The Internet world we live in today means that we already depend on information technology for many fundamental aspects of our lives. Some social media sites have more members than all but the largest countries in the world. We socialise, do banking, gamble, and book everything from holidays to hair appointments, all online.
The Internet of tomorrow will need to be even more powerful, more connected, more intuitive and more a part of our everyday lives, at home, at work and on the move. EU-funded research is spearheading this Future Internet.
This Internet of services, things and infrastructure, will include everything from smart appliances that talk to each other to clothes that monitor our health, from cars that can't crash to mobile technologies and cloud platforms that run our businesses. The Internet will truly become the all-pervasive nervous system of the planet.
'In this economic climate, politicians are forced to make radical decisions,' according to Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director General at the European Commission's DG Information Society and Media. 'But that decision should be to invest in the future.' And what better place to start than the Future Internet, he suggested.
The EU remains committed to information and communications technology (ICT) as one of the fundamental drivers of economic growth. And with the right policies at hand, the Future Internet can turn today's economic slump into opportunities for growth. The proposed EUR 80 billion budget for the EU's next research funding framework programme, Horizon 2020, already shows Europe's commitment to research and innovation as pillars of the Europe 2020 strategy of 'smart, sustainable and inclusive growth'.
These were some of the take-home messages offered by Mr Stancic and others at the recent Future Internet Assembly (FIA) held in Poznan under the auspices of the Polish EU Presidency. FIA is a collaboration of EU-funded projects which recognise the need to strengthen Europe's contribution to the Future Internet to maintain its competitiveness in the global marketplace.
As services and applications become context aware, they will also be able to deliver more localised value to users. The Future Internet may therefore have the effect of bringing services back 'on shore' to European and local economies.
The future, now
This is the mantra of the Commission's 'Future Internet public-private partnership' (FI-PPP) which is working to deliver a 'shared vision for harmonised European-scale technology platforms and their implementation'. This means bringing together the relevant policy, legal and regulatory frameworks and mechanisms to support the Digital Agenda for Europe - Europe's efforts to create an online 'Digital single market' spanning seamlessly across all 27 Member States, and, more broadly, an inclusive knowledge society.
FI-PPP supports eight 'use-case' projects which follow an industry-driven approach to the R&D lifecycle. For example the Finseny use-case is taking a holistic view of the energy sector, from de-centralised generation to storage to demand, with the aim of developing smarter energy solutions and infrastructure to meet Europe's needs in 2020 and beyond. Future Internet technologies will play a critical role in the development of smart energy infrastructures and services, enabling new functionality while reducing costs and relieving the environment.
Another use-case, the FI-PPP Instant Mobility project, has created a concept for a virtual 'transport and mobility internet', a platform for services that supports radically new types of connected applications for different kinds of travellers. Scenarios being developed include 'drivers and passengers', 'goods vehicle operators', 'multi-modal travellers', 'passenger transport operators', and 'road operators and traffic managers' so that travelling can become a pleasure again, efficient and affordable.
Meanwhile the FI-WARE project is working to boost the EU's global competitiveness by introducing an innovative infrastructure for cost-effective e-services creation and delivery, with the necessary quality of service guarantees. Use-cases include the 'environmental services', 'public safety' and 'logistics' sectors.
Research and tech talk
While FI-PPP projects swing towards the innovation side of the spectrum, the EU also supports hundreds of research- and technology-oriented collaborative projects, particularly in the domains of 'Pervasive and trusted network and service infrastructures', under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for ICT research. Projects focus on a range of subjects from fundamental long-term technology research to innovation, in domains such as Future Internet architecture, networks, media, search, services, applications, and more.
Take for example the IoT-A 'European lighthouse' integrated project, which is bringing new meaning to the 'Internet of things' (IoT). The idea of a 'globally interconnected continuum of devices, objects and things' draws on advances in sensor technology and ubiquitous use of 'Radio frequency identification' (RFID) tags in everything from shopping bags to shipping crates. But with this mass of 'talking' things the Internet of yesterday is struggling to keep up, its foundations are creaking. IoT-A (where 'A' stands for architecture) is building and testing designs for a better, stronger and more secure foundation for the Future Internet to handle the growing needs of this Internet of things.
iCORE meanwhile plans to put IoT into a 'cognitive framework' to ensure users and stakeholders (owners of the 'things' or objects and the means of communications) can get the most out of it. According to the project team, the cognitive framework will include three levels of functionality: virtual objects (representations of real things like sensors and devices which shield the user from the underlying technologies), composite virtual objects (combinations of interoperable virtual objects and associated services) for delivering tailored services, and building blocks representing the user/stakeholder perspective.
