlighted the power of words, suggesting that the more we are told about the concept of “economic man”, the more we come to believe it.

Kate suggested that we need to talk about “planetary household management”, highlighting that the economy has “four provisioning sections – market, state, household, commons”. However, the household and commons are not included in GDP “because there’s no money; utility cannot be measured in money”. Supporting her point, Henry concluded that “mainstream economics tries to start from the individual and work out, but it doesn’t work”. Instead, it is about the “values and behaviours of tribes… we need to create organisations and institutions where people will act on values, and we need to reorganise our companies”.

Social Capital

Naoise Nunn, co-founder of the festival, hosted a panel on “Social Capital and Public Life: Why we cannot prosper with broken communities”. Although it had no common panellists, this session picked up where Doughnut Economics left off, discussing the “associations that we have that are typically outside the market” and the value of community networks.

One of the panellists, Robert Shrimsley, the Managing Editor of, described social capital as “how many people around you who will do something for you that isn’t in their immediate interest…It works when people have a common cause that overrides their individual needs”. He also cited the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. However, he cautioned that things that work well at local level don’t always work at a national level, which is more diverse, with more opinions.

Another panellist, Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics, introduced the idea of the Dunbar number, developed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who suggested that we are only capable of having close social relationships with up to 150 people. After 150 you need to develop institutions to function. He also suggested that social capital cannot be developed from the top down i.e. from government level, and mentioned the Family by Family initiative in Australia as bottom-up social capital building.

The final panellist, Simon Kuper, a journalist with the Financial Times, stressed that “loneliness is increasing and there needs to be some kind of collective intervention”. He suggested that populism brings people together and appeals more to lonelier people.

The all-male panel ended with an interesting discussion about gender balance, after an audience member asked why there were no women on the panel. Naoise Nunn explained that more women than men are invited to speak at Kilkenomics, but every year they end up with more male panellists. Robert Shrimsley suggested that women might “turn up, see what we’re talking about and say no thanks”. Do female economists feel alienated by current economics paradigms and discourse? Something for Kilkenomics to address next year perhaps.




‘The Transition to Sustainability in Europe post-Brexit: The Periphery, Populism and Progressive Politics’


Last Sunday the European Green Foundation, together with the Green Foundation Ireland, organised a workshop in Queens University Belfast (above) on “Brexit: Populism and Progressive Politics”. The one day event was divided into four panels featuring speakers from a number of sectors, including academia, politics, think tanks and NGOs.

Panel 1: Brexit and Progressive Politics

The first panel began with Steven Agnew, leader of the Green Party Northern Ireland. Discussing Brexit, he made the point that while the Green party will fight for the rights of people who aren’t included e.g. women, LGBTQ, it is less effective at including people “who are not as educated as us, people who have been victims of the policies of the right” i.e. many of the people who voted for Brexit. He asked “how do we let them tell their story, people who the working classes can connect to? Our big prejudice is education. We need to have these conversations in community centre as well as Queens University”

Ray Cunningham, Co-ordinator of the GreenHouse think tank, was the next speaker and he explained and challenged the idea of a “Green brexit”, as proposed by Michael Gove, among others. He highlighed that the people who voted for Brexit were not particularly sympathetic to green or progressive ideals, citing this YouGov survey in February 2017. Ray pointed out that “these outcomes require a government willing to pursue them and an electorate ready to support them, this is wishful thinking. You can’t push something through without a democratic mandate”. He also drew our attention to two relevant books on the topic: Ruling the Void and the Lure of Greatness. He concluded that there can only be a “progressive brexit” with the break up of the UK into republics within the EU, arguing that “Britain is aleady breaking up through how brexit is being handled”, e.g. Teresa May’s “very Southern English” cabinet.

The final speaker was Stephen Nolan of Trademark, who discussed the ideas of “radical munipicalism” and “solidarity economy”. Radical munipicalism is about “dispersing power and building social power” e.g. the Department of Commons in Naples, Barcelona en Comú and Cooperation Jackson. Examples of the solidarity economy are the Mondragon co-operative, the  Red Belt in Italy, where 50% of the workforce are in co-operatives, and the town of Marinaleda in Spain, which has 0% unemployment. Inspired by these examples, Steven has supported the development of several workers co-ops in Belfast in the last few years, including the Belfast Cleaning Society in 2011, the Creative Workers Co-op, Farmegeddon brewery, Lunasa cafe and Thats Arts. Read more about them here.

Panel 2: Brexit and Sustainability in Northern Ireland, the UK and Europe

The second panel focused on the impact of Brexit and the environment. Viviane Gravey, a lecturer in European Politics at Queens, suggested that Brexit creates challenges not only for environmental law in the UK but in the EU. She noted that while the UK government has often opposed EU environmental law, it has been a key leader in particular areas such as agriculture and climate change, and it is unclear who will replace the UK in this role e.g. the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) may become less green.

Nichola Hughes of Sustainable Northern Ireland spoke of the challenges related to waste, climate change and energy. On waste, she drew our attention to the EU’s circular economy package, warning that products incompatible with the package could be shipped to the UK and used there. On climate change, she noted that the UK government has recently adopted its fifth low carbon budget, but it the UK is not part of the Emissions Trading Scheme, how will the government be accountable? She also noted that getting local authorities in Northern Ireland to act on climate change is difficult because, unlike in the Republic, there is no NI legislation to require them to do climate action plans. In relation to energy, Nichola observed that there is an element of the Tory party that is pro fracking and nuclear, but if renewable energy turns out to be “the better option financially” then it will be adopted.

James Orr of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland focused on environmental issues around the border. For example, he noted that in the case of opposition to fracking in Fermanagh, industry played one side of the border off against the other. He suggested that “ecocide” is happening along the Irish border, citing the results of this project. His proposition was that we need to “rewild” the border, along the lines of the African transfrontier rewilding project.


Panel 3: Brexit, the Border and Futures for Ireland and Northern Ireland

The first speaker was Katy Hayward, a reader in Sociology in Queens, who took us through the impact of the EU on the border. She explained that the EU has changed the border in a number of ways, such as the depoliticization of cross border co-operation, common EU citizenship, the right to cross border work and education and research co-operation.

Claire Bailey, MLA for the Green Party NI, spoke of how, in the UK, the impact of Brexit on Ireland is not being considered, and Ireland is often seen as something seperate. She added that “we have never made people feel comfortable with the multiple identities we can have in Northern Ireland”, and explained that Brexit complicates this further.

The next speaker was John Kyle, Belfast city councillor and member of the Progressive Unionist Party. He noted that Unionists are very divided on Brexit, even within their parties, and that “tribal divisions between nationalists and unionists are worse than they have been for a couple of decades”. He argued that in Northern Ireland people view the EU institutions as remote and bureaucratic. He suggested that we need a North-South ministerial council, an active civic forum, a British-Irish council, a common travel area and to see the cultural rights of NI citizens protected.

Lastly, David Phinnemore, Professor of European Politics in Queens, set out his ideas for “differentiated withdrawal” for Northern Ireland, whereby the terms of withdrawal and the future relationship with the EU could be different for NI. He suggested that there is precedence for treating part of a State differently e.g. Greenland, Svaalbard. He observed that a language is beginning to emerge around “flexible and imaginative solutions” to reflect the unique situation of NI, and Teresa May also recently spoke of finding “special solutions” for NI.

Final session: Roundtable discussion on Populism, Brexit and the European Green Movement

The first speaker in this sessions was Dick Pels, Professor of Sociology at Brunel University in London. He discussed global politics in 2017, with an emphasis on Brexit and Trump, suggesting that what we are seeing is a clash between two types of democracy – populist (plebicitary) and pluralist (liberal).

Lee McGowan, Professor of Politics in Queens, looked at the rise of populism in Europe, drawing our attention to the reduced support for the major parties in the recent German elections. He noted that centre right parties e.g. in Austria, are now starting to adopt the slogans and themes of the far right parties, “making political capital out of it”. He asked “are we seeing a Silent counter revolution – revenge against the establishment and left-wing elites?” Prof McGowan used the image below, which shows how people accross Europe feel about non-EU immigration, to illustrate his points.

