Cebit kicks off with talk of openness

IBM's Palmisano joined dignitaries in opening the IT expo

Open democracy, open borders and open standards were the themes to which speakers returned again and again at the opening ceremony for the Cebit trade show in Hanover, Germany, on Monday night.

Stephan Weil, mayor of Hanover, kicked off the first theme with an allusion to the role Facebook has played in coordinating anti-government protests in countries across North Africa and the Middle East in recent weeks.

And without technologies such as Twitter, without the ability to communicate openly and come together at short notice, without the constant articulation of peaceful intent, the protests in Egypt would not have progressed so peacefully, said August-Wilhelm Scheer, president of Bitkom, the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media.

The noisy crowd of protesters gathered outside the Hannover Congress Centrum could hardly be described as peaceful, although they were certainly non-violent. They were openly protesting Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish minority, and carried banners calling for the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

The target of their protest was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was speaking at the opening ceremony, as Turkey is Cebit's partner country this year.

Erdogan talked of Turkey's efforts to open up new economic opportunities by boosting its technology industry.

IT products represent 5 percent of Turkey's exports today, a figure he wants to increase to 20 percent. To do that, Turkey is encouraging spending on research, which has already risen to 0.85 percent of GDP from a historical 0.4 percent. This, however, is far below the European Union's research spending, at 1.83 percent of GDP.

"We will definitely increase our spending, and keep increasing it. Two percent of GDP is what we're aiming at," said Erdogan.

Boosting research funding is not enough: there must also be researchers. Turkey has been investing heavily in education at all levels over the last eight years, Erdogan said, and now has 160,000 more students. There are 1 million computers in schools, and all schools with 10 classes or more now have established IT classes, he said.

The country as a whole is becoming more connected, too: it now has 7.5 million broadband connections, from practically zero in 2002, he said. Turkey had a population of almost 75 million in 2009, according to World Bank figures.

After all this talk of growth, Erdogan turned to something he would like to see shrink: the visa burden on Turkish entrepreneurs travelling to Germany on business.

"Germany is a great country for fairs and exhibitions, but it's not easy to attend them. ... Turkish entrepreneurs keep showing me their passports. Many of us have passports as big and fat as a heavy tome of literature, and that's because every time we travel, we have to reapply for a visa," Erdogan said.

Opening its borders could help Germany to recruit better-qualified foreign workers: The country suffers from a perennial shortage of skilled IT workers, as Bitkom's Scheer lamented.

"We must tackle this labor shortage -- by modernizing our education system, by undertaking greater efforts within the business community, and by introducing uncomplicated immigration arrangements for talented people," he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel response was to joke that the introduction of chips to passports will make it easier to fit more visas in them in future. But, she acknowledged, "Travel conditions have to improve," and "We may have to become more flexible" about visa policy.

IBM's Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano -- only the eighth person to lead the company about to celebrate its 100th anniversary -- had little to say about open borders, but talked about three other forms of openness.

"First, we must have standards, and they must be open," he said. Not just in IT, but also at the interfaces between transportation systems and energy, education and health care, and among water, traffic, commerce, public safety and government services. The IT industry must take the lead to establish such standards, he said.

Second, the IT industry must recognize some important policy implications of its work, he said.

IT can speed emergency response, aid rescuers following natural disasters, and improve health care, he said. But there is a lack of openness about what happens to the data collected.

"Some citizens have expressed discomfort. Who owns all this data. What will they do with it? Do I trust them?" Palmisano said.

Finally, he called for a more open model for leadership in the industry.

"The cult of personality in business is a powerful lure. ... IBM's founder, Thomas Watson Sr., was one of its prototypes. But given the complex reality of a global system of systems, this model no longer seems appropriate. Much more, we will have to lead by listening -- by attending to what these mutlifaceted ecosystems are telling us. We need to influence, not dictate," he said. "And we will need management systems that are architected for inclusion, collaboration and, yes, transparency," he said.

Cebit, at the Hanover fairgrounds, opens Tuesday and runs through Saturday.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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Peter Sayer

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