A wake-up call to European decision-makers on the need for rapid transformation in "knowledge acquisition" was delivered at a conference in Brussels last week.
The Futures Project conference, organised by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Seville, part of the European Commission's joint research centre, examined a study that focused on how Europe will look in 2010.
The organisers hope to make some impression on attitudes at the European summit on employment in Lisbon on March 23-24.
The opening session round table, "Research, Technology and Employment: Towards a Knowledgeable Society", was chaired by EU research commissioner Philippe Busquin.
The panel included: Jose Mariano Gago, Portuguese minister of science and technology and president in office of the European Research Council; Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca, vice-president of the European Parliament; Robert Solow, Nobel prizewinner and professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Rudolf Zahradnik, president of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.
Rapid evolution in information and communications technologies and the life sciences were identified as key driving forces of change. Policy decisions made now would have profound impact on the development of e-commerce.
The conference sent clear messages about:
The growing risk of a "skills mismatch" created by accelerating technological change and an ageing workforce with skills that need updating
The "knowledge paradox" - technological skills will be needed at a point in the future when the ageing population means there are too few young people to learn
The emerging "mosaic society", which blurs the boundaries between work and leisure.
Jean Marie Cadiou, IPTS director, said delegates felt the public education systems were inadequate and too slow to adjust to rapid technological change. A cultural and political transformation of education was needed to embrace flexible lifelong learning.
Within the European Union, 500,000 ICT core jobs were vacant, forecast to rise to 1.6 million by 2002.
Dr Cadiou said the necessary changes would come about in part through private education providers and corporate universities. There would also be a greater mix of public-corporate initiatives.
There was a need to ensure the new forms of education reached the widest number. "It is not viable, stable or desirable, ethically or economically, to have the fruits of this technological transformation in the hands of the happy few," he said.
Literacy rates in EU countries were appalling, he said. "But these are not stupid people. They need to be included in the new economy of knowledge acquisition."
Dr Cadiou saidthe rising demand for education and training had implications for the financing of the education system at a time when EU countries would face demands that have traditionally been publicly financed, including pensions, health and environmental costs.
At present, there is no systematic means of analysing these different costs and their implications for policy. This would be a key part of the ongoing work of the IPTS.
IPTS Futures: www.futures.jrc.es Spanish gold: Felipe, the crown prince of Spain, fitted a visit to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, into his trip to Britain last week, where he announced a Pounds 500,000 Prince of Asturias research fellowship in high-tech subjects