Image result for Fast facts on the backdrop to politics

Sophie Long, a recent doctoral graduate in politics in Queens, offered the following advice on how Greens can respond to populism:

  • Deconstruct populist narratives because they don’t offer any truth e.g. they dont tell us how to deal with capitalism, automation, industrialisation
  • Reclaim reason and challenge anti-intellectualism
  • Look at feminist and queer responses to brexit. The narratives of leavers are masculine and about control. This LSE blog on voter values tells us about gaps that Greens could be addressing
  • Be critical and vigilant about the idea of a white working class, e.g. one third of Asian voters voted for Brexit
  • Offer alternatives e.g. green values of co-operation, non-violence, evidence
  • Consider how women are impacted by all this – there is only one woman on the nine person Brexit negotiating team

Finally, Eamon Ryan, TD and leader of the Irish Green party, discussed Brexit and the rise of the right. To conclude, he had some inspiring words on how Greens can use Brexit as an opportunity to offer people an alternative to populism:

“If ecology is about connection and interconnection, we need to talk to the other side, we need to go out and talk to everyone. You have to engage in a way that’s respectful. We can’t completely cut off the right. In doing this we will be true to our original principles.

Grab the space by being decent, by talking to everyone, by working with everyone, not by trying to be the boss; start listening”


European Ideas Lab – Greens meet Changemakers


Last weekend the European Greens came to Dublin for an innovative event, the European Ideas Lab, the second of four to be held in various regions of Europe in 2017 and 2018. The event, held in the Law Society in Dublin, was subtitled “Greens meet Changemakers”, with changemakers being representatives of various NGOs, Universities and other organisations around Ireland. As Ska Keller, MEP and Co-Chair of the Green Group in the European Parliament, explained in her welcoming address to delegates, the aim of the two day conference was to “bring civil society and greens closer together, exchanging experiences and ideas”.

The event opened on Friday night with a plenary session entitled “The Path Forward: towards a sustainable future”, featuring three speakers: David O’Donoghue, Ireland’s former permanent representative to the UN and co-chair of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) talks, Stephen Humphreys, Associate Professor of International Law in London School of Economics, and Ruth Davis, a writer, campaigner, political analyst and conservationist.

David O’Donoghue gave some insight on the process of developing the SDGs, which he said involved “a lot of luck and a fair amount of patience”. He explained that the real challenge of the SDGs is understanding the interconnections between the different policy areas, and the need to work across them in a coordinated way. He also stressed how countries have to work together on this “mutual learning exercise”. David noted that each country will have to submit a voluntary report on progress on the SDGs, with an accompanying action plan. Ireland’s report is due next July and he noted that “no country wants to be humiliated based on lack of progress”.

Stephen Humphreys focused on climate migration, explaining that the issue is “intractable” because it raises contradictory feelings for all of us. He noted that a number of uncertainties make it difficult to estimate the numbers of climate migrants, both now and in the future. He suggested that “we need to mobilise real money quickly and effectively towards the most vulnerable countries and people”.

Dr Humphreys made an interesting point regarded the language of climate migration, suggesting that there is a worryingly popular view that there is “no such thing as a climate refugee”, because the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is wary of diluting the convention on human rights. He commented that “we seem to have developed an uneasy consensus that our system to manage migrants might break down if the numbers increase”, adding that “refugees get a pass but we can pick and choose with migrants”. To conclude, Dr Humphreys offered five ideas for what he termed “decent thinking”:

  • Hug your inner nomad
  • Practice hospitality
  • Remember your history, we are a nation of migrants
  • Learn to live with less
  • Speak up, start the conversation

The final speaker on Friday, Ruth Davis, contrasted the climate movement with the wider environmental movement, suggesting that the climate movement is “powered by a sense of momentum”, but she doesn’t see this in relation to other key areas such as deforestation, resource exploitation or extinction. She highlighted what she saw as “things that make for powerful campaigning”:

  • Evidence, even in a post-truth world
  • Learn about money and power and start to disrupt it
  • Understand how to organise e.g. spreading information through digital platforms
  • Convince ourselves that this is possible e.g. we can feed ourselves without chemical agriculture, we can change our diets.
  • Establish an alternative discourse

The panel was followed by a “Forward Thinking Agora” where delegates were sent to cluster around and discuss some “subvertising” posters by the Brandalism project (below).

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Day 2 began with a similar plenary session, in which six invited changemakers spoke about their work or organisations:

Transition Towns – Jay Tompt

Jay focused on the work Transition Towns is doing in Totnes to explore alternative economic systems. He spoke of the need for “new economic actors, relationships and models” and for “investment and financial entities to support entrepreneurs”

ACES: Livelihoods and land use change in Mozambique – Estrella Lopez Moya

Estrella outlined the findings of the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) project, which look at livelihood changes for commuinities as woodland is converted into agricultural land in Mozambique. She suggested that “we need to manage trade offs at a landscape scale, through participation, negotiation and cooperation”

Cloughjordan Ecovillage – Davie Philip

Davie gave an introduction to the ecovillage, explaining how it has driven citizen-led development

All-Ireland Pollinator Plan – Dr. Una Fitzpatrick

Úna explained how the Pollinator plan was developed on a voluntary basis, without funding, and has now been supported by 68 government and non-governmental organisations. There are now related documents targeted at different stakeholders e.g. farmers, industry. She noted that biodiversity is a problem that people can understand and relate to, and progress can be quite easily tracked and measured.

Black Protest: Ania Glogowska and Magdalena Galkiewicz

Ania and Magdalena spoke of their activism for womens’ rights in Poland. In 2016 the Polish government proposed a Bill to make abortion in Poland illegal and send any women caught undertaking an illegal abortion to jail for 5 years. This sparked the rise of the Gals4Gals movement, who collected signatures to propose their own counter-bill to legalise abortion. After the counter-bill was rejected, the government started to process the anti abortion law, leading to the Black Monday protest and national womens strike on October 3rd 2016. The government has taken a step back from the bill but is still trying to get it through, so it is expected that there will be more protests in Poland next month.

Cork Food Policy Council – Dr. Colin Sage

Dr Sage outlined some of the work of the Cork Food Policy Council in promoting food sovereignty and sustainability around Cork, including hosting a “Feed the City” event, launching “Incredible edible” boxes, greening the “historic spine” of Cork, running the Food Harvest festival and helping organisations such as University College Cork to grow food directly in Cork.

Energy/Climate workshop:

There were 18 workshops across three sessions on Saturday, so only three workshops are discussed here. The first was on “Energy/Climate”, facilitated by Eamon Ryan, Irish Green Party Leader, and Reinhard Bütikofer, MEP and Co-Chair of the European Green Party.

Eamon Ryan took us through the proposed North Sea Grid wind energy project, which would have the potential to produce 8% of Europe’s energy and reduce the amount of onshore pylons required. He noted that it is difficult to develop these kinds of projects as, based on his experience as Minister for Energy, energy ministers tend not to think outside national boundaries. He presented the illustration below of the proposed grid.

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Eamon highlighted the uncertainty of the energy markets e.g. the costs of wind energy have come down by over 50% in the last three years due to bigger, more powerful turbines and change in the market systems. He commented that we are starting to see big ambition at scale and that the “next quarter of the revolution will come by changing the entire system”.

Reinhard Bütikofer, who is currently working to form the next German government, offered six core ingredients for succcessful transition to low carbon:

  1. Guiding vision (which we have)
  2. Local initiative and regional initiative – we need to build the foundations of an alternative
  3. Strong research and innovation
  4. Transform the markets through regulation – institute price for carbon around Europe and scrap fossil fuel subsidies
  5. Fight hard to avoid fossil fuel lock in – block big infrastructure projects
  6. Democratic accountability, to make sure that regulation is implemented and international cooperation is pursued

Reinhard commented that “everybody in energy policy talks about the energy triangle – sustainability, affordability and availability”. He stressed the importance of engaging with business but making changes structural, reminding us that “short-termism is the crux in business”. He argued that:

“If you’re just the happy and the knowledgeable few, you won’t change the world, you have to find ways of bringing other actors on board.  If you want to engage business people you have to talk to them in business terms”

Eamon also highlighted the role of business in developing renewable energy systems. He suggested that while “small is beautiful… we will not run a data transmitter or a steel industry on a local system, we need a transnational, renewable production and storage system”. He stressed however that we need the political system to show leadership and put a regulatory framework in place.

