Almost 28 years ago, when I officially entered the IT workforce, I found myself working on a research and development project about the use of the Ada programming language (does anybody remember it?) in distributed computing settings. The project was funded under the Multi Annual Program that the the European Commission had instituted to provide financial support to the cooperation of industries, research institutions and universities from different European countries. This program morphed into ESPRIT, which was the IT arm of the First Framework Program for Research and Technology Development. We are now close to the end of the Seventh Framework Program, and the next one (renamed Horizon 2020) is about to start.
These huge programs cover a number of areas of science and technology, ICT being only one. Also, they provide a variety of types of projects or funding schemes, depending on how upstream or downstream the research and development is. Of course the basic principle behind these programs remains that research must be of a pre-competitive nature, to prevent any government intervention in how markets operate. At times, EU-funded projects have come very close to this boundary, or have overlapped with neighboring programs to establish cooperation among countries or industries on common actions and standards.
What strikes me about these mechanisms is that they have not changed in almost 30 years. But if we look at the face of the IT industry, especially in Europe, it has radically changed. There are no longer the huge hardware manufacturers that tended to dominate those programs in the early days, and also the software and services market is fundamentally different. Consumer technology has become increasingly important, and that’s a market dominated by non-European players. Infrastructure and quasi-commodity applications are increasingly available via cloud, and also here the key players are non-European, Innovation in application development and data usage has emerged with very different mechanisms, such as crowsourcing, crowdfunding, hackatons, application contests and so forth. Many of the small-and-medium sized technology companies that thrived in many of these projects have either disappeared, or have been acquired, or have become something very different.
Four years ago, in the early days of the 7th Framework Program, I said that the program needed fundamental changes to have the expected impact. I am not sure much has changed though, and in light of how different the IT landscape is today, I would argue that maybe these vast resources should be used differently. Millions of euros – this is the average size of a project – could be better used to improve health and education, to train people who have lost their job, to subsidize young people’s first employment, to provide support to those who are knocking at the EU’s doors in search of better living conditions. Or, if we want to stay in the realm of technology reserach, let’s bet on paradigm-shifting, more upstream research.
I wonder why those who have such a strong faith in the power of digital technology of creating wealth and jobs do also keep asking for financial support from government organizations: digital agendas are often considered more a budget item than a coherent series of policies, and those believers are usually much more vocal when budgets are downsized or programs delayed than when other policy measures get passed or otherwise.
I seriously doubt that Europe will strengthen its competitiveness by using schemes that are just modest variations of a great idea that was conceived over 30 years ago. Mechanisms such as competitions and outcome-based rewards should replace the pay-upfront or pay-as-you-go schemes that some enterprises have become so good at managing that they have turned them into profits rather than contribution to expenses. Let’s all the digital experts put their money (and not ours) where their mouth is.