Double-interview with Gérard Roucairol, former ITEA Vice-Chairman and Randy Zadra of the National Research Council of Canada
This new millennium has witnessed many changes and here we reflect on Gérard Roucairol's role in helping ITEA become a key European player in the digital transition and the value this profile has had in attracting global partners, like Canada, as described by Randy Zadra and colleagues from the National Research Council of Canada.
A decade has passed by since Gérard Roucairol handed over vice-chairmanship of ITEA to current vice-chairman Philippe Letellier. Formerly Professor and Head of the Computer Science Laboratory at University d'Orsay before joining Bull in 1984 as its scientific and research director and member of the board, Gérard stood on the ITEA bridge from 1 July 2005 to 30 August 2008. He helped navigate the way for the ITEA organisation to successfully grow into a key player in the digital transformation that is such a vital component in enabling the European software industry to meet the major technological and societal challenges of today and tomorrow. Since Gérard has been president of the Academy of Technologies of France as well as chair of the Association Teratec for the development of high-performance computing. Here he looks back on his time at ITEA.
A gentle apology from Gérard - "I'm afraid my memory has a few holes" - yet he recollects clearly what brought him to ITEA and how he became vice-chairman. "It was the French government that asked me to chair an initiative at the time to bring industry and universities together to drive forward innovation for software, and it was through this work that I was doing in France that I was invited to become vice-chairman of ITEA 2. Naturally, I accepted because this would give a European dimension to what I was already doing in France. The organisation had an interesting 'political' set-up. The chairman was a German guy, the vice chairman French and the operating centre - the office - was located in the Netherlands. My job when I came in was to help define the technological priorities - these had to be approved by the board, of course - and to chair the so-called steering group that was charged with preparing the call and technology orientation for proposals and projects. In technical terms, there were two main challenges. The first concerned the evolution of the use of ICT and how we should use, or prepare, the web in respect of the digitalisation of society. The second challenge we faced was how to produce the software for this new vision of a digitised society, for the huge infrastructure in which ambient computing - a fashionable concept at that time - played such a key role."
During this period when the digital consciousness really started to take hold, ITEA took up these challenges by doing some really pioneering work, Gérard recalls. "Europe had some really good software developers, but the problem was that the European landscape was very diverse and fragmented. The challenge was how could we help all the different players capitalise on their potential and benefit from a more concerted effort. It was also a time when several leading edge European software companies were being acquired by strong American competitors, so we had to find a way to consolidate the European landscape and show the stakeholders - governments, public authorities and the like - that we were competitive and making progress. In particular, this led to the elaboration of a new roadmap as well as the concept and production of innovation reports - the achievements and impact of a project in a concise, one-page description. It was an approach that helped to disseminate the results obtained in ITEA projects, sharpen the profile of ITEA and show the progress along the various axis of the roadmap. Not an easy job but one that I think we succeeded in doing."
Industry leading the way
Gérard pays tribute to the remarkable team of people with whom he worked because "they made it all possible. These highly competent professionals were not only talented technology experts but also able to cooperate well together to shape the structure of the vision, one that was geared to a future use perspective in which we defined three levels - individual, group and society - and the process of moving through the levels - the roadmap. ITEA's bottom-up approach was the vehicle on this roadmap to bring technology further and better into the future, with industry leading the way. Indeed, if you look at the composition of the steering board, you see key industry players among the members, and they stay around for quite some time because they see how progress is achieved, and how they contribute to that. They feel part of the community and its progression and continuity."
As he said in his column in the ITEA Magazine (issue 2) back in 2008, Gérard oversaw a significant rise in the participation of small and medium-sized enterprises in ITEA projects, "working as technology providers with large corporations that see themselves as technology integrators in the framework of an ecosystem reinforcing the position of each member in the context of a global game." And what applied then still applies today. "The consequences of having various actors of different or equivalent sizes but with different activities inside the same project are extremely beneficial and also observable. They lead potentially to the creation of totally new markets as has been shown by the LOMS project, which won the 2008 ITEA gold achievement award."
Gérard also referred in the same column to projects such as SIRENA, winner of the 2006 ITEA gold achievement award, ANSO, Vice Chairman 2008 award, and SODA, which pioneered the concept of the 'web of objects' and the disruptive business model whereby physical objects containing just a microcontroller could offer web services. Such projects underlined the uniqueness of ITEA, which facilitates collaboration between various actors, "leading to a new value chain and involving medical equipment suppliers, telecommunications equipment suppliers, telecommunications operators, software houses" and creating the 'melting pot' where "technological convergence paves the way to potential market and business convergence."
Stars in Eindhoven
Over the past ten years the projects have continued to impress through their innovation and impact, and Gérard was even pleased to discover that in Eindhoven there has been a big improvement on the culinary front. "For a French guy in Eindhoven trying to find a good restaurant … well that was also a challenge when I was there at the office." Should Gérard visit now, he would find himself spoilt for choice with the city boasting four one-star restaurants and three two-star restaurants close by. Stars of both technology and culinary innovation!