Brexit workshop

This workshop, which looked at the potential impact of Brexit on the environment, was facilitated by Michael Ewing, Coordinator of The Environmental Pillar, and Craig McGuicken, Chief Executive Officer of Northern Ireland Environment Link.

Michael Ewing outlined the layers of environmental law and guidelines from the global to national levels:

  • Global conventions e.g. UNFCC
  • Regional conventions e.g. Aarhus convention
  • EU legislation e.g. water framework directive. Also fundamental principles of “polluter pays” and the “precautionary principle” (Article 191 in the Lisbon treaty)
  • Various international conventions which are not binding, and countries are given a slap on the wrist if they contravene them
  • UK Law – legislation transposing EU law. Many EU laws will be transposed through the UK government’s Great Repeal bill.
  • EU strategies, policies and programmes e.g. EAP, CAP, IMPEL

Presentation of the legal framework and a discussion of current cross-border environmental initiatives was followed by a group discussion on Brexit and the environment.

Economy/Community workshop

This workshop was led by Jay Tompt of Transition Towns, who explained the Totnes “Reconomy” project. He described the programme as “community-supported entrepreneurism”, the principles of which are as follows:

  • Citizen led economic change
  • Fair and inclusive
  • Regenerative and resilient
  • Inspiration from a variety of sources e.g permaculture, degrowth, community wealth building, open source and commons

He explained that the aim of the project is to “create the conditions for new economic actors, relationships and models to emerge and flourish”. To do so the project seeks to:

  • Catalyse entreprenuerial problem solving culture
  • Mobilise local financial and social capital
  • Build out ‘enterprising ecosystems’
  • Weave ‘convergence networks’ e.g. community energy talk to the community housing people, to the community agriculture people

A key element of the Reconomy project is the “Local Entrepreneur Forum”, where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to the local community, who can then invest in the idea. The community can make financial and non-financial investments e.g. time, in the company. The results of the LEFs to date are shown in the image below, which illustrates that of the 27 businesses established from the LEFs, 23 are still in operation.



Jay concluded with some advice on how other towns can approach running an LEF. He indicated that first comes “preparing the soil” – assessing local conditions (mapping networks and allies, import substitution survey) and then engaging and building support. The LEF itself is the next stage, “planting the acorn”. Finally there is “cultivating the garden”, which involes nurturing relationships, setting up an entrepreneurs’ incubator, and expanding the reconomy to include elements like a mutual credit system, a local bank, social enterprise networks and local investor networks. Further information can be found in the Local Economic Blueprint publication.


The Law Society, venue for the European Ideas Lab

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Some of the recycled tyre sculptures dotted around the Law Society for the conference


UCD Rosemount Open Day 2017



University College Dublin is a town in itself, with over 30,000 students attending the 300 acre campus in Dublin 4. As such the campus has many little-known areas and facilities hidden around its fringes. Walkers through the woods at lunchtime might come across the running track, the School of Archaeology’s experimental archaeology site or…a field of cows. One of these hidden areas is UCD’s Eden, the Rosemount Environmental Research Station, which is generally closed to the public but held an open day yesterday.

Rosemount is UCD’s centre for plant research, with lots of fascinating studies taking place in its glasshouses. It also hosts the historical Irish apple collection i.e. an orchard with lots of different apple varieties, and the UCD bees which are producing Rosemount honey. The sunny pictures below give an idea of what sort of research is going on and the general bucolic pleasantness of the place.



The Rosemount Orchard and historical Irish apple collection



Research greenhouses and polytunnels at Rosemount


Research with Bord na Mona assessing if organic by-products of the Agrifood industry can be used as compost


Research investigating the GHG emissions of the invasive Gunnera tinctoria plant


Enjoying Rosemount’s natural classroom



Last weekend I paid a visit to Sonáirte, an “eco-centre” in Laytown, about 30 minutes north of Dubin. Sonáirte is a registered charity which runs environmental education courses for children and adults. The centre incorporates gardens, a nature trail including a bird hide, an eco-shop, a cafe and…a bee museum! They have a great website with all the relevant info so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.


Irish products from Human+Kind in the eco-shop

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On the Nature Trail

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A taste of what to expect on Sonáirte’s educational courses

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In the Bird Hide


Fair warning from the eco-shop


Summer in the gardens


Handy info in the Bee Museum


View of the River Nanny as seen from the Bird Hide

Future in Food – focus on sustainability


Sustainability is becoming increasingly important in the Food and Agri. industry, a sector which in Ireland accounts for 33% of annual GHG emissions. Future in Food is an annual conference exploring the latest developments in the Irish food and drink industry and featuring presentations on best practice from Irish food producers of all types and sizes. In 2016 the conference theme was sustainability.

The event opened with an address by Michael Creed, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine. The Minister began by stating that sustainability has never been more important. He suggested that it is now clear that energy efficiency and environmental management is linked to profitability.

He praised Bord Bia’s Origin Green marketing initiative, observing that it “offers sustainability branding for the industry; marks us 0ut as a country that takes this seriously”. He has noticed when attending trade fairs in Asia that marketers are interested in the sustainability of the food system. The Minister stressed the value of sharing information and pooling experiences, and noted that Origin Green recognises that companies are on “different stages of their sustainability journey”.

He also spoke of Brexit, citing it as the single biggest challenge for the agri business sector in Ireland and highlighting the volume of our exports to the UK.


 Minister Michael Creed speaks at Future in Food

The rest of the day consisted of a number of short presentations from individuals in the industry and a brief summary of each talk follows.

9.30am – Richard Alexander – Industrial Manager – Calor Ireland

Richard explained how Calor is bringing Biopropane bioLPG fuel – a byproduct of biodiesel manufacturing – into Ireland in partnership with Swiss company Neste. He noted that use of biofuel can result in up to 80% GHG emission reductions.

09.55am – Nigel McGuire – Director of Development – McDonalds Restaurants

After an outline of McDonald’s approach to sustainability, Nigel focused on meat production, and outlined some striking facts on Irish beef. Ireland is the largest producer of beef in the Northern hemisphere, and McDonalds is the largest single purchaser of that beef. 1 of every 5 burgers sold by McDonalds in Europe is from Ireland.

He also spoke of the targets the company has set under the Origin Green program, such as 100% of fleet by 2017 to be fueled by biodiesel from waste oil from its restaurants. He suggested that companies should not have a sustainability department, there should instead be a “culture of sustainability”.

Nigel then presented a video in which a farmer supported by McDonalds noted that the company encourages the ‘3 Es’ – food produced in an ethical, environmentally friendly and economically viable manner.

10.20am – John Durkan – Sustainability Manager – ABP Food Grp

John’s brief was what comes next after “doing more with less”. The sustainability program at ABP, Europe’s largest red meat processor, started off as a resource efficiency programme, but the company is now aiming to go beyond this to reduce total waste and food losses.

John also presented some  useful statistics on water use in agriculture, noting that it takes 16,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef, that 92% of all the world’s water is used in agriculture, and that 40% of the world’s population are water stressed. This is an area of big focus for ABP and the company has received the Gold standard from the European water stewardship programme.

John presented ABP’s 2020 targets (see below) and noted that the company has already achieved zero waste to landfill target. He explained that they have made their facilities carbon neutral through using biodiesel as fuel.


John Durkan of ABP Food Group

The company is also working with farms on a number of interesting initiatives, such as working with Genus to develop different breeds and strains of animals with better conversion ratios to beef.

In reponse to a question from the audience he suggested that we can meet the EU emissions targets through efficiency and significant investment in new technology. Measuring and monitoring was his mantra and he cited Origin Green as helpful in that regard.

