måndag 12 mars 2012


I went to a half-day meeting about EIT ICT Labs ("KTH faculty preparation for expanded EIT ICT Labs call"). The meeting was held against a backdrop of a presumed ballooning of the EIT ICT Labs budget during the coming few years (we are talking about tens of millions of € for research each year from 2013 and beyond). KTH is already involved in the EIT ICT Labs thing, and it is in KTH's interest to maintain its "market share" in terms of proposing interesting ideas, conducting research about cool future-oriented research areas and not the least, getting our hands on (part of) that honey pot of research money. Existing activities can to some extent extend their current activities and invent some more, but that is still not enough to accommodate for an increased availability in research funds with a factor of (perhaps) two or three compared to today.

The meeting I attended was an attempt to get people to start thinking about and proposing grand challenges that should be addressed in this area (both the dean and the vice-dean from the School of Computer Science and Communication to which I belong attended the meeting). Most readers probably know very little or nothing at all about EIT ICT Labs, so in this blog post I will start by describing what EIT and EIT ICT Labs are. I will then go on to analyze some interesting tensions and contradictions in the EIT and the EIT ICT Labs idea, as well as my perhaps-entry point into it (it remains to be seen if I will pursue this angle). You can jump down in the text if you already know about EIT and EIT ICT Labs.

--- Background; EIT and EIT ICT Labs ---

EIT stands for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. The European Commission wants to create more jobs, innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth (etc.). They think that the current EU research bill (presumably in the shape of the gargantuan "Framework Programs" with their mind-boggling administrative superstructures) doesn't deliver enough of those desirable objectives. EIT is an attempt to fix that. The best description I have heard of what EIT is was to describe it as a "European Vinnova" (The Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems). The EIT mission is to "increase European sustainable growth and competitiveness by reinforcing the innovation capacity of the EU".

EIT today constitutes three broad frameworks, or in EIT-speak, three KICs - "Knowledge and Innovation Communities". These KICs treat ICT (ICT Labs), sustainable energy (KIC-InnoEnergy) and climate change (Climate-KIC). Each KIC should bring together and integrate "the knowledge triange (business, education and research) with entrepreneurs as its key driver".

The ICT Labs KIC has three stated high-level goals; 1) to speed up ICT innovation by bringing together people from different areas of the knowledge triangle, 2) to breed entrepreneurial ICT top talent and 3) to generate world-class ICT businesses. Instead of having "crazy" EU Framework Program criteria like making it a virtue to combine actors from (all) different parts of Europe in each research project, EIT aims for "quality" and results.

"Quality" here means that ICT Labs activities are centered around a limited number of nodes and "action lines" (research areas) where scientific excellence is an assumed, baseline criteria, to which other selection criteria are added. A necessary requirement for becoming a node is that there is a leading university, a research institute and a large ICT commercial actor present (in Stockholm's case The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), The Swedish Institute of Computer Science (SICS) and telecom giant Ericsson). There are six nodes in the ICT Labs network and these are Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), Berlin (Germany), Eindhoven (Netherlands), Paris (France) and Trento (Italy). There are also two ICT Labs associated partner nodes (some kind of 2nd class citizenship) in London and Budapest. The other two KICs have nodes in other countries/cities, and Sweden (and KTH) is represented also in the energy KIC, but not in the third, climate KIC.

The large commercial actors ("core partner companies") that are engaged in EIT ICT Labs are Deutsche Telekom Laboratories, SAP, Philips, Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, Telecom Italia and Orange France Telecom (a list of core partners; universities, research institutes and companies can be found here).

As mentioned above, the reason behind the meeting I attended was to prepare the KTH faculty for an expanded EIT ICT Labs call. It was a sort of kick-off, and a way to increase the readiness and preparedness of KTH to follow up and follow through should the (increase amounts of) money come through in, say, 2013, 2014 and beyond. Half the meeting consisted of presentations of EIT and EIT ICT Labs and the second half consisted of a handful of hopefuls presenting their suggestions for new, innovative future research areas (i.e. broader than research projects) that EIT ICT Labs should "get into". The presenters then got impromptu feedback from the EIT ICT Labs Stockholm director Gunnar Landgren and from the audience. The focus at this meeting was thus on one of the three parts of the "knowledge triangle" - research - although business and industry is not just necessary, but crucial in order for a proposal to get traction.

--- Analysis ---

Now over to my (partly critical) analysis of EIT, EIT ICT Labs and the event I attended. My first thought goes to the handful of "core industrial partners". Is this where future European innovation and growth is supposed to come from? Huge companies that were founded several or many decades ago? I haven't checked but I presume SAP is the youngest, turning 40 years old 2012 and I furthermore assume Ericsson is the most gerontologically challenged core industrial partner with its 135 years of age (founded in 1876). Do these companies represent the future of Europe, or are they mostly part of the present or even the past? Where are the European Microsofts and Apples (35 years old), the Googles (15 years old) and the Facebooks (8 years old)? On the other hand I understand the practical difficulties of trying to interact with 100 or 1000 small or medium-sized companies instead of a handful of huge companies, but the age and/versus innovation factor still comes to mind.

