Benefiting Businesses and Communities in Peterborough through Digital Ecosystems

Meeting Report 05.08.08

tulip tree leaf

How would you feel if your landlord could come into your house and any time to search through all your belongings and use the information gained for their own benefit?


That is what you are permitting when utilising some of the convenient sites provided by some of the major internet players. One can almost hear “Thanks for telling me who your friends and contacts are! What sites are you visiting? Oh yes and what was that you bought yesterday? - Nice track, maybe you would like more from the same artist? ” and so on.


We currently accept this in return for the benefits we gain. We even exploit it ourselves when optimising websites. However, there is an increasing trend to have on-line writing, spreadsheet and presentation programmes, even file sharing for collaboration. Do we as businesses want others to also be able to access these and utilise some of the information for their own purposes - or would we rather have control of our own data?


To find out more about how this might be countered, I joined an information sharing and brainstorming meeting at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge (http://www.lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/pages/the-college.php) at the invitation of fellow HBN member Dr Jo Stanley, expert in Intellectual Property (IP) issues. As usual, I was wearing three hats – interested individual, my company Milton Contact Ltd (www.miltoncontact.com, www.miltoncontact.co.uk) and active member of the Huntingdonshire Business Network (www.hbn.org.uk).


Professor Paul Krause of the University of Surrey (http://www.cs.surrey.ac.uk/profiles?s_id=2013
) gave a brief overview of the ethos and aims of a European wide project involving “Digital Ecosystems”, a term that had piqued my curiosity but otherwise meant little to me prior to the meeting. The other two attendees apart from Jo and myself were Amir Razari, the researcher working on the project, well informed and with a streak of humour glinting in his eyes, and Will Spinner, Principal Economic Regeneration Officer of the Peterborough Regional Economic Partnership (http://www.prep-peterborough.org/). Will was keen to find out if “Digital Ecosystems” could provide a means to a addressing both Peterboroughs ambition to improve its business ranking as a UK city and address the social issues that exist.


In an attempt to level the playing field, Digital Ecosystems have been one of the elements being developed within a Framework 6 European Commission R&D research program called REDEN (Regions for Digital Ecosytems Network - http://reden.opaals.org/doc/reden-mission-draft.pdf) and is now fully supported by the OPAALS network of Excellence (http://www.opaals.org/).
Harking back to the original idea behind making the internet available to all, the basic principle is to provide open sourced web based flexible tools that allow sharing of information between individuals, groups or regions by having a common http interface, to stimulate a knowledge based economy in the EU .


In simple terms, for example, all you would need is an internet browser - to securely access and share documents, spreadsheets, presentations and data without hidden restrictions or unwanted access to your data.


I say “for example” as the end user applications are deliberately left vague, for good reason. The idea is not to be prescriptive but to provide basic tools and networking ability and allow the users to evolve systems that work for them (hence the Digital Ecosystems in the project title). Users could be groups of like-minded individuals, collaborating SMEs or even geographic regions.
The hope is that these tools will act as seeds for major paradigm shifts in social or economic activity. Just think of the success and social impact of texting, which arose unexpectedly from the use of a simple service utility left over in mobile phones in high technology culture Japan, when only telephony was the original intention; of Mobile phone communication providing a giant leap over the limits of land line telephony in Africa.


From a small business perspective, I could appreciate the potential benefits. I'm acutely aware of the impact of large commercial players locking you into their systems – most businesses use a Microsoft Windows operating system (96% in 2006) and Office for routine activities; Graphic design is dominated by Adobe Illustrator; PayPal is the first simple assistance for financial transactions that comes to mind and I am sure you can think of others. Furthermore, there are not only cost implications with their use, but also a regular need for updates, or even more frustratingly, changes in operating systems that dramatically curtail the previous accessibility of other software you are using or just require valuable time for re-familiarisation. 90% of businesses are micro-businesses of 1-5 employees and especially at start-up, the financial and time burden of existing systems can be disproportionately large in their impact
Collaboration and communication tools are also important to me as an active networker with both local and international contacts. It is now hard to imagine working without Windows Live Messenger, Skype, Google as current communication tools for voice, text, images and data.
As Paul's talk progressed, I therefore began to grasp the concept and see the benefits of commonly accessible, open sourced, online or peer to peer networked systems that only required an internet browser and were otherwise independent of the operating system (Windows, Mac, Linus) on individual terminals.


Will was keen to understand how a digital ecosystem could bring benefits to Peterborough. Peterborough is a city with excellent infrastructure links to the road and rail arteries of the UK and situated close to the manufacturing and industrial centre of the Midlands. Strengths include food production & processing, environment and advanced engineering. However the labour market affected by an increase in elementary occupations; skills attainment was still below the national average and the absence of higher education facilities hampered the local R&D and technology base resulting in few high-tech start-ups (Peterborough sub-regional economic strategy - http://consult.peterborough.gov.uk/portal/planning/peterborough/cs/cspo?...). It was going to take decades to build up the necessary physical infrastructure in the form of a local university and provide incubators for new businesses with space for them to grow.
The brainstorming began. Two main themes became apparent offering applicability of digital ecosystems to Peterboroughs unique challenges.


1.Enabling communication: With the near ubiquity of broadband and mobile access to the internet, physical proximity of businesses or individuals became less of an issue. There is already a growing familiarity of social networking via the web, particularly amongst the younger generation. Providing knowledge and lo-cost materials, a range of target groups could be given access to Peterborough based open sourced network tools. Whether Hi-Tech entrepreneurs, students, parents taking maternity or paternity leave, disadvantaged groups - the principle would be “here's a set of tools that allow you to communicate with like minded people – now see how you can adapt and use them to fulfil your needs (and discover new ones and their solutions!)”.
2.Fostering innovation and ideas: Following on from point 1, Communication is an excellent breeding ground for innovation, whether at the intellectual level regarding cutting edge science, finding complementary skills and synergies in business or simply discovering a new need that you can or could answer with your idea, product or service.


The meeting concluded with a clear intention to explore a practical demonstration project in setting up a digital ecosystem in Peterborough. There would be mutual benefit to the City, in attempting to address at least one of the Peterborough sub-regional partnership objectives, and to the researchers by providing a UK applied system that would enhance the REDEN project.
Milton Contact would continue to be involved either as an interested company or (more usefully) as link or facilitator able to access the networking & collaboration skills of partner businesses through Huntingdonshire Business Network (HBN) members active in the region and internationally.

Chris Thomas
Director, Milton Contact Ltd.

Photo: Tulip tree leaf from Lucy Cavendish College by www.miltoncontact.com. The tulip tree is a native of North Americal, cultivated as an ornamental tree. The leaves are distinctive and timber, known as white wood, is used for house interiors in the US.

This article was written using the open source Writer of OpenOffice.org.

contacts regarding information arising from this article:

Dr Chris Thomas, Milton Contact Ltd/HBN T: 01223 440024 E: chris@miltoncontact.com
Dr Jo Stanley, Lucy Cavendish/HBN T: 01223 332190 E: js731@cam.ac.uk
Professor Paul Krause & Amir Razari, University of Surrey T: 01483 689861 E: p.krause@surrey.ac.uk
Will Spinner, Peterborough City Council T: 01733 742668 E: will.spinner@peterborough.gov.uk