11.15am – Eleanor Meade – Operations Manager – Meade Potato Company

Eleanor described how the Meade Potato Company used Bord Bia’s Origin Green program to engage with sustainability, suggesting that the progam has allowed them to formalise what they’re doing and helps them to set objectives. She observed that “Origin Green reformalises the process of what we do, challenges us to do more and helps us focus in on the key areas”.

She stressed that sustainability involves the whole supply chain, noting that lot of fruit product has to be imported so they are always thinking about carbon footprint. Eleanor cautioned that decisions sometimes “boil back to money – how much does this cost and is there a benefit for everyone involved?” However, she clarified that “if we spend a bit more initially we know we’ll get it back in the long term”.

She also discussed the importance of using the whole crop, and the issue of “visually impaired potatoes”. These are processed into chips, used as stock feed and donated through CrossCare ( Eleanor highlighted the “Feeding the 5k” event in 2012 in which Meade Potatoes participanted, where 5,000 people in Dublin and Cork were given dinner made with visually impaired food ( She also noted that retailers are now making an effort to market wonky fruit and veg, citing Woolworth’s (Australia) “Odd bunch” initiative (

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“Wonky fruit and veg are gaining popularity” – the Odd Bunch

11.40am – Majella Kelleher – Energy Demand Manager – SEAI

Majella outlined SEAI business supports, with a particular focus on their EXEED certification programme for buildings. This helps organisations to build in energy efficiency at any point in the building process but particularly at the design stage when, she explained, it is most important.

12.00am – Keith Bonner – Sustainability Director – Irish Fish Canners

Irish Fish Canners packs Irish mackeral and herring for international markets. Keith began with the story of how they recently changed the size of their cans, helping them to reduce energy use and emissions. It is interesting to note that it took two and a half years to change the can size, illustrating the complexity of making product changes for sustainability. This helped them to reduce their carbon footprint by 20%. On the company’s Origin Green certification he commented that “at the start [of Origin Green] you think its a mountain to climb but once you start it makes you better”. This was echoed by a number of the SMEs presenting during the day.

12.20pm – Una Fitzgibbon – Director of Marketing Services – Origin Green

Úna took us through the development of the Origin Green program and Bord Bia’s plans for the future. She began by arguing that “the future of food is sustainability” and “embracing sustainability has assisted the growth of the industry”. She outlined her reasons to engage with sustainability in the slide below:


Una Fitzgibbon of Bord Bia outlines why business should engage with sustainability

Úna also explained that trade customers in the industry see sustainability as important to their busines, and Origin Green allows Ireland to work with these organisations. She suggested that the programme can be implemented in Ireland because the whole industry will work together in a small country.

Úna described Origin Green as a  “platform for communicating the sustainability credentials of the industry”. She said that these credentials are “currency, in demand from our trade customers. And in the future as millenials come down the line [sustainability] will be more in demand”. Bord Bia has evidence of trade customers extending contracts due to Origin Green and surveys at international trade fairs have estimated 30% awareness of Origin Green.

The program is currently being piloted out through services e.g. supermarkets and restaurants, and will soon move on to distribution. She noted that health and wellness is important to Origin Green and will be an emphasis going forward.

The long-term goal of Origin Green is to “build a sustainable food demonstration in Ireland”. Úna stated that “nation branding” is uniquely important to a small country like Ireland. Origin Green is “the opportunity to brand the country for its green credentials, not just its green image, through the delivery of real, green, evidence based data“.

1.45pm – John Curran – Head of Sustainability – Musgrave Group

Retail group Musgraves is the largest private sector employer in Ireland, employing over 35,000 people. John Curran explained how the company’s existing values as a family business align with sustainability e.g. taking a long-term view. The purpose of the business is to maintain it for future generations, which echoes the Brundtland definition of SD. He explained that for Musgraves, sustainable development requires that we see the world as a system; “things that happen in one time in one area have an impact on another time and another area”.

It was good to see a business engaging with the real issues of sustainability, as illustrated by this slide John presented.


John Curran, Musgrave Group

When revising their sustainability strategy in 2015 Musgraves looked to the SDGs and decided to focus on 9 goals, as illustrated in the figure below.Image result for musgrave sustainability

Musgrave Group’s strategy aligned to UN Sustainable Development Goals

2.10pm – Richard Keagan – FIEI Manager – Enterprise Ireland

Dr Keegan talked about lean management, which he dubbed “Operation Transformation for business”. He took us through Enterprise Ireland’s lean business offers (

2.30am – Mark Haughey – Sustainability Manager – Coca Cola (HBC)

Mark explained Coke’s sustainability policy and highlighted what the company has done in the areas of water, carbon and waste. With the help of the slide below he illustrated how the company has achieved zero waste in its Lisburn plant.


Mark Haughey from Coca-Cola

3.25pm – James Cherry – Grp. Environmental Manager – Greencore

James discussed energy management at Greencore, which he explained was catalysed by the UK ESOS initiative, which requires organisations to perform an energy audit but, oddly not to act on any of the issues identified. Starting from scratch the business has focused first on short term energy efficiency measures and will look at more long term renewable energy projects in the future.

3.45pm – Patrick Rooney – Managing Director – Derrycamma Farm

Derrycamma farm is a tillage farm producing rape seed oil. Patrick had some interesting insight into joining Origin Green as a small company. He noted that the key was tailoring the programme to fit the business. He also benefited from the help of LEAF in the UK, which helped Derrycamma focus on soil protection.

4.10pm – Birgitta Hedin-Curtin – Founder – Burren Smokehouse

The Burren Smokehouse is now a food tourism business as well as a food producer, attracting 45,000 visitors every year to its visitors centre. Birgitta noted that when they first heard of Origin Green they thought “do we need this, are we not sustainable already? But then we realised that this was an opportunity”. They also found the Burren Code of Practice helpful when applying for Origin Green certification. She suggested that when people are on holidays is the best time to get a sustainability message across to them.

Related image

The Burren


Sustainability Gathering 2016

On Tuesday Sustainable Nation Ireland ( held the Sustainability Gathering, a one-day event in Dublin Castle bringing together industry and policy-makers and consisting of back-to-back panel discussions on business, investment and policy for sustainability. The event blurb stated that it was aimed to “discuss and showcase the many ways that Irish businesses can grab a share of the estimated €85 trillion which will be invested in global sustainability and resource efficiency by 2030″.

Four panels were held, bookended by an introduction and wrap-up. Stephen Nolan, CEO of Sustainable Nation Ireland, introduced the Gathering, observing that he hoped the day would provide some insight on how corporate Ireland can work with government to “show government the opportunities in this space”. He opened with some examples of Irish corporate engagement with sustainability:



He also highlighted the findings below from a recent KPMG survey that illustrates that 74% of Irish companies “recognise sustainability as important to business strategy”.


The next introductory speakers were Pat Cox, Chairman of the Sustainability Gathering and former President of the European Parliament, and John Mullins, Chairman of Sustainable Nation Ireland, who briefly discussed sustainability at a policy level. Pat Cox suggested that the Irish government must set GHG emissions targets in every sector, and develop actionable sector-specific plans. He noted that emissions in all sectors are going up and that we need to be mindful of the EU’s increasingly ambitious targets. His recommendation was “policy innovation” and he suggested that the government needs to open conversations with a range of actors, for example, talk to taxi drivers about switching to electric vehicles. We need “dialogue focused on deliverables, not diagnosis”.

They also considered the impact of the political situation in the US post-Trump. Pat Cox noted that not all industries in the US are committed to sustainability e.g. the motor industry, while John Mullins warned that corporate America will continue to lobby in its own interests.

This discussion was followed by four panels, all chaired by David Murphy of RTE. A brief summary of each panel follows below.