Furthermore and even if the core industrial partners were to be successful in a conventional business sense (great innovations and new business areas leading to increased turnover and profit), would that really generate more jobs and more wealth in Europe, as apart from in the corporate chests and among corporate shareholders? Won't new factories be placed in China and won't new, qualified jobs (for example R&D) be placed in China and in India rather than in Europe? Will EIT ICT Labs success stories really make a difference for taxes, wealth, health and jobs/joblessness in Europe (beyond, hopefully and perhaps at the most, a limited range of (very) qualified ICT and management jobs)?

More important though was a semi-acute feeling of mine of being inside a "bubble" when attending this meeting. At this meeting and inside this bubble, no major problems exist in Europe today - only possibilities. At the meeting, these possibilities were focused on "shiny" exciting new research areas, technical developments, research grants and presumably on own research careers. All naturally for the betterment of Europe and humankind ;-) This is basically the traditional industrial/information age worldview focusing on possibilities that I contrasted with the opposing view focusing on limitations in an abstract I recently sent off to the Internet Research 13.0 conference.

As apart from the positive atmosphere at the meeting, outside of the meeting bubble Europe does currently face some very tough problems like the Greek debt crisis (shadowing debt crises in several other European countries that have borrowed too much money against a future of rosy predictions of economic growth that now seems to recede on the horizon). In fact, there was a deadline for restructuring and writing down 107 000 000 000 (107 billion) € of Greek debt the very day before the meeting - but "small" problems like these does not seem to exist (or happen in a parallel universe and are thus not "relevant") in the minds of future-oriented computer scientists who cannot imagine any other future than the recent past extrapolated into the future. Perhaps they are right and I am wrong, but I for one can imagine bleak scenarios where money for research dries up and is used elsewhere (for example for propping up failing banks and attempting to seal yet another black hole of debt), or, where money for research is used for other kinds of research than exploring different new and shiny (advanced, complex, expensive, expansive) computer science frontiers. But perhaps there is an opportunity hidden here for me when it comes to "other kinds of research" (see below).

A last reflection of mine is that all the EIT ICT Labs nodes are in Scandinavia or the northern parts of Europe, while the countries with the most acute debt problems (the so-called PIIGS countries) are in the south (with the exception of Ireland being a PIIGS country and with the exception of Trento, Italy being an EIT ICT Labs node - but Trento is "naturally" (?) situated in the northern, "industrious" part of Italy, near the Swiss and the Austrian borders). In fact, I notice that the three KICs together have nodes in only 10 out of the 27 EU countries. Three countries have nodes from all the three KICs (France, Germany and the Netherlands).

--- My opportunity? ---

After this critical analysis of certain EIT-related topics, I end this (long) blog post with some more critical analysis, but this time rolled up into a (perhaps) more constructive proposal which might be of relevance to EIT ICT Labs and the future of Europe.

1) EIT/EIT ICT Labs background
- As described above; to get research, education and business to rock; to thrive together, to cross-fertilize; to jumpstart growth and job creation in Europe. In search of great ideas and future areas of export and of the next big thing (or "the new new thing").

2) Things to think (e.g. to worry) about that happen right now outside the "meeting bubble"
- Greek and European sovereign debt crisis. A Google-search for "PIIGS crisis" returns 2.8 million hits. The fifth package of Greek austerity measures (February 2011) include 20+% cuts in minimum wages, cuts in pensions, cuts in health spendings, cuts in defense spendings, cuts in number of jobs in the state sector, a permanent cancellation of holiday wage bonuses, changes in laws making it easier to lay of workers, privatization of inefficient government-run companies (including utilities) and more. This is on top of the four previous austerity packages, but the suspicion from up north is of course that Greek promises to implement draconian measures are very different from actually implementing such measures. But still, no-one can deny that many Greeks are suffering harsh economic hardships today.
- Youth unemployment (-25 years) for the third quarter of 2011 runs at an average of 22% in the 27 European Union countries (Sweden is at 23% - excluding I suppose university students). Youth unemployment in Greece and Spain is near 50%! How will this "lost generation" benefit from current EIT ICT Labs activities and outcomes? Could it be possible that the answer is "very little" or "not at all"?
- Another doom-and-gloom indicator that I always keep a close eye on is the oil price - which is very very very high again (the highest since just before the 2008 financial crisis). WTI (West Texas) oil is at 100+ $/barrel and Brent (North Sea) oil at 125+ $/barrel. Industrial/information society runs on energy. Oil is the world's largest, most versatile and thus most important energy source and 95+% of all transportation is dependent on oil! The oil prices are 500 to 600% higher today than what was "normal" both 10 and 20 year ago. For example, with current astronomically high oil prices global airlines bleed, i.e. all airlines together are in the red and loose money. Airlines' fuel bills has quadrupled (or more) in the last decade and now constitute a third or more of airlines' operating costs. When oil (energy) is expensive, everything else becomes more expensive (transportation, industrial production, food production etc.). That is bad for Business-As-Usual (including down the road also being bad for Research-As-Usual).

