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Europe looks to e-volve

Top decision makers from all sectors tussled with the question of how best to assist innovation and creativity throughout Europe during the European business summit held in the Belgian capital, Brussels, from June 9 to 11.

The stage was set by one of the most powerful men in...
Top decision makers from all sectors tussled with the question of how best to assist innovation and creativity throughout Europe during the European business summit held in the Belgian capital, Brussels, from June 9 to 11.

The stage was set by one of the most powerful men in the world, Steve Ballmer, president and CEO of Microsoft. 'We are on the verge of an explosion of creativity,' he said. He claimed that this period is exciting because it represents the third generation of the Internet, and the post-web browser era is only just beginning. The new generation will be completely interactive, with more control, greater mobility and the flexibility provided by new languages.

This left the question hanging over proceedings of what the private sector, the Commission, national governments, the unions, academics and indeed European citizens could do to ensure that Europe takes full advantage of the new conditions. The summit picked up on the momentum generated by the EU Lisbon summit, where huge leaps forward were made in setting a European e-agenda. The main thrust of the Brussels summit was to provide a means by which the Europe's competitiveness could be enhanced through increased and more focused use of innovation and creativity.

The statistics accompanying this challenge show that some work is urgently needed. Some one million IT jobs remain unfilled in Europe. Mr Ballmer sees European governments' role in alleviating this as key. 'Governments need to lead by example - e-government needs to happen. I see an important role for government, for example in the framework of tax regulation,' he said.

Mr Ballmer also pointed out that some individual national governments have shown a good example, such as the Swedish government, with its advice to its citizens to get connected and with it IT-friendly initiatives.

REGULATION NO LONGER RULES

Peter George, president (Europe, Middle East and Africa) of Nortel Networks, summed up the feeling of many in the private sector when he said that 'there is a need to get policy at the same speed as the [IT] products.' But he also produced some sobering figures showing that most people using the Internet are not satisfied in relation to its reliability, speed or quality - all of these areas need improving, but so does the regulatory environment for companies working in this area. Issues such as the imposition of tax on e-commerce sales and the settling of legal disputes form areas key to the smooth operation of a host of new innovative firms.

Regulation was always going to figure on the summit's agenda and European Commissioner for Enterprise and Information Society, Erkki Liikanen, wanted to clarify that enormous progress has been made in Europe in this respect. 'There has been an impression that in the USA, everything is left to the market to decide, whereas in Europe, everything is regulated,' he said. 'But this is no longer the case. The perceived wisdom is simply wrong. The USA and Europe have the same problems.'

One of these problems that came up for discussion was making use of the Internet more secure, thereby encouraging its wider use. Mr Liikanen used the example of USA President Bill Clinton having recently admitted that he did not use e-mail to communicate with his daughter Chelsea at Stanford University because he did not feel that the communication could be guaranteed to be secure. Mr Liikanen added; 'I am proud to say that I do communicate with my daughter by e-mail who is at university in France, but I do have the advantage of being able to put my message into a secret code - it's called Finnish!'

PRODUCING RESULTS

On a more serious note, Nokia's CEO, Jorma Ollila, challenged Mr Liikanen during one of the summit's workshop discussions to guarantee that positive tangible results would be taken forward by the Commission, not just from the summit, but from all the private sector's input. Mr Liikanen recognised that there were reasons why things had not moved forward quickly in the past. 'One of the problems in the past has been that the new [European] presidency always wanted to do something different from the previous one. In reality, we need keep the momentum of the agenda and France [which takes over the presidency from Portugal at the end of June] has already decided that the information society is high on its agenda and we are confident that the Swedes [who follow France] will be the same. We are trying to be different now.'

He went on to explain what he felt was fundamental to help spread the roots of the information society. 'If you can get the technology into schools, it is likely that the family will be connected. This is because everyone invests in their children. But this scenario won't function unless the whole society is connected. So let's give power to the people and see how it is going to develop.'

Commission President, Romano Prodi reinforced this message in his closing speech. He claimed that listening to Europe's citizens will form an important part of the Commission's approach. 'We are re-thinking the whole question of governance in Europe, seeking new ways of giving the citizen a direct say in policymaking.' He gave concrete examples of the business community and the Commission working together in the fields of alternative dispute resolution in the area of e-commerce, rather than companies and individuals having to resort to expensive legal battles. He also stressed that in as much as the Commission allows a greater degree of self-regulation, so it will expect the business community to act responsibly within that greater flexible environment.

What was called for was a willingness to grasp the initiative, and to take the consequences of action, rather than the consequences of inaction. Mr Prodi reminded participants of this in his final remarks, saying 'innovation does not come risk free. It involves risk and enterprising people must be encouraged to take chances.'
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