Panel 1: Providing a supportive policy framework, an insight

• Eamonn Confrey, Principal Officer Decarbonisation Unit, D/Communications,
Climate Action & the Environment
• Des O’Leary, Principal Officer Climate Finance, D/Finance
• Dr. John O’Neill, Principal Officer Climate Policy, D/Communications,
Climate Action & the Environment
• Declan Hughes, Assistant Secretary General Action Plan for Jobs,
D/Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation

This discussion featured four policymakers from three different governmental departments, and offered a fascinating insight into the government view on private and public sector collaboration.

Eamonn Confrey discussed electric vehicles, and suggested that the public sector can be an early adopter. He also noted the importance of giving certainty to investors, a theme that was picked up by a number of speakers during the morning.

Des O’Leary suggested that the private sector was a crucial driver of renewable energy, and John O’Neill agreed that government would like to engage more with the private sector. John drew our attention to the national climate change mitigation plan, which will be published for consultation in next few weeks. He suggested that climate policy is currently top-down, and that more engagement is needed at a regional level. He also suggested that innovation is required on adaptation as well as mitigation, noting that a new national adaptation plan will be published mid-2017.

Declan Hughes spoke of productivity, sustainability and resilience in agriculture and highlighted the role of ag. tech and ag. machinery. He noted that the industry is aiming for an increase in output with a decrease in input. He also stressed that the delivery of policies requires “ownership at a local level”, referring to the case of the proposed Apple data centre in Athenry (latest news here).

When it came to the audience Q&A environmental campaigner Duncan Stewart (of RTE’s Eco-Eye) said he was disappointed with the level of the discussion and suggested that there was no leadership coming from government, just “lack of action and lack of joined-up thinking”. He called for the establishement of a “high price on fossil fuels”. The panel responded that this would result in competitiveness issues for Ireland, and burden sharing in terms of tax. John O’Neill suggested that taxation is only one small element of policies that need to be changed and promised a range of issues in the forthcoming mitigation plan.

Panel 2: Mobilising Finance for a Sustainable, Low Carbon Economy

• Colin Hunt, Managing Director Wholesale & Institutional Banking, AIB
• Peter Cripps, Editor-in-Chief, Environmental Finance
• Helena Anderson, Head of Capital Investment, UK Department of
Trade & Investment
• Manus O’Donnell, CIO NTR Plc

The second panel focused on investment for sustainability, with insight on both lending to businesses and large-scale insitutional investment.

Peter Cripps suggested that investors are now relatively confident when it comes to solar and wind energy, and emphasised that it is “crucial to get institutional investors on board”. He has observed an increase in demand for more data from investors such as carbon footprinting for companies, and also a push back on carbon footprinting not being enough. Peter discussed the upcoming FSB guidance on climate-related risk (due on 14th December from the TCFD) and suggested that investors are concerned about the risk of overvaluation of fossil fuel-related assets, a point Manus O’Donnell also echoed. Peter Cripp also noted that new legislation in France on ESG reporting will come into effect next year (see here for info). He also drew our attention to the work of the Grantham Research Institute on carbon budgets (

Peter identified a number of trends related to sustainability and green investment:

  • Shareholder action becoming more common, as in the case of a number of mining companies
  • Green bond market – this is still tiny but has seen an explosion of interest. He highlighted Irish company Gaelectric as one to watch in this area.
  • Companies now reporting carbon emissions. Here he referred to the recent Carbon Disclosure Project report on Irish companies.

Later in the discussion, he proposed a couple of policy directions for Ireland. The first was the PACE housing scheme in the US, where energy efficiency upgrades are made to homes but the debt is attached to the home rather than the owner. Second was a Green Investment Bank as in the UK, which he suggests can help to make investors more comfortable with the riskiest stages of investment.

Helena Anderson gave us the UK perspective, arguing that Brexit will not effect the UK government’s investment in green finance. She suggested that institutional investors such as pension funds and insurance companies are becoming more comfortable with risk, and cautioned that “huge amounts of public funding crowd out the private sector”.

Colin Hunt of AIB noted that there is a capital gap in the early, more risky part of funding. He suggested that “financial innovation” is required. From his perspective it is government, not business that needs to be convinced to invest in sustainability, and he urged government to provide the regulatory framework. He highlighted this open letter from US companies to Donald Trump. He closed with the point that talk of a “Green IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre) lacks credibility when Ireland is failing to meet its EU climate targets. In his view “we have a mountain to climb”.

Panel 3: Enterprise led, Solutions driven


• Jim Fitzharris, Group Secretary, Smurfit Kappa Group
• Tom Mitchell, Head of Ireland-U.K. (EU’s largest climate tech platform)
• Ronan Furlong, CEO Alpha Innovation, DCU

• Tom Mitchell, Director UK and Ireland, Climate-KIC

• Christine Boyle, CEO, Senergy Innovations

• Seemab Sheikh – Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Denmark in Ireland

Jim Fitzharris gave us an introduction to sustainability reporting at Smurfit Kappa, observing that the only way you know what you’re doing is to manage and report on it. He also said that he would like to corporate Ireland “upset the applecart” and really push renewable energy.

Seemab Sheik gave a fascinating insight into Danish economic and environmental policy. She said that their approach to sustainability began during the 1970s oil crisis, when they realised they could not be dependent on imported fuel. Denmark is now branded as “State of Green” and she explained that this branding allows them to bring all actors together. When asked later in the Q&A how government reacts if industry responds to new policies with “no, that’s too expensive”, she indicated that they simply explain to industry that they will lose out if they don’t adjust.

Image result for state of green denmark

Denmarks’ State of Green branding image

Tom Mitchell discussed the various initiatives Climate-KIC plans to bring to Ireland, including a green entrepreneurship education platform. He suggested that more regulation increases innovation, citing the EU emissions trading scheme as an example

Christine Boyle told the story of her company Senergy, which aims to provide low cost solar energy, giving an insight into the challenges of starting and growing a renewable energy business. Support is available from sources like DCU’s Alpha Innovation, which, as Ronan Furlong explained, has helped organisations such as Exergen get valuable EU funding. Ronan also observed that he is now seeing innovation at business process level as well as a technological level.

A brief interlude after the panel was the presentation of the Sustainable Business Leadership Award 2016 to Sean O’Driscoll, President of Glen Dimplex. In his short speech he suggested that energy efficiency and renewable energy must be developed in tandem. He called for the electricification of heat and transport and clear policies and strong regulations to make this happen. He indicated the the primary energy factor for electricity must be revised, as it is currently at a disadvantage compared to fossil fuels.

Panel 4: Positioned to Lead, Ireland’s opportunity

• Sean O’Driscoll, President Glen Dimplex
• Diarmaid Ferriter, Professor of Modern History UCD
• Sean Kidney, CEO Climate Bonds Initiative
• Fergal Leamy, CEO Coillte

In the final panel Diarmuid Ferriter spoke of the new political challenges presented by 2016. He observed that politics now faces many new and modern challenges such as climate change. He suggested that Ireland must champion a green agenda and push it to the best of our ability internationally, in a variety of different international fora. He also argued that climate change education should be compulsory in schools and that society must “get our heads around” the idea of climate-related taxes. Asked about the US situation, he commented that in Ireland we get an “east coast, liberal view” on the US; we don’t hear much about the “spectacular inequality” in the country (see the Guardian’s Anywhere but Washington series for some indication).

Continuing the US theme, Sean O’Driscoll suggested that the US will ignore the Paris climate change agreement and that “China will use it to get one up on the US”. He referred to the problem of “trapped assets in developed countries that industries will want to protect”, not such an issue in developing countries. On Brexit, he drew our attention to this ESRI report on the sector and product-specific impacts on Ireland.

Fergal Leamy discussed renewable energy, suggesting that it can be one of Ireland’s competitive advantages. However he also called for clearer policy, telling us that Coillte hesitated on investing in wind farms because of the lack of a planned policy framework.

The last word of the panel was left to Sean Kidney, from the NGO Climate Bonds Initiative. He began by outlining the reality of climate change, stating that “our future is currently unbelievably grim. 2degrees warming is the ambition. We are currently at 4degrees”. His advice was that “we need to bridge the gap between capital and deals”, suggesting that this is where financiers come in, and this is also where Ireland comes in with innovation. He also advised that the shift must be signaled from the top, at Prime Minister level.