One application for these virtual objects and composites being considered is the 'smart city', where information (entertainment, traffic, public services) about a city is packaged, personalised and composed on the fly in readily usable formats and media. Other application domains for iCORE's cognitive framework could be the future 'smart meeting', 'smart home' and 'smart business' which offer value-added services through, for example, self-configuring networks and objects, and better interactivity among users.
From the Internet of things, we venture to the Internet of innovation. Composing future Internet service on the fly turns users into service developers, blurring the separation between actors. According to the Webinos project, we need an open innovation community for web and open source (OS) technology with open source governance. Locked down, static services will be weeded out by an open environment. And we need to speed up the standardisation process of such open environments, giving multiple parties the chance to innovate collaboratively with their competitors, but in a clean 'sand-boxed' domain that minimises the commercial risk to the participants.
But there is no simple fix to transform Europe's ICT innovation ecosystem. Here, the Webinos team offers some valuable insight in two key reports which present the industry landscape, and specific recommendations. The general thrust of Webinos' vision is that we need to provide the web with 'Application programming interfaces' (APIs – software modules with generic functionality available for use by anybody) which can run in any environment on any platform. Webinos sees itself as a communal asset offering concrete and pragmatic paths to implement these universal APIs.
On the Future Internet of innovation 'we need to be able to share stuff socially and securely', suggests Nick Allott of Webinos. APIs are the 'stuff' in this simple equation; the ability of one device to use another device's capability ('share'), and the need for people ('socially') to do this with confidence ('securely') in a standardised way. We also need 'true network innovation and optimised network behaviour', he says. We need to give consumers control over their data while at the time setting up open commercial ecosystems. And all this needs to be ubiquitous and interoperable. Mobile devices are important, stresses Mr Allott, but 'PCs count, cars count and TVs are important too.' It all needs to work everywhere.
And networks too
EU-funded projects are also deeply involved on the network side of the Future Internet. The SAIL project, for example, is working on what it calls 'scalable and adaptive internet solutions' but its chief focus is on developing technologies for the networks of the future, as well as the techniques to streamline the transition from today's networks to future concepts that can evolve.
As an industry-led consortium of operators, vendors and research institutions, the innovative tools developed in the project will, according to SAIL's Thomas Edwall of Ericsson, 'ensure broad acceptance within industry, and enhance the possibilities for standardisation of solutions fostering the networks of the future'. SAIL leverages state-of-the-art architectures and technologies in developing prototypes which it plans to test-drive in six scenarios and 21 use-cases built round three major dimensions in future networks: video, mobility and flash crowds.
A number of other EU-funded projects are working on pieces of the puzzle which, together, form an important picture of the future networks underpinning next-generation Internet services, architectures and infrastructure, mobile or fibre.
For example, the 4WARD project is developing networks and networked applications faster and easier, leading to both more advanced and more affordable communication services, which means new opportunities for Europe's networking industry but also benefits in the form of services to improve citizens' quality of life.
Meanwhile, the COAST project is building a content-centric network architecture meeting the demands of the Future Internet, in particular for network-wide service level agreements. In this case, users specify which content they need and the COAST framework finds and delivers the most relevant data in a fast and user-friendly way.
The user also has pride of place in the COMET project which is working on a 'content mediator architecture for content-aware networks'. This is important groundwork for the ever-growing quantities of user-generated content on the Internet. Finding content today usually means dedicated searches on well-known intermediaries, like online photo and video platforms or social networks. COMET is keen to unlock Internet search in readiness for the Future Internet. It will introduce a unified approach which includes a global naming scheme and tools to optimise both content source selection and distribution -mapping the content to the appropriate resources based on transmission requirements, user preferences and the network state.
'Today's internet was designed in the 1970s, for purposes that bear little resemblance to current and future usage scenarios,' according to the FI-PPP website, and this mismatch threatens to hamper its potential. 'Many challenges in the areas of technology, business, society and governance will have to be overcome if the future development of the internet is to sustain the networked society of tomorrow.'
What all the above Future Internet projects and initiatives illustrate is that the EU takes its commitments to the Digital Agenda very seriously. Though many of them face huge challenges, dealing with legacy systems and practices and the fast-changing Internet landscape, the size of the task only amplifies the measure of the achievement when EU-funded research delivers the goods.
'We must innovate,' Mr Barroso has said. 'Modern industrial policy is about investing in research and innovation.'
When it comes to the Future Internet, we are already starting to see the results.
Projects mentioned in this report are funded under either the FI-PPP or FP7 'Cooperation' collaborative research in information and communication technologies (ICT).
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