Thursday, November 4, 2010

ICT investment and economic return

I'm currently listening to an interesting talk by Professor Erik Bohlin from Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden (you can follow along on the webcast or looking at the slides here).

A core part of his argument is that lack of investment is not the major brake on economic in fact of e-Infrastructure, rather he sees is as a lack of connectivity.

We see the same thing in my company though working on exploitation in e-Infrastructure projects but also our work with research groups and SMEs bringing new technologies to the market. In particular on the research side, we see a lot of great products, tools and systems that are built for a particular need or market, but have the potential for a greater economic impact thorough use or repurposing to other areas. Sadly this potential is only weakly realised in our experience. The effort needed to make research products available to broader communities, be they other academic fields, the commercial sector or to European citizens, tends to start right at the end of the research process.

The approach we'd prefer is more integrative. Routes to economic impact through exploitation, knowledge transfer, commercialisation, marketing must be sewn into research projects from day one in the same way outreach activities already are. Periodically researchers or those working with them need to stop and brainstorm the ways their work could be used, reused or even creatively misused by those outside the main target audience. Then some of these ideas should be pursued at least a short way, not only with effort in seeking external collaborators but also some small level of technical work to support them. If, for instance, a bioinformatics tool might have an unusual use for archaeologists, some technical work to make the system able to deal with archaeological data formats might be needed, and this should be part of the research budget.

There is an increased investment implicit here, though a small one versus the core research and infrastructure budgets, and there will inevitably be many dead ends explored. On the other hand this kind of approach would help meet new potential suer communities half way, rather than expecting them to explore and adapt solutions not designed for them to their use cases.

Here we reconnect with Professor Bohlin's point (though from a different direction than he took), that the issue is the disconnect between ICT and the rest of the economy. Hopefully this will be one of the topics of discussion over the next two days of this event.

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