The last speaker of the day was Jim Gannon, CEO of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), who had some homework for the audience. He urged us to respond to public consultations on climate change action and to get our views across to policy makers:

“We need to lead by example. We all need to act and engage”.



NUIG 1916 – 2016 Conference

Last weekend NUI Galway held a national conference on the theme of “Ireland 1916-2016: The Promise and Challenge of National Sovereignty”, in honour of the centenary of Irish independence. The four day conference brought together speakers from academia, industry and media to take a retrospective and prospective look at Irish politics, economy and society in the past 100 years and into the future.

The presence of some leading sociologists, economists and political scientists made for stimulating and in-depth sessions on societal, economic and policy issues, which have significant implications for sustainable development, and business, in Ireland. A few of these sessions were of particular interest in the sustainability/business context and these are reviewed below.

Economy and Society


Prof. Kevin O’Rourke presents his paper alongisde some of his respondents

First up is Friday’s session on “Economy, Society and Well-being of Citizens”. The keynote speech was delivered by Prof. Kevin O’Rourke from the University of Oxford, who spoke on “Independent Ireland: a comparative perspective”, a review of Irish economic history from 1916 – 2016, in comparison with other European countries. The data presented clearly illustrated how, having grown in line with Europe from 1926 – 2001,  Ireland suddenly became an economic growth “overperformer” at the turn of the Millenium.

20161111_201323  20161111_201344

Irish GDP volatility 1960 – 2014

Prof. O’Rourke went on to discuss Brexit, suggesting that we have to hope that the UK chooses a “soft Brexit”, but that countries will invariably look after their own self-interest. He pointed out that this was something Ireland is no stranger to, citing our corporation tax-rate. He highlighted that tariffs on exports to the UK may be imposed by the OECD and we will need a transitional trade deal while Brexit is occuring over the next couple of years. Prof. O’Rourke also talked us through the the Irish export figures, observing that the EU is a far more common export destination for every sector except agriculture. He closed by cautioning that “the kind of hyper-globalisation we’ve been so good at exploiting is becoming politically unsustainable throughout the western world”.


The destination of Irish exports, as presented by Prof. O’Rourke

After Prof. O’Rourke’s paper, five respondents from different scholarly perspectives gave their views on the session theme and, to varying extents, the paper.

First was Prof. Alan Barrett of the ESRI (Economic and Social Research Institute), who focused on the Society and Well-being aspects of the theme, and in particular on the topic of children’s welfare. With reference to the 1916 proclamation, he asked: does Ireland treat all its’ children equally? The ESRI has set about answering this question through the Growing up in Ireland (GUI) survey (, where 18,000 children have been interviewed and tested at various stages of their lives. The report has revealed some startling findings on the link between social disadvantage and learning, low birth weight and obesity, such as those illustrated in the slide below. His conclusion was that, no, every child in Ireland is not getting an equal start in life.

20161111_151222The panel considers Prof. Barrett’s findings

The next respondent was Prof. Mary Corcoran from Maynooth University’s Sociology Department, and she spoke of the concept of “everyday civicism”. She defined this as social civility, the “everyday interactions” that “create the latticework that hold society together”. She noted that in the wake of the recession, participatory spaces of different kinds have sprung up where exchange, democracy and debate is taking place, such as urban allotments, public libraries, festivals etc. So although we may have “lost the plot”, she said, we’ve also demonstrated “a lot of resilience, resourcefulness and civicism”.


“We may have lost the plot…” Prof. Mary Corcoran

Tony Foley of Dublin City University then spoke of the historic lack of indigenous manufacturing entrepreneurship in Ireland. He suggested that this has not emerged due to a mismatch between cost base and technical capability. Dr. Eoin O’Leary of University College Cork began on a similar theme, observing that although 80% of Irish R&D is spent by MNCs, they are three times less likely to innovate than Irish companies. He put this down to Ireland’s “rent-seeking” economic policy, suggesting that we have a “dissociative” approach to policy, supporting FDI over indigenous industry, and that the government needs to create conditions for “bottom-up” economic development.

20161111_201704 20161111_201723Dr. Eoin O’Leary’s suggestions for Irish economic policy

Lastly, Dr. Conor Skehan of Dublin Institute of Technology discussed the urbanisation of Irish society, highlighting how much the distribution of our population has changed in the past 100 years, and particularly in the last 20.

The session closed with a brief Q&A, which featured several audience questions related to sustainability. In response, Kevin O’Rourke expressed his support for climate-related trade tariffs*.


The Saturday morning session was entitled “The Challenges, Promises and Responsibilities of Education in the 21st Century”, where the keynote speaker was Prof. Louise Richardson, Principal of the University of Oxford, who presented a fascinating paper on education and terrorism. She said that although it is tempting to see education as an antidote to terrorism, the reality is not that simple, citing several prominent terrorists who were qualified professionals with a third-level education. She discussed the theory of “relative deprivation”, suggesting that this can affect radicals in poorer countries. Prof. Richardson emphasised the importance of encouraging students to think critically, act ethically and have empathy with others.

She also briefly discussed access to education, presenting the sobering statistic that 4 out of 5 children in well-off areas of Dublin will get to University, compared to only 1 of every 7.5 in disadvantaged areas.

This was a theme taken up by the first respondent, Prof. Dympna Devine of UCD, who argued that ineqality in education is a violation of childrens’ moral right, and suggested that there has always been chronic under-investment in education in Ireland, even during the boom. In the Q&A later she suggested that it is “extraordinary” that the private model now dominates early years education in Ireland and that this raises fundamental questions around power. She also drew our attention to UNICEF’s work on child poverty (e.g. see

Second respondent Prof. Fionnuala Waldron of St Patricks College (Dublin City University) spoke on education for democracy and climate change education. She suggested that the goverment should focus on funding these issues, rather than some more niche concerns, using this cartoon to illustrate her point.

Image result for joy of tech coding cartoon

Prof. Waldron spoke eloquently on education for democracy: “we must learn to act in solidarity with people who are not like us; to recognise our shared humanity”. She suggested that climate change education currently takes a “rear view mirror” approach, focusing on past policies and whether climate change is happening, rather than considering future scenarios. Education for sustainable development must engage “head, heart and hands” (e.g. see

Prof. Willie Donnelly of Waterford IT then focused on University partnerships with industry. He cited the internet as a notable challenge to education in the 21st Century, suggested that it is jeopardising our critical thinking. He also commented in the Q&A later that Irish Universities need more encouragement from the government on multi-disciplinary work. The final respondent was Dr Niamh Hourigan of University College Cork, who suggested that the big challenge for Universities is to “be the critique of neo-liberalism”.

The last word was left to Louise Richardson, who suggested in response to a question from the audience that Universities perhaps need to separate themselves more from industry than they have. We need to remember that:

“The purpose of a University is to create cultivated human beings, not simply supplying a skilled workforce”.


The closing plenary of the conference was a discussion on “Political Futures and New Paradigms”, featuring Prof. Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. O’Leary began his talk by highlighting the “Ireland 2116” map below, pointing out that if climate change continues at current rates both Galway and Dublin will be under water in 100 years.


Ireland 2116: the title slide for Prof. O’Leary’s talk

He then identified a number of current political “megatrends”, stressing that Ireland is not immune from these trends:

  • De-democratization
  • Power of the rich
  • Purchase of the media and the judiciary
  • Erosion of social democratic parties
  • Estrangement from political parties in general
  • Xenophobia
  • Neoliberalism and its discontents

Prof. O’Leary went on to discuss the currently “unsteady equilibrium” of the EU, particularly in the context of Brexit. He used these cartoons to illustrate how Brexit has been perceived around Europe.

Image result for tom janssen brexit Image result for gatis sluka british pound                         by Tom Janssen (Netherlands)                                         by Gatis Sluka (Latvia)

He then discussed the various soft and hard UKEXIT options, with the help of the following slide [apologies for the very poor quality photo].


