Industry, Investment and Information Technology Minister Dr Austin Gatt addresses the recent Microsoft hosted forum on The Role of ICT in Supporting the Lisbon 2010 Goals: Building a Competitive and Dynamic Knowledge-Based Economy held in Prague. In his discourse, Dr Gatt delves into the Lisbon 2010 goals, Malta’s experience with ICT development, the Kok report and a number of related issues
Anyone who has worked in the politician’s trade will confirm that half-way through anything is the hardest point. The proverbial mid-term blues are the scourge of any party in government that risks being disheartened by criticism without the confidence boost of a recent election win or the adrenaline charge brought about by the challenge of nearing elections.
Anyone who has had any success in the politician’s trade will confirm that half-way through is precisely the right time to look critically at one’s own performance and tweak and adjust the inevitable errors, and give a fresh push to ambitions and priorities that were high on the agenda when the whole things started but not are buried under the rubble of detail and circumstances.
For the European political community 2005 is such an ideal time for reflection. In 2000, Europe had every reason to be excited about its future. The cruel 20th century, the worst hundred years for this continent since the days of the Black Death, ended on a high note. Europe was looking forward to its imminent re-unification and a stronger and more prosperous global presence inspired by a more altruistic, more generous world-view than any possessed by any earlier, but equally ambitious global power.
In Lisbon, European leaders dared to set themselves ambitious targets to be reached within all of a decade, far beyond the visibility of the political lives of most of those leaders themselves. They saw a Europe that, in their words, would be the world’s most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010.
European leaders avoided the danger of setting their aim too low, and preferred instead the more preferable danger of setting their aim too high and perhaps falling short of it. Europeans preferred to ignore Henry VIII’s advice to fling away ambition because it is by that sin, the angels fell.
We are now half-way between then and the future then foretold. The Wim Kok report, and of course this discussions, are good opportunities to look at our collective candour-laden mirror. Quite frankly we look less well than we hoped we would but five years ago. Today’s Europe is different from the Europe of five years ago in many ways. The cold economic reality of enlargement has wider implications than the warm excitement of political unification. 11 September was not only a turning point for our American cousins, but for the whole world. Iraq and whatever else may yet happen in the coming few years would have depressed even the most optimistic forecast for the beginning of the new century.
The 2010 strategy was not qualified by a ceteris paribus, and even if it was, other things are not equal.
The Wim Kok Report attributed the EU’s slow progress to “an overloaded agenda, poor co-ordination and conflicting priorities… a key issue has been the lack of determined political action.” The solutions it suggests are “greater political commitment, broader and deeper engagement of Europe’s citizens, and a recognition that by working together Europe’s nations benefit all their citizens”.
There is something in that advice that is addressed directly at government leaders. The lack of political championing is at least a key issue that has created and broadened the gap between political ambition and political action.
There may be a deeper consideration to this concern. The Lisbon Agenda is rather biased towards a supply-driven approach to the innovation challenge; to address the shortfalls in the various indicators by increasing spending on research. The Kok Report rightly notes that there needs to be at least an equal focus in promoting and integrating demand-side approaches, and improving the general framework conditions (the internal market, the conditions of the labour sector and the broad business climate). It is not merely the supreme benefit of hindsight that enlightened this revised assessment: it is also the fact that the European leaders looking at the European mirror today include the new members who have brought with them their stark realities and their own, by no means muted, ambitions.
Many of the new members will simply not afford to gamble all chance of success by pacing all their bets on larger R&D spending. For some, this prospect is simply not realistic given the conflicting and overpowering priority of reigning in public expenditure and reducing the budget deficit. In this respect, at least, the Lisbon Agenda needs to be redefined from the perspective of the enlargement countries, identifying policy approaches which focus less on spending and more on sustaining capacities and improving the framework conditions of the systems of innovation.