3) Where does this leave us?
- Although it's like swearing in the church, I would propose that we think (also) about the role of ICT in a less affluent future, a future where the new normal is not a return to the economic growth and prosperity of yesteryear. We should instead ask also what relatively poor people will need in terms of ICT in the future. What do young, unemployed or homeless people need in terms of ICT? Why not have a look at how these and other marginalized/poor groups in affluent (?) societies are doing today? How can we develop "stuff" (products, services) also for them? Who knows - there might be more of them (also in Europe) in the future. What if technology transfer will shift direction; instead of hardware traveling from "us" (affluent) to "them" (poor), what if "they" have much to teach us in terms of using ICT for maximum effect but with an almost-empty wallet? Perhaps there is much to learn from the ICT4D community (ICT for development)?
- Even though such an approach might be "sensible", it assumes that we first imagine (or admit) that the future might be less, rather than more affluent. This assumption did not exist in the meeting bubble I partook in. Instead of high-performance computing, we might have to ask questions about how to make the most out of "low-performance" computing. What would "future-proofed" low-tech, low-energy computing look like ("computing on the cheap")? What if a substantial proportion of the currently 50% unemployed young Spaniards and Greeks (and 25% of the young Swedes) will never attain the erroneously perceived "birthright" of consumer culture membership that we have all aspired to and but taken for granted? The young-and-unemployed of today might come to never own a house or even a car of their own. But processing power, computers and smartphones are less expensive, so how what can we do in the ICT area for a growing segment of disenfranchised members of the already or soon-to-be previously-rich European countries?

That is the challenge I propose. It might be less of a "research area" and more of a "perspective" that can be applied to various existing and future ICT Labs research areas. As to if there is room for such a (bleak) vision within the framework of the EIT ICT Labs activities is a question I hope to get answered in a meeting with the Stockholm node director before the end of this month (he's a busy guy). Perhaps the perspective I propose is "innovative" and can (still) promise to give Europe and European companies an "edge" compared to the rest of the world? Is that enough? The basic scenario of economic decline, or at least the absence of economic growth should not be inconceivable for anyone in Europe who doesn't have his or her blinders on any longer! But for an idea to fly within EIT ICT Labs, you also need to attract the interest of core industrial partners, and where are they in their thinking about these issues? Are they actually doing, or considering doing any work in this space ("ICT for the less affluent"?) already today?

Addition (beginning of April): I finally talked to the Stockholm node director. My basic ideas (decreased or non-existent economic growth) does not fit in this "technology push" program. It might be possible to reformulate parts and latch on to something else, but "negative" visions of the future has no place in the EIT ICT Labs concept. He promised to add me to the mailing list and gave me the advice to talk to two researchers in my vicinity who were "on board" and to keep my eyes open for the May 1 call (with an end of May deadline for writing proposals). But it doesn't look too promising for my ideas as described above. When Gunnar described the ideas behind ICT Labs and how it will "save Europe", it to me sounded like we'll just go on whistling, hope for the best and pretend that there is no "worst case" scenario at all (at least within the EIT ICT Labs drive). To hope for the best is to hope for renewed economic growth (perhaps partly through the results of EIT ICT Labs activities).

Addition (end of April). I just started reading an article, "Networking in the long emergency", where the abstract reads: "We explore responses to a scenario in which the severity of a permanent energy crisis fundamnetally limits our ability to maintain the current-day Internet architecture [...] In light of this, we propose a concrete research agenda to address the networking needs of an energy-deprived society." The article was presented at "Workshop on Green Networking 2011".

3 kommentarer:

  1. I like this perspective. Especially how it requires not just to this of "less affluent computing" as extrapolating the present into the past. Its not the same but with less computing power, its computing for other life situations that for example might also require a different distribution of computing power (the relation between personal, p2p and cloud computing and storage).

    Regarding the industrial partners. I would think that since at the same time as they see the developing countries as emerging ICT markets with different conditions than the affluent west/north, they could be interested in something like this, given that they can be convinced that it is actually a plausible scenario.

  2. (Oj, vilken slarvig engelska det blev, hoppas det är läsbart)
    just to this -> just to think

  3. It wasn't the easiest comment to interpret, but I did understand that you liked it and that's enough for me... :-)