UK-exit options, as presented by Prof. O’Leary

He has proposed his own UKEXIT option, “Dalriada”, where Scotland and Northern Ireland remain part of the EU. Details here:

Prof. O’Leary also discussed the possbility of a united Ireland, suggested that there is a Northern Irish case for unification in terms of economic benefit. This point was taken up by the first respondent, Dr Niall Ó Dochartaigh of NUIG, who pointed to the results of a RTE/BBC NI survey on unification which suggested that the majority of respondents are “open to debate, discussion and persuasion”. Dr Ó Dochartaigh discussed the nature of democracy in light of recent political events. He suggested that “democracy is about debate and change, not about stasis”, encouraging us to remember that politics is about challenging the majority: “it is not in our power to keep things the way they are. We need to respond to changes in imaginative ways”.

The final respondent was Prof. Jennifer Todd of UCD, who argued that in fact Dalriada could be more radical. She noted in her talk that “identity politics doesn’t work” and suggested that politics hasn’t taken this into account. For further reading on the topic, check out this article on identity politics and the US election:

*For more into on climate change and trade, here’s a couple of references:


CSEAR Ireland 2016

Image result for kemmy business school

Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick

Last month the CSEAR Ireland conference was held at the University of Limerick, bringing together social and environmental accounting scholars from all over the world. CSEAR is the Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research, based at the University of St Andrews, Scotland ( The first annual CSEAR Summer School, which is now usually hosted by St Andrews, was held in 1990 and conferences around the world have sprung up since – North America, Australia, South America, Spain, China – and for the first time this year, Ireland.

The theme of the conference was “Public Interest and the Common Good”, which proved a catalyst for some great discussions on the purpose of accounting and why accountability, and social and environmental accounting research, matters (or not?)


Much of that debate occured in Thursdays’ plenary on “Accountability and the Public Interest” featuring keynotes from Prof. Jesse Dillard, University of Florida and Dr. Mary Canning of University College Dublin. Speaking first, Mary Canning discussed how we define “public interest” and the “common good”, citing among others Cochran (1974) and Willmott (1990) (see references below). She used the work of Dellaportas and Davenport (2008) to explain that the accounting profession has moved to the “abolitionist” perspective on public interest, which in fact privileges the pursuit of self-interest. Mary closed with a number of thought-provoking research questions for accounting scholars.


Mary Canning’s suggestions for further research

Jesse Dillard spoke next in interactive style, encouraging audience participation from the start and turning the plenary into a lively debate. He suggested that it is the responsibility of academics to act as conscience, critic and counselor to business and the accounting profession, partcipating in and perhaps influencing the public discourse on accounting. He observed that “we are creating a whole new discipline called accountability”, but questioned whether the term is an open signifier or a vacuous one. Jesse suggested that we need to clarify the meaning of accountability and work on “building a conceptual infrastructure around accountability”, and perhaps his framework below is a useful place to start.


Can transparency enable participation? Jesse Dillard’s take on accountability

Jesse then went on to discuss the theory behind accountability. He suggested that it is about trust, or lack thereof: “if I trusted you entirely I wouldn’t need accountability”. Ultimately he encouraged us all to think about why we were there at the conference, why do we care about accountability and why does it matter? We are rationalists, he argued, with a faith that human beings will make rational decisions. Therefore we call for accountability and transparency in the belief that those accounted to e.g. the public, regulators, will act on the information then provided e.g. boycott or impose penalties on companies.

Other sessions

Apart from the plenary, some excellent papers were presented throughout the day, and a few are summarised here, with apologies to the authors whose sessions I didn’t manage to attend.

Earlier on Jesse Dillard presented a paper on accounting and accountability in a fascinating organisation – a cattle ranchers co-op in Colorado ( Himself and co-author Madeline Pullman posed a number of intriguing research questions:

  • Can a commercial enterprise survive in the long run with its primary objective being something other than maximising shareholder value?
  • What would that organisation look like?
  • What types of accounting systems would be facilitative?
  • Is the economic result the means or the end?

The key objective of this organisation, rather than maximising shareholder value, is to keep the next generation on the ranch. He suggested that the organisation has developed its own management and accounting system based around supporting its key objective, and that this is what enables the organisation to survive.

Matthew Scobie from the University of Sheffield looked at accountability in the deep sea oil exploration industry in New Zealand, drawing on a range of interviews with actors in the accountability arena, including local activists. He suggested that there were many different “accounts” within the arena, it was in fact “overwhelmed” by accounts. For example, the protests of the activists were informal systems of accountability. However, there were few expectations of accountability – people didn’t trust the organisations involved and expected the government to look after the country’s natural resources. The paper promises to be an interesting read once it is published. Also useful to note is the paper on accountability in football by Cooper and Johnston (2012), which Matthew drew on for his theory development.

All the way from the University of Florida, Dennis Huber explored the conceptual framework around the “public interest”, focusing on its treatment by the US Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). He highlighted that the FASB definitions of financial statement users do not mention the public. The mission of FASB and the SEC, he argued, is to protect the market, not the public interest.

Brigitte de Graff, Vrije University, Amsterdam, presented an interesting paper where she used the literature on management fashions, including Abrahamson (1996), to ask if integrated reporting  ( is a management fad. She found that integrated reporting does fit the management fashion trends, and noted that natural and manufactured capital is not mentioned at all in IR, making it an incomplete framework. Her paper led to a thoughtful discussion, with one audience member suggesting drily that if integrated reporting is fashionable maybe that’s a good thing because it may disappear soon. See Thomson (2015) for a further critique of IR.

On Thursday afternoon Markus Milne, Professor of Accounting at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, presented his beautifully-titled paper co-authored with Rob Gray: “The Unbelievable in Pursuit of the Inconceivable: Empiricism and the Social Construction of Corporate Environmental Performance”. Key to this paper was a critique of what the authors called the “over simplification” of measures of corporate environmental performance (CEP) in large quantitative studies. He argued that all of the different measures used are to do with the firm, not the environment; “this is a narrative about the organisation not about ecology” and “ecology is partitioned off because it’s too hard”.


Markus Milne explores Corporate Environmental Performance measures in the literature

Per Milne and Gray’s thesis, these measures take on too much significance and become reified, they “become the thing”, when in reality the issues from an ecological perspective are so complex that it is “inconceivable that we could track effects back to causes”. During the presentation Markus also drew our attention to a number of related books, for future reference:

Image result for Tom's river book                               Image result for our stolen future

The final paper of the day came from conference organisers Sheila Killian and Philip O’Regan of UL, who presented their fascinating early stage case study on accountability in the Makana township in South Africa. In response to water problems, a company, MobiSAM, has set up a “Social Accountability Monitor” ( which residents can use to report water problems. Citing the work of Cooper and Owen (2007), Killian and O’Regan suggested that this changes the way people can engage with accountability process; they can be more empowered actors. However, they have not yet decided on the answer to their research question: “is accountability being created at all?” Jesse Dillard might call that an appropriate way to close the day.

Links to in-text references

Abrahamson (1996) –

Cochran (1974) –

Cooper and Johnston (2012) –

Cooper and Owen (2007) –

Dellaportas and Davenport (2008) –

Munzio et al (2016) –

Thomson (2015) –

Willmott (1990) –


Inspirefest Day 2

Day 2 of the Science, Technology and Arts Festival brought us another fascinating mix of keynotes, panels and Q&As on topics broadly related to STEAM. The day was all about challenging biases, discovering new ideas, and searching for solutions to the big problems.

The Collaborative Economy

The day kicked off on the theme of the “Collaborative/Sharing Economy”, featuring a keynote by Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase and a panel discussion with Jules Coleman of on-demand cleaning company and Nilofer Merchant, author of Onlyness.