There has never been any doubt, and there can be no doubt in the future of the crucial contribution of ICTs to the Lisbon goals. The Dutch Presidency’s ‘Rethinking of the ICT Agenda’ identified the key barriers that continue to slow us down and that must be tackled if we are to catch up with our own dreams.
Government policies need to evolve into a substantially more proactive orientation, shifting emphasis from mere connectivity to the actual take-up of complex ICT applications by enterprises and public institutions.
This is how the eInclusion policy must also change, moving beyond mere accessibility to address the transfer of skills to enjoy a full and genuine participation in the knowledge society.
We should also be thinking ‘European’ in the electronic services we provide. As more of the governance of our jurisdictions becomes integrated, it becomes less justified to develop electronic services in isolation having then to interrupt the electronic process to move it across national borders. The potential of providing pan-European e-services is greater than the public relations buzz it can create. As it has done in national bureaucracies as well, the effort to provide Europe-wide electronic services would be the spur to smooth and seamless integration of regional and national back-offices into a more efficient and more cost-effective operation.
These proactive or “assertive” approaches are what we need to project to build the truly relevant actions, putting them in motion together with the strong engagement of the public.
Even those parts of Europe who may have been more successful in getting through basic connectivity indices, will now need to focus less on quantitative matters or address attention rather more on qualitative indicators.
Malta’s records since the Lisbon strategy was launched are encouraging statistics. Seventy-five per cent of the population carries a mobile phone and about the same proportion uses the Internet. Half the population uses the Internet at home, and almost two-fifths of those in turn have broadband access at home. Practically all enterprises have some form of Internet connection and two-thirds of them have some level of on line presence. These are quantitative laurels that cannot be sniffed at. But laurels are not meant to be sat on. These take-up figures alone will not make Malta, or even the whole of Europe, the most competitive region in the world. Connection and presence is but the first step.
Our strategies, programmes and initiatives must therefore mature with the refreshed need of maximising the benefits of technology in aid of the competitiveness and productivity of our economy.
The Kok report recommends we create an environment which is more supportive to business. We have adopted this is a cardinal objective of our National ICT Strategy. We will shortly be publishing a new eBusiness Action Plan to raise awareness on eBusiness among the local business community and induce the private sector to consider technology as one of the main vehicles to improve their competitiveness.
eBusiness has the real potential of increasing competition by lowering transaction costs, lowering barriers to entry and improving the consumer access to information on a wider range of goods and services. Over the next two years we intend to focus on increasing the usage of ICTs beyond accessing the Internet and using email. Our business must focus on adopting more advanced systems which enable them to monitor and understand the needs of their customers and customise their products and services to suit those needs. Technologies allow more timely communication across the various parties in the value chain and increases the efficiency of the business in interacting with government, its suppliers and its customers at the local and international level.
Our interim targets have now passed on from the now fulfilled access targets. By the end of 2006, we hope to see 80 per cent of all Maltese export-oriented companies selling over the Internet, with at least 10 per cent of the revenue generated being derived from eCommerce. We are also aiming to register a record half of all Maltese business regularly purchasing and selling over the Internet.
In the past five years technology has also changed and with it the meaning of the idea of digital divide has changed as well. We may have registered records that would have justified the optimism of five years ago, but Internet-connectivity is in and of itself less meaningful as a target today than it was when the Lisbon strategy started. Any measure of genuine success must qualify Internet-connectivity as broadband access, and any talk of digital divide must redefine the barriers in such a way that those without broadband are considered as excluded from the genuine potential of modern technology.
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The Kok report states that it is important to boost the accessibility of broadband to at least 50 per cent by 2010. More must be done to bring down access prices, provide new content to stimulate networks and accelerate the rollout of broadband networks. Efforts should also focus on wireless networks (3G and satellites) as these offer cost-effective high-speed Internet access.
Malta’s progress in attaining an information society and economy together with its accession to the EU, has led to the drafting of a broadband strategy which sets the parameters for the various initiatives which will be coordinated by Government and include the private sector and other stakeholders. As we see it, the market holds the primary role for the expansion of the broadband market; the role of public policy is to ensure the consistent implementation of the new electronic communications regulatory framework and to facilitate the offering of eServices primarily through initiatives related to eGovernment, eHealth and eBusiness.
