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Foresight to forge strong ICT future for Europe


A far reaching analysis of the potential futures faced by Europe’s information communication technologies (ICT) sector in a global context is laying detailed and incisive groundwork for policy makers to improve Europe’s situation by guiding ICT developments over the medium to long term.

"FISTERA aimed to investigate long-term trends in ICT to make a foresight analysis of changes in information communication technologies and uses by 2020," says Ramón Compañó, of the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) and one of FISTERA’s coordinators.

FISTERA analysed patent data to compare the EU’s R&D capacity against the US and Japan. Currently Europe leads the world in some areas but trails in others. "The aggregate data seem to indicate that Europe lags behind the US and Japan in terms of overall ICT patent activity. The positive message is that Europe was catching up during the 90s," says IPTS’ Corina Pascu.

This is partly due to its favourable position in communication technologies, which is a European strength. What’s more, Europe is doing better with respect to the US and Japan than is commonly believed in data processing, for example.

Europe was ahead in key wired and wireless communication technologies but slightly below average in encryption, and behind the US and Japan in areas like sensors, storage, processing and printers.

This patent analysis was reflected in expert opinion, too. FISTERA asked experts about EU’s world ranking and found the EU was a marginal player in hard disk and printer technology, but a leader in voice synthesis and recognition, cell phone technology and antennas. World leaders like Ericsson and Nokia helped Europe achieve this position.

FISTERA cautions, however, that patent analysis can only offer a snapshot of trends in the past and expert opinion of the EU’s ICT capability in the present. This does not indicate where technology will be in the future.

FISTERA performed a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats analysis drawing from national foresight study results from nine EU countries. Virtually all address issues like globalisation, the internal and external perception of Europe, and EU expansion.

Some were of the opinion that EU expansion could lead to a decrease in cohesion with widely divergent living standards across the Union. In any case, ageing and cultural diversity are important for the future European development. Depending on how it is tackled, cultural diversity can prove a particular advantage or a new threat to cohesion.

Whatever the situation, it is widely considered that ICT applications can help to effectively address Europe’s social challenges.

FISTERA expanded on the foresight studies by developing potential scenarios for the future of European ICT, based on two fundamental either/or trends: Either Europe would become an ICT leader or it would lag behind. Either EU member economies converge towards similar levels of development, or they would diverge with increasing disparities between members.

These assumptions led to four scenarios, ranging from the pessimistic, Europe lags and EU economies diverge, to the optimistic, Europe leads and techno-economic performance equalises across members.

"Experts consider that none of the four paths would completely reflect the future, and that the success scenario, the best the EU could make on its goals, is thought to be a mixture of different patterns," says Compañó. "Applications like e-government, e-health, e-learning are seen as pioneering and key applications." In other words, most experts felt that some convergence of Europe’s economies would take place, and Europe would lag in some areas while leading in others.

The project dedicated a prioritisation exercise with experts throughout Europe (to find) actions which may lead to effective and socially beneficial ICT. “Among other findings, it underlined the outstanding importance of education and learning as a top priority area driving the future of ICT from the application side, as well as ICT applications for government, social welfare and public services, and cultural diversity," says Pascu.

FISTERA is currently investigating the role of ICT from an economic point of view. "In the past, ‘core countries’ have been through several Perez cycles, [alternating periods of high sectoral growth with periods of slower economic growth]," says Pascu. "Today there are signs that we are in the middle of the IT revolution, whereby we are only half of the way through the cycle. Major impacting benefits are still to come."

Tara Morris | alfa
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