What should Europe’s place be in the technology world? Should its politicians and public sector mandarins try to shape the future of commerce and society by supporting the development and implementation of advanced technology to enhance services to citizens? Should they prime the pump of competitiveness with funded R&D that will feed into commercial organisations? Or should Europe watch from the sidelines as other nations and regions lead the next-generation of high-tech?
These were some of the critical questions posed by by Fabio Colasanti, the European Commission’s (EC) most powerful civil servant responsible for IT, at Information Society Technologies 2004, the EC’s annual technology event held in November in The Hague. The foundation of Colasanti’s concern was the investigation on European competitiveness led from former Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok highlighting the European Union’s (EU) slower-than-expected progress towards the set of goals agreed by the member states in Lisbon in 2000, particularly in terms of regulatory reform and the development of a more open internal market across the EU.
Colasanti is convinced that information and communications technology (ICT) is a key driver in providing the kind of productivity gains and economic growth that will lift the EU into the same league as some of its key international competitors. Indeed, the EC has identified higher economic growth as a prerequisite for any of the economic or social advances encapsulated in the so-called Lisbon Agenda or Strategy.
"In Europe, almost 40% of the productivity growth in the last 10 years was due to ICT," claims Colasanti. He also suggests that "Europe’s productivity gap with the US is to a large extent explained by its weaker investment in ICT."
Given these patterns, it is not surprising that the largest chunk of the EC’s current research programme (the Sixth Framework Programme) is being sunk into ICT. In 2003, 420 proposals were selected for funding that totalled around EU1.7 billion. However, the target of that funding has come in for criticism. Colasanti points out that only 16.5% of the money was aimed at small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), widely regarded as the engine of growth. And he says that more effort is needed to get SMEs to the point where they could take advantage of such funding.
According to Colasanti, the main areas for ICT research investment have been chosen to build on Europe’s existing strengths and market leadership. That has meant support for the further development of mobile and wireless systems, micro and nano-electronics, and business software, among other areas. As always, the intention is to bring together academic researchers, enterprises and government organisations across Europe in order to create a European Research Area (ERA) so that Europe can master – and exploit – these vital technologies, rather than simply look to the US or Asia for innovation.
ICT funding may be good news to the recipients at British universities and enterprises but there are current roadblocks to the spread of the information economy that the Lisbon pact is predicated on. Two of the most significant hurdles are the different regulatory frameworks for ebusiness in the member states and the need for overhauling the public sector to facilitate significant levels of e-government.
Substantial evidence exists from within the EC indicating that enterprises face problems in engaging with ebusiness opportunities. A number of problems relate to how national administrations and judicial systems in the member states have chosen to implement the Directives that have emerged from the legal framework of the European Community – the very Directives intended to create a favourable environment for ebusiness.
John Watson, managing director of The Evaluation Partnership, a consultancy specialising in EU affairs, points to the shortcoming: "Our studies have indicated that despite harmonisation on e-directives, there are still some serious challenges in ebusiness activity across Europe, [in particular] in four main regulatory areas: e-signatures, e-invoicing, contract conclusion and contract implementation."
Lead by example
While the EC, through its eEurope Action Plan 2005, is currently evaluating national practices on e-directive implementation, there is at least one area where there is already widespread activity: e-government. The Wim Kok report highlighted the key role that e-government has in delivering the Lisbon Strategy, and e-government has now become as important a pillar of the eEurope Action Plan 2005 as ebusiness itself. Jean-Claude Burgelman, chief ICT scientist at the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies in Spain is not surprised by this.
"Governments spend around 45% of the EU’s gross domestic product," Burgelman points out. "Rather than lagging behind the private sector, they have the potential to stimulate demand and pool innovation." Colasanti is encouraged by the progress being made. "E-government is today at the core of national policies for the Information Society, and benchmarking shows that basic government services that were fully available online grew from 17% to 43% between October 2001 and October 2003," he says.
Online public services are the most visible manifestation of e-government in action. In early implementations these services have related to a national ministry or government department but increasingly such web portals are being used to expose information from multiple sources. The evolution of online services from organisation-oriented to task-oriented, user-centric services reflect the huge challenges that European governments face as part of their modernisation programmes.
Pete Hayes, EMEA vice president for the public sector at Microsoft is clear that e-government is not about technology. "It’s about the need to reinvent business processes in government," he says. "It will take a lot of commitment and a lot of budget from government to achieve what they want."
Is Europe doing the right things to create the most competitive economy in the world? Fabio Colasanti cannot answer that one. Yet. But he knows "there is no time to lose."