We are seeking to transpose the benefits inherent in broadband technology to an enhanced quality of life for citizens and increase in the economic performance of the country. We want to this by securing a ubiquitous multiple broadband infrastructure which covers the entire population; setting up a regulatory framework which supports and encourages a competitive environment which in turn sustains the availability of multiple technological platforms; increasing the accessibility of broadband technology to all residential and business set-ups; sustaining the development of broadband content, applications and services targeted at the local population and which expose the Maltese industry to the global virtual market.
Here again we have had to update our fulfilled Internet take-up targets into post-2005 broadband take-up objectives. We hope to witness a record of three-quarters of Maltese households equipped with a PC connected to the Internet, with over 60 per cent of the connections using broadband.
The Kok report also highlights the need of a greater emphasis on raising educational levels and to make lifelong schemes available to all. We intend to deploy, not without Microsoft’s help, an eLearning Gateway which will offer opportunities for students and parents to interact through this platform. This gateway will allow teachers to deliver their content and assessments online and to customise their learning methods in accordance with the individual student’s needs. eLearning methods can be an effective means for the de-skilling of the workforce. eLearning platforms offer the opportunity for workers to learn the required skills without leaving their workplace or physically attending classroom based tuition.
The partnership of global players has been crucial in the transformation we have sustained over the past five years and will be crucial in the transformation we will need to sustain over the next five. Europe will not become the most productive and competitive region by force of will alone, especially if it is only the politicians’ will. Our partnership with Microsoft was the first in a series of vertical strategic alliances with other world leaders in innovation and technology: Cisco Systems, Oracle, HP, and others. The willingness of all of these to participate in our effort to shoot at the moon, shows that Microsoft and others are at least as willing as we are to risk missing it and landing on the stars.
It would be blind of administrations to think that any sustainable gains can be made in this area without the partnership of industry-leading players. The other side of that coin is that industry-leading players understand fully the importance of working with governments at all levels matching the conventional objectives of growth and profit with the complimentary objectives of inclusion and opportunity.
In summary, the range of factors impinging on the effective and timely implementation of the Lisbon Agenda are extensive, complex and inter-linked, requiring creative policy and new governance approaches. Some clear messages for public sector policies and initiatives do emerge from the present discussion. The approach needs to be more demand-driven and market-led with governments providing a facilitating environment in terms of standardisation, security, education and the labour market.
A more prospective outlook on Europe’s emerging strengths in global market is needed to ensure focus and targeted efforts in these sectors and to exploit new opportunities at the convergence of scientific and technological domains. Europe’s strength in certain sectors is ultimately dependent on the level of research and technical capacities as well as public acceptance and engagement in supporting and driving these sectors.
The speed of transition to the knowledge society underpins the progress in meeting the Lisbon targets and the available indicators give us much reason for hope. Sustained investments in social and human capital at all levels are critical to the Lisbon agenda – we need to focus more on the deployment of ICTs to facilitate the transfer of knowledge among the more and less advanced economies within Europe as well as between Europe and other countries and regions.
The networks linking cross-national teams of researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs within and outside Europe need to be given the appropriate support. Citizens and their access to the knowledge and policy domains must be given equal importance if European society is to cohesive and inclusive in its future structures and processes. In this respect, Europe’s concern with governance and societal challenges should be considered as a positive factor which needs to be nurtured and given due priority.
A famous choreographer once told his dancers that when it was easy, it had probably been done before, probably many times. He explained that only when it was so hard that it was nearly impossible, were the dancers perhaps close to getting something unique and extraordinary. No one ever said that reaching the Lisbon targets would be a walk in the park. We are half-way through and the distance ahead of us might be discouraging. But we have come a long way already and there is no way but ahead and forward.