The panel discuss “What now for the Collaborative/Sharing Economy”

Robin Chase gave a fascinating presentation on the collaborative economy, presenting her “Peers Inc” theory, based on bringing together individual strengths and industrial strengths. She explained that we all have different strengths and that we invented organisations to do things we can’t do. The collaborative economy exploits the opportunity of “excess capacity”, whereby people share assets that already exist and are paid for e.g. cars, houses. She suggested that there are three ways to gain added value from excess capacity:

  1. Slice it e.g. Zipcar and UpWork
  2. Aggregate it e.g. AirB&B and Waze
  3. Open it up e.g. through open data (see McKinsey open data report, 2013)

Robin argued that “people and platforms are inventing the collaborative economy and reinventing capitalism”, citing companies such as Ebay, Linux, Skype, Youtube and Wikipedia, and new forms of capital such as crowdfunding. She suggested that we are moving away from industrial capitalism to a collaborative economy where the lines are blurred between private and public assets and between employee and self-employed.

duolingo    waze    BeSJ3aet

She also explained persuasively how the collaborative economy can contribute to addressing climate change, an issue for which her passion came through. Leveraging excess capacity allows us to decouple economic growth from environmental impact; AirBnB is now larger than the Hilton hotel group, but without building any hotels. We can also tap exponential learning, as in the case of education organisation Duolingo, which can help people to learn a foreign language in just 34 hours (as opposed to the college standard of 130 hours). Robin also stressed that because the collaborative economy gives us access to a diversity of peers, “the right person will appear” and this also enables real-time adoption of services. She cited the example of AirB&B in Cuba, when 2,000 rentals appeared within 6 months of the relaxing of trade relations with the US.


AirBnB Cuba

Robin Chase closed with four principles of the collaborative economy:

  • Shared networked assets deliver more value than closed assets – they can be used more efficiently or more value can be extracted from them
  • More networked minds are greater than fewer proprietary minds
  • The benefits of shared open assets are greater than the problems associated with them
  • In the sharing economy we get more than we give e.g. we can post a small piece of information on Wikipedia and we get access to a huge database of knowledge

Reiterating her passion for addressing climate change, she declared that the collaborative economy is what we need to “speed the pace of evolution to prevent revolution, to tackle climate change and inequality”.

Social Enterprise

Today featured several inspiring female social entrepreneurs. Elena Rossini is a filmaker  who focuses her work on empowering women and girls. She has made a film about the Lottie doll (, a doll that challenges stereotypical notions of “toys for girls”. The point of the Lottie doll is that it is about what the doll does, as opposed to how it looks.


We also heard from Mary Carty, who co-founded Outbox Incubator, a social enterprise which supports girls in STEM, with fellow entrepreneur, STEMettes founder Anne-Marie Imafidon ( The organisation launched last July with a program for 115 girls from 6 countries. Mary commented that “in this society, we cap the ambition of our girls, and we do it unconsciously. We want safe careers for our daughters”. She argued that the new “safety” is skills, confidence and a network. Last year’s Outbox has launched 29 companies.

Mary’s presentation was followed by an Outbox Incubator graduate, Niamh Scanlon, who was named EU Digital Girl of the Year 2015. She has already created the Apps “Autojournalist” and “Please Charge my eCar” and also mentors on the nationwide CoderDojo program. Niamh was joined on stage for a Future Leaders Q&A by several equally impressive young female STEM entrepreneurs. Vanessa Greene, fed up with the proliferation of beauty vlogs on Youtube, has started her own STEM blog looking at music and technology, while Edel Browne has founded Free Feet, which helps Parkinsons’ sufferers with tremors.


Some very very young entrepreneurs on the Inspirefest stage

The story of a social enterprise in a very different setting came from Jamila Abass, who has co-founded MFarm to help farmers to get a fair price for their crops. She observed an information gap in the supply chain; farmers and buyers were existing in two different planes and could not talk to each other, there was no communication between the informal and the formal market. Her solution was to enable direct communication between small farmers and buyers. She told us that “the African Green revolution is happening at a time when even the poorest farmer has access to a mobile phone”. Through Mfarm farmers receive texts detailing up to date market prices. They can also communicate with each other, form a co-operative and combine what they are selling, along with getting text advice from agricultural experts. Jamila also outlined how Mfarm diversified and expanded to respond to the challenges of the distributing products in Africa. To do so it also became a logistics company, collecting, packing and marketing products.

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How MFarm collates pricing information and passes it on to farmers

Finally, Liz Jackson is the founder of The Inclusive Fashion & Design Collective, the first fashion trade association for people with disabilities. Her advocacy organisation grew out of her frustration at the lack of products made for people with disabilities. Fashion and other designers practice “universal design”, but she has conceptualised “neo-universal design”, where “you design for the exception”. In her excellent speech, she stressed that neo-universal design needs to be adopted as a business model, “not as a CSR halo”.


A section of the morning focused on Design, including a panel discussion on “Designing Human-centric Products and Services for the 21st Century” with Alan Siegel of Siegelvision, Mark Curtis of Fjord, Lorna Ross, Director of Design at the Mayo Clinic and Lara Hanlon, a designer at IBM studios. Lara highlighted the role design can play in engaging people with climate change by explaining her work on edible insects. Inspired by the challenge of food security in the face of climate change, Lara designed an education platform on “entomo” (insects as food), incorporating infographics, videos and yes, recipes ( The panel agreed that design is crucial in making tools like this appealing to the public.

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Gourmet insects with Entomo

Donal Holland also introduced us to his fascinating work with “soft robotics” i.e. robotics made with soft materials, which makes them easier for humans to interact with. Robotics like this have a wide range of health applications, from helping people with neurological injuries to move their arms and legs to supporting people with heart defects. He and his colleagues have also done some STEM outreach, such as the website, which has since been used by over 90,000 people. The website also provides open source designs which students can use to build their own robots. The research team are building moulds using paper and 3D printer templates and have been testing these designs with kids all over the world.

Venture Capital and Investment

One of the afternoon sessions was “The Investors”, incorporating several keynote speakers and a panel discussion. Adam Quinton, founder of Lucas Point Ventures, highlighted that only 6% of venture capitalists are women. He also drew our attention to sexism in Silicon Valley ( Claudia Iannazzo of Pereg Ventures called for multinationals to be stronger on diversity, to set clear diversity targets and to be more thoughtful when organising events to attract and retain employees, e.g. replacing paintballing and golf outings with more universal activities.

A potential solution to the lack of women in venture capitalism was offered by Vicki Saunders from Canada, founder of SheEO, which supports and finances female entrepreneurs ( She began her keynote by questioning the current system of investing and access to capital, explaining that the speculative economy is 50 times greater than the value creation economy, capital is aggregated into a small amount of hands, and SMEs, which make up 90% of the economy, are starved of capital. How SheEO works is that, in communities around the world, 1000 women come together through an online platform, pick 10 female-owned companies in their area and give them low-interest loans. The entrepreneurs also get access to networks, expertise and buying power.

The Fringe and some closing thoughts

Off to the Fringe again on Friday evening and to a highly anticipated festival event, Zoe Philpott’s play Ada.Ada.Ada. To a full house Ada Lovelace in her LED dress explained how she wrote the program for Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” aka the world’s first computer, based on Babbage’s 5000 drawings. The performance included an audience participation exercise which aimed to recreate a basic computer circuit with string, cards and simple mathematics. The play was followed by a beautiful performance from Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan and her band.


Zoe Philpott prepares before Ada.Ada.Ada.


Lisa Hannigan performs on the Fringe main stage

In summary, an appropriately inspiring two days. A few general thoughts looking back on the conference:

  • Every conference should have a Fringe. It was wonderful to see the technical ideas we heard about during the day interpreted in an alternative and artistic way.
  • Lunch each day was excellent, and showcased some Irish food companies (see below). But it came in a lot of packaging, with not a recycling bin in sight. Although everything is recycled off-site, and extra food donated to social enterprise FoodCloud, an event like this is a great opportunity for promoting recycling at source.
  • Where was the maths (Ada Lovelace excepted)? As one delegate noted, there was a lot of focus on STE, but little M. An opportunity to get some interesting speakers in this area next year.
  • Finally, after two great days at Inspirefest, I’m no longer worried about kids getting involved in STEM and STEAM, but what about the humanities? Surely there’s an opportunity for a tie in conference next year…hopefully called “Oh the Humanities”!

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Hanging out at the Fringe bar (left) and lunch (right)