Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Digitally driven to Brussels for ICT2010

I’m now in Brussels for ICT2010 ‘Digitally Driven’. As Belgium has the EU Presidency at the moment, Brussels is packed to the rafters – hotels in the centre are not to be had for love nor (a lot of) money. Never mind, from the taxi window I am discovering new parts of the city every day…

Yesterday I watched the opening plenary, chaired by Clive Cookson of the Financial Times (I was pleased to see he’d brought some free copies of the paper with him to pick up at the entrance). Clive introduced a host of European political heavyweights including Yves Leterme, the Belgian Prime Minister and Nellie Kreus, Vice President of the European Commission. Yves Leterme kicked off the discussions by stressing the importance of networking – both physical networks and networks of people. The more connections you have, the better your network. That said, he pointed out that common industrial projects are also needed to help generate jobs and solve the economic crisis, like the TGV.

Neelie Kroes reminded us that to outsiders, what we do in ICT can seem like magic, but we should remember that behind the scenes is a lot of blood, sweat, tears – and money. In times of crisis, expenditure has to be justified, and the Digital Agenda from the European Commission is focusing efforts to maintain the link between innovations in ICT and greater productivity. Innovation should lead us to greener technology, better health care and faster internet. As the representative of its 27 member states, the EC can help to stabilise the research area so that high risk research can be carried out, and the risk of investment shared, for example in the area of quantum computing where the first commercial applications are just being seen after years of investment. In the 70s, EU countries had a 10% share in the ICT market – 30 years later, this figure is now 25% of a much bigger market. But the EU has to stay in the race, and cannot be timid, slow or fragmented in its approach. We haven’t reached the limits of ICT by any means, there are still complex problems to solve and billions of Euros to make – we should think big and act big.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, Vice President of the European Parliament then spoke about the role of ICT in the political life of Europe’s 500 million citizens. The EC’s new initiative, the ‘Internet of Things’, of connected devices, needs also be an internet of things for people. We should be able to opt out as well as opt in. It’s all very well if our fridges let us know by email at work that we’re out of chocolate and should pick some up on the way home, but maybe we’re on a diet and don’t want to be tempted. (I was suddenly reminded that lunch should be on the way soon, no need for an interactive fridge to tell me!). ICT could also enable e-voting in the next European elections, but only if issues of digital identity can be solved. Currently up to one third of internet users regularly use alternative or anonymous identities while online. ICT could also narrow the gap between the electorate and the Parliament – you need a million signatures to put a resolution to Parliament, but again you have to know that these are genuine. Cheerfully she pointed out that, while we might still leave the conference confused, at least we’ll be confused at a much higher level.

Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research and Innovation was next to take the podium and told us how pleased she was to see the exhibition at the conference – showcasing some of the biggest projects funded under FP7. This struck a chord, as the EGI-InSPIRE and e-ScienceTalk joint booth with EUMedGridSupport and EUIndiaGrid are part of the International Village – we hope she comes to see us! Maire also announced the launch of the European Innovation Union Flagship next week, which is part of the 2020 strategy. She talked about the ‘I-conomy’, the innovation economy, boosted at all levels through new products and services and global market opportunities. ICT is at the forefront in all these areas, enabling innovation not only in research but also in business processes and marketing. Google, Facebook and Skype, for example, are now so integrated in the way that we work, they are part of the language – when did you first start referring to googling something, or skyping someone? Maire also spoke about removing barriers to innovation, for example through legislation. Simplifying and streamlining patenting across Europe would be one advantage, so that researchers can benefit from their research without inhibiting others.

Finally, Christian Reinaudo, CEO of Agfa-Gevaert in Belgium gave the commercial point of view, speaking about how ICT is a key part of his business, not only in technology but also in business models. It is critical for the area of health care, as costs are reaching non-sustainable levels – up to 15% of GDP in 2011 compared to only 5% in the 70s. ICT can help improve systems and increase efficiency. For example, something as simple as sharing patient records across hospitals helps to avoid the costs of duplicating tests. Funding models across Europe vary, from 100% public to partly or entirely commercial – but for a newly diagnosed cancer patient the needs are the same, so standardisation is important. There are potentially 500 million people across Europe who could benefit from e-health but data needs to be secure. Levels of care should be universal, and ICT could help to even out the ‘postcode lottery’ – at the moment, as a stroke patient, you might have better access to specialist help in area A than in area B. Bringing things back to the Digital Agenda, the seven principles can all help to build an e-health system – a single market of customers, shared standards, secure data, better networks for sharing data, investment in R&D to ease the burden on companies, better user experiences and social changes that mean better informed, and better served, patients. A lot to think about and that was just day one!

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