New kids on the block
And while Gérard, since leaving his role at ITEA, may have slipped into the background over the past few years to enjoy excellent cuisine and observe the goings-on from the sidelines, he will no doubt be buoyed by the enthusiasm of a relative newcomer that has emerged from across the Atlantic, Canada, whose participation and presence is starting to grow in the ITEA community.
Randy Zadra, senior advisor at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada at the International Innovation Office, has become a familiar name and face within the ITEA community, regularly attending various ITEA events. He is joined by two colleagues, Perry Quan and Jiang Cheng for this 'wider' Canadian perspective of ITEA. Perry is Director of International Partnerships and Programs at IRAP (Industrial Research Assistance Program) and helped to initiate Canadian participation in ITEA while Jiang, International Technology Advisor at IRAP, has been coordinating the ITEA programmes at IRAP for the past 18 months. Randy kicks off by explaining that his two colleagues were indeed instrumental in getting the ITEA activities off the ground some years ago. "It takes a few to make a success."
Strong software ecosystem
"The reason why NRC-IRAP is responsible for delivering and promoting ITEA programmes within Canada," Jiang explains, "is because we are premier programme for supporting innovation and R&D activities for Canadian companies. It is a Government of Canada funding and advisory services support agency, and the main beneficiaries are SMEs. Our corporate landscape in Canada is rather different to that in Europe since SMEs are the dominant players here. Which, of course, is in quite sharp contrast to our southern neighbour." Randy adds that "given the largely software-driven sector in which ITEA works, we have seen tremendous growth in recently years of new companies in this sector, and Canada has a really strong ecosystem to support software and IT companies. We see this strength reflected in the global participation of our companies in global collaboration initiatives like ITEA."
That Canada is gaining an increasing foothold within ITEA is not something that has happened by accident, according to Randy, but has been the result of a good deal of effort and a well masterminded strategy. Perry: "Randy is right. Our involvement in ITEA is certainly by design. We were not all that familiar in the beginning with ITEA and the value it could bring, so we started off with a kind of small-scale exploratory approach to get to know the cluster, to understand how the mechanism works. Then companies began participating in the PO days, submitting proposals, gaining visibility and attracting partners and becoming engaged in the programme. We've been able to monitor and ascertain the value over the years, and this is also reflected in our funding and commitment. So, by design, we've intentionally invested more and more, and we now see ITEA as one of the most important mechanisms for Canadian companies."
"ITEA has a format that really appeals," Randy comments. "Following the project outline days, we survey the Canadian companies to find out their feelings about the event and the outcome of these surveys has always been extremely strong and positive. Coming back to the by-design approach to ITEA, learning collaborative innovation and co-innovation is no easy matter - a lot of companies still require a lot of training in this area to understand exactly how it works and how the process evolves - so before each of the project outline days, we actually set up our own training day for the companies. We bring in previous participants in ITEA projects and get senior people at ITEA to come and speak. In short, we try to prepare our companies to engage in and benefit fully from the PO days." Collaboration with an international dimension is also a key feature of the IRAP mandate, as Jiang describes. "It's about generating prosperity in Canada through innovation, and one of the priorities for doing this is our engagement in international collaboration. So collaborating with the ITEA office fits in with our vision, mandate and mission. It has generated some degree of success in Canada and has started attracting attention and interest here, not only among SMEs but also amongst the universities and large companies."
And one such Canadian company that has used, contributed to and benefited from this opportunity for international collaboration provided by the ITEA mechanism is ESRI, an SME which provides GIS solutions and has been one of Canada's 'Best Managed Companies' since 2012. It is a partner in the current ITEA PS-CRIMSON project on public safety and crisis management service orchestration, and is helping to deliver an integrated 3D digital model and information platform for information collection, sharing, management, analysis and dissemination. The company's ITEA experience to date has been very positive. As CEO Alex Miller said in the ITEA Magazine in the summer of 2017, "the rubber's still hitting the road but it's very motivating to work internationally in a well coordinated programme. I found the Istanbul and Stockholm workshops to be exceptionally informative and great networking events."
"I think what we must also acknowledge is that the ITEA cluster is very well managed," Randy is keen to point out. "This has given us the confidence to make the investments in the Canadian companies because we know that if we put in the time and effort, the solid management foundation behind ITEA will help make the outcome successful. We are very thankful to and appreciative of the whole team, from the chairman/chairwoman right through to people who make sure that the events run so smoothly and that the administrative back-up is there. I think that if this well-structured management were not in place, then the often complex projects would be very difficult to manage and simply would not work." Jiang backs this up. "We have tried different EUREKA Cluster programmes and so far we consider ITEA one of the most successful." Clearly, a fruitful relationship is beginning to blossom and there is plenty of potential for even more Canadian participation in the future.