During a recent return trip to Ireland, I was struck by the general prosperity and heightened level of activity as Ireland again rides the wave of new business and investment. This is especially visible in Dublin, where the sights and sounds of the old city now ring with a variety of languages to rival the major cosmopolitan cites anywhere else in the world.

Talk abounds of a new economy and the challenges that exist with some of the ageing infrastructure around Ireland. Recent investments in the motorway network system circling many cities and linking the whole country have largely connected the population. These motorways deliver many of the population to the new global companies now successfully located and thriving in Ireland. In the capital, the new LUAS line adds to the overall physical connectivity of the population and provides opportunities for the next wave of digitally educated graduates leaving colleges and universities.

Growing up in the centre of Dublin, I was well aware of the familiar description of my city by visitors as "Dirty Dublin". I am afraid to say that I think we have embraced this label with gusto of late. Everywhere I looked, I saw cans, bottles and all sorts of consumer packaging discarded on the streets. It seems we have forgotten the value of our pristine fields and unspoiled countryside as a tourism draw. 

RTÉ Radio One Morning Ireland report on the Irish Business Against Litter survey which finds increasing levels of litter in Dublin city-centre

But there is also value in what we step over in the street. Since our island needs to import many of the consumables to feed this nation, is there a new network economy that needs to be considered? One that considers this valuable packaging and the cost to produce it? 

The circular economy is a new level of economic thinking that is gaining traction globally for both its simplicity of design and its ability to serve the needs of the conscientious consumer. It’s one which values the inputs and outputs of the economic cycle in producing and collecting all materials used in the local economy. 

A new approach to managing global climate change, it foresees industries going from a linear model of "source-make-sell-dispose" to one that links the inputs and outputs of the entire local supply cycle. Consider this across many industries, each within a circular ecosystem, and this is where the value of outputs from one industry can become the valuable inputs of another industry.

New business model innovation could be the initiative to get a new generation of thinkers enthusiastic about solving dirty old problems

Another major force with the potential to influence economic thinking is the blockchain, the concept of a digitally stamped supply chain which tracks all materials from their entry into the supply chain to their disposal point. This can cover tomatoes leaving the farm to the number of days they should stay on the supermarket shelf. 

The benefits of having a circular economy and an awareness that there is value in the packaging lying on the streets could fuel a more efficient, powerful model for Ireland. Consider being able to trace the origins of the raw materials used in the packaging to getting it back to the packaging owner in a circular economy. Think about the value of the discarded packaging being available to be used multiple times with minimal conversion costs. 

This is valuable to the packaging manufacturer, the brand owner and the city managers tasked with collecting these items from the streets. A broader approach of this thinking could include all waste materials from Irish industry and having them exchanged locally to minimise the cost of importing new raw materials hence creating a circular economy in Ireland.

"This is valuable to the packaging manufacturer, the brand owner and the city managers tasked with collecting these items from the streets"

But this is not just another initiative for recycling or an effort to broaden a tidy towns programme: this is an economic model that could leverage our connected economy with talented individuals in our colleges and universities. Many of our colleges and universities have the capabilities to participate in new innovations and business models which would enable Ireland to develop global solutions via an Internet of Things (IoT). 

These new innovations could help drive additional revenue as well as help efficiently manage the limited resources tasked with collecting waste. Available academic capabilities in computer science, marketing, optics, electronics, materials design and packaging could use the circular economy and IoT to form new business ideas for startups with the right mindset. 

We are beginning to see real value from the physical infrastructure that we have already invested in. Adding a connected wireless layer supporting these smart initiatives and business models fits well with the new economy. Using this new connected thinking, we could then preserve the green branding that has made our nation globally unique. New business model innovation could be the initiative to get a new generation of thinkers enthusiastic about solving dirty old problems.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