You want a knowledge-based economy? Look to the IT depts

LISBON – It was the year 2000, not long after the world woke up to realize a new millennium wasn’t going to cripple enterprise IT systems as we feared and just a few weeks before the Internet really burst bubble burst. Although this city is not well known for a booming IT sector, many of Europe’s major political players gathered here for a series of discussion that resulted in a very specific goal. Later called the Lisbon Agenda or Lisbon 2010, Europe planed to become “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.”

Yes, I realize it sounds exactly like something that could have come out of Ottawa.

There’s still time before Lisbon 2010 can be called a failure, but given the current economic situation I doubt most governments are giving it the focus they intended eight years ago. The same would be true in Canada or any other country that wants to redefine itself as a knowledge- or innovation-based civilization: you either already are or you’re not likely to be. It’s also one of those mission statements that tends to lack credibility because, as any responsible CEO would tell you, it’s not very measurable. How do you benchmark dynamism? What does it mean to be the most competitive, unless you’re talking about the going up against the United States or China? Some people will always be asking for more and better jobs, no matter what the employment level.

I have often thought it would be really interesting to bring IT managers into these kinds of brainstorming sessions. The best of the bunch would likely tell their public sector leaders that with the right kind of support from their management, they would be doing everything possible to ensure their companies, and by extension their industries, to be dynamic and competitive. Technology isn’t the only ingredient to achieving Lisbon 2010, but it’s a key one. IT is designed for knowledge sharing and (at least in theory) the kind of communication that leads to social cohesion. Although the European Council had a number of initiatives designed to reach the Lisbon 2010 goals – including greater Internet access in homes and support for small businesses – technology professionals are the group most likely to drive a lot of what would make them possible.

While Microsoft plans to open European research centres and some governments mull strategies to get Lisbon 2010 back on track, it’s interesting to see that Lisbon – a city in a country that likely would be far down the list of the actual beneficiaries of the European Council strategy – is becoming a place where more practical discussions are taking place. One of my big regrets this week is that I arrived just a few days late for Shift 2008, a conference “for social and human ideas about technology.” This year’s theme was transient technologies, or how technology is breaking its traditional boundries and embracing everyday people. If we really want to see things like Lisbon 2010 become real, we better hope those technologies aren’t merely transient. We better hope they’re downright nomadic.



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