Brussels, Jun 2003
Would EU citizens benefit from the existence of pan European collaborative working environments supported by the latest technology, and if so, what are the research and development challenges that need to be addressed during the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) in order to make the vision a reality?
These questions were put to some 200 delegates from research institutes and industry during a European Commission workshop on collaborative e-working which took place in Brussels on 25 June.
The opinion of the Commission itself is that new forms of large scale collaboration will deliver benefits to all European citizens, as Isidro Laso, Scientific Officer within the Information Society DG's 'new working environment' unit, explained to CORDIS News.
'We in the Commission believe that technologies and applications that allow for new and effective forms of collaboration will not only foster creativity and harness European diversity, but will also boost levels of innovation in Europe,' he said.
Collaborative e-working is, however, a relatively new concept, both within the Commission and more generally in Europe. Another reason behind organising such an event in Brussels, therefore, was to enable policy makers, researchers and business representatives to find out more about ongoing activities in the area of e-working in Europe and abroad.
One such initiative that was presented to delegates is the 'Zamora: a hot city' project, run by Madrid based Wireless & Satellite Networks SA (WSN). WSN became the first company to offer a wireless Internet service to a whole city when they rolled out their 'Afitel' network in Zamora, Spain, in June 2002. This gave users unlimited high speed access to the Internet from their PC, laptop or other mobile device from anywhere in the city, including streets and parks, and at a quarter of the cost of monthly ADSL rates.
As WSN's CEO Ignacio Ozcariz explained, an innovation such as Afitel could make 'always-on' Internet connection affordable for far more Europeans, which itself will enable new forms of collaboration and e-working practices to emerge.
'The key element in most information society policies, including e-working, is universal Internet access at a low cost. Once this is achieved, new forms of Internet enabled collaborations will follow. Take the example of applications such as Napster and now Kazza: following the increase in high speed Internet access, and once the file sharing technology had been developed, these services attract tens of millions of 'collaborators',' Mr Ozcariz told CORDIS News.
He identifies two key roles for the Commission and Member State governments to play in promoting new e-working practices. First, he believes that wireless networks such as Afitel should be deployed across Europe with public assistance, as with any other basic infrastructure. Second, he feels that rather than try and focus on current leading edge technology, which moves very fast and is best left to enterprise, funding for research projects under FP6 should focus on future technologies and foresight exercises.
Jonathan Sage is from the business consulting services department within IBM, and is responsible for coordinating the company's participation in the EU framework programmes. He is not convinced that e-collaboration can be driven by advances in technology alone.
'What is also needed is for us to decide what collaboration is and what we want from it, and in parallel, there is important socio-economic research that needs to be carried out in order to define how technology should be supporting those forms of collaboration that are identified,' he explained.
To support this belief, Mr Sage recalled some of the consequences of a technology driven approach to the growth in use of knowledge management systems: 'In many cases, the rush to introduce new portals and tools for knowledge management simply didn't work because we forgot to identify what people's needs were and what they wanted to achieve.'
In terms of the next steps they would like to see the Commission taking, Mr Sage and his colleague at IBM, Fanuel Dewever, feel that of key importance is the promotion of open standards and open sources. Also, they feel that it is vital for e-working research projects, funded under programmes such as FP6, to attract the participation of small and medium sized enterprises, from where many innovations in the field will originate. Finally, Mr Dewever would like to see an increased emphasis on the implementation of innovative technologies that emerge from publicly funded research projects.
In order to take account of all of the views and opinions expressed during the workshop, the Commission will produce a report summarising the research needs identified by participants, and it also plans to set up an advisory group on e-working and collaboration. Finally, the Commission hopes to see, as an outcome of the event, the emergence of new consortia and lines of research in response to the second call for proposals under FP6.
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