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Taking the Road to Open ICT Ecosystems

As globalization, cheap technology and usage of the Internet spread, people everywhere expect access to real-time information and faster, cheaper, better services. Enterprises and public agencies must adapt, and quickly.

Fortunately, the fusion of globalization and technology has produced a way to meet the demands of our high-speed, on-demand world. A potent combination of connectivity, access, collaboration and transparency — or “openness” — is emerging as a catalyst for change.

The Open ePolicy Group brought together senior officials from thirteen countries — including tech heavyweights like India, China, Brazil and the U.S. — along with leading technology companies and global institutions such as the European Commission. Over a six-month period, its twenty-five members combined in-person meetings with intensive, online dialogues using interactive technologies. The result: the Roadmap for Open ICT Ecosystems, a pragmatic framework of best practices, case studies and tools (including a new Openness Maturity Model).

For the first time, practitioners have a guide that addresses openness across an entire ICT ecosystem. Available publicly under a Creative Commons license, the Roadmap will be a living tool, shaped by new case studies, lessons learned and input from the global community.

The initiative has two aims: to change how people see their ICT environments and to present a coherent guide for evolving open ICT ecosystems. It encourages people to apply and manage openness across an ICT ecosystem, not just within its own silos of software, standards and architectures.

But first things first: What is an ICT ecosystem?

Defining Terms

An ICT ecosystem encompasses the policies, processes, procurement, data, laws, applications, partnerships, standards and stakeholders that together make up a technology environment for a country, government or enterprise. Most critically, it includes people — those who create, buy, sell, regulate, manage and use technology.

The Roadmap defines an ICT ecosystem as open when it is capable of incorporating and sustaining interoperability, collaborative development, interchangeable components and transparency. Increasing these capacities — call it “openizing” an ICT ecosystem — is the key.

An open ICT ecosystem does not mean, “all open, all the time.” Open ICT ecosystems are heterogeneous, combining open and closed, proprietary and non-proprietary technologies. This will not be a transitional phase, but a permanent condition, and a continuing challenge for managers.

The word “open” is often the cause of much confusion and outright conflict. The Roadmap emphasizes the features that drive open ICT ecosystems without engaging in any semantic struggle.

It offers five principles that define open ICT ecosystems and guide their evolution. Open ICT ecosystems are interoperable, user-centric, collaborative, sustainable and flexible.

To activate these principles, the Roadmap focuses on three building blocks of an open ICT ecosystem: open standards, open source and service-orientation.

If hardware and software are an ICT ecosystem’s bricks, open standards are its mortar, holding together diverse systems and services. They enable interoperability and help incorporate interchangeable components, portability, scalability and lower costs. Open standards ensure that the next purchase is not dictated by the last purchase. The Roadmap recommends that all governments treat open standards as the norm, and make them policy priorities.

Open source does not define an open ICT ecosystem, but it can have a transformative impact. To date, open source has been the most disruptive element of an ICT ecosystem, forcing the re-examination of policies and purchasing practices. Many stress the access to code that open source offers. Yet, the most important aspect of the open-source model is its collaborative nature. Demonstrating the power (and networking effect) of collaborative development may be open source’s most enduring contribution to the open agenda.

The third foundation of an open ICT ecosystem is a service orientation, which must be needs-focused, business-driven and component-based. Today’s new solution is tomorrow’s legacy. A modular, service orientation helps ensure that both can “plug and play.” Open standards are the backbone of a service-based approach, adding the flexibility needed by managers, suppliers and users to respond to new business requirements.

What Are the Stakes?

Is any of this worthy of a decision-maker’s time? Yes. Are such matters best left entirely to the CIO’s office? No. Decision-makers in government and industry need to pay attention. Opening an ICT ecosystem raises serious issues that touch not only technology but impact an organization’s ability to adapt and compete. It will affect competition policy, industry (especially small and medium-sized enterprises), security, investment and intellectual property. High-level consideration is essential.

That said, opening an ICT ecosystem can help unlock the efficiencies, standardization and flexibility needed to propel the transformation of governments and businesses. Openness creates new avenues of innovation. These are not merely theoretical benefits.

Openness in an ICT ecosystem enables choice, access and control, delivering tangible benefits to users, governments and industry. The Roadmap highlights efficiency, innovation and growth as three of the most significant benefits to this approach.

Policies that mandate choice, and not any particular development model, strengthen a procurer’s negotiating position and lower costs. Access — to information, specifications and code — drives collaborative innovation, breaks down silos, lowers market barriers and allows new players to shape technology development. Users control decisions about functionality, upgrades and future use of data in open ICT ecosystems.

The Roadmap focuses on introducing openness system-wide to ICT ecosystems. The potential impact of its principles and policies, however, extends across a government, enterprise or economy, touching countless sectors from biotech and energy to healthcare and homeland security. In every country, agencies must become more efficient; economies and industry must be more innovative and competitive. Evolving more open ICT ecosystems is a decisive, even necessary, step in governance reform, market success or medical breakthrough.

Next time, Part II of “The Road to Open ICT Ecosystems” will discuss the ways that open ICT ecosystems can evolve, and, once they are in place, how they are best managed.

Jeffrey A. Kaplan is the Founder and Director of the Open ePolicy Group, based at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. He can be reached at: [email protected]. The Open ePolicy Group and the Roadmap can be found at

This story was originally published on Sept. 27, 2005, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

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