Page last updated at 23:46 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 00:46 UK

Burning ideas in tech 'hot house'

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Microsoft boss Bill Gates
A visit to Bill Gates' Microsoft in Seattle is one of the prizes

In the latest in a series on the use of technology in the Highlands and Islands, the BBC Scotland news website looks at how young people embrace it.

The public agency-run ICT Youth Challenge, which is aimed at under 20s, is attempting to encourage new and innovative uses for technology.

However, a leading businessman in the field reckons youngsters are having to teach themselves skills in the use of mediums such as the internet.

"We are trying to find the next Bill Gates," said John Mackenzie, setting out one of the ICT Youth Challenge's big aims.

Given that Mr Gates' Microsoft is among the contest's supporters and the creativity of the entries, the dream may not be as lofty as it sounds.

Mr Mackenzie, who project manages the competition, said the ideas put forward did match the ambition.

They include embedding technology into headstones and texts alerts sent from a creel when a lobster has been caught.

Run by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the suggestion for the competition followed a visit to Scotland by Nicholas Negroponte - a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab in Boston, US.

And a trip to the lab is one of the prizes up for grabs this year, along with visits to Microsoft in Seattle and a BT laboratory.

Mr Mackenzie said: "This year has seen a number of good ideas.

"They include an interactive gravestone which would tell the person's life story.

Schools have to go much further -the kids are actually teaching themselves IT
Campbell Grant

"Another for older people is an interactive belt which sends out a signal to raise the alarm if it hits the ground.

"A programme developed for mobile phones also allows you to put in your size and weight and, when scanned against clothes on hangers, finds you the right items without you having to try them on."

In past years, teams of youngsters have suggested satellite navigation on mobiles for hillwalkers and mountain rescue teams.

The competition has grown and developed over the last seven years and now has dedicated site on a social networking website.

This year a large number of entries have been whittled down to teams from Wick, Nairn, Keith, Fortrose and Lochaber.

They will sweat it out in a week-long "hot house" in June.

On hand will be experts on business and with knowledge of how to patent products.

Inverness-based higher education institution UHI will also help to provide post-hot house support for teams wishing to develop their ideas further.

Clothes shop
Scanning the clothes rails with mobiles could be the future of shopping

Nurturing the next generation of tech savvy innovators is something close to the heart of a Skye-based businessman.

"My son is building something that we as a company would have once struggled to build," said Campbell Grant.

Sitekit, Mr Grant's web content management systems development company, has just won its first contract in the US.

Though based in the Highlands and Islands, the businessman said he "despairs" because the region's youngsters are not being armed with skills at school to go on and excel in the industry.

He said they were learning how to work websites and the internet to their advantage at home, rather than in the classroom.

Mr Grant said: "Schools have to go much further - the kids are actually teaching themselves IT.

"The schools are way behind and block all the web services kids want to use.

"Perhaps they are not aware of what they are doing and look at the internet as a threat.

"It is a threat, but also an opportunity to be used more intelligently."

Mr Grant added: "Kids have got computers at home and access to sites like Bebo.

We have seen a very clever use of technology and the internet by some small communities
Calum Davidson, Highland and Islands Enterprise

"My son who is now 10, but started his page when he was nine, has everything on it - multi-media and social networking links.

"Primary children are doing now what we would have charged for five years ago."

Headquartered in Portree and with a sales office in Oxford, the firm's other clients include public organisations, police and a European security agency.

Launched in 1995 under the name Gaelnet, it is undergoing what Mr Grant described as its "third evolution".

It started as a consultancy, then web design and is now focusing on software.

Mr Grant said the company had to be innovative to stay ahead of competitors.

Advances in communications technology - such as the internet - has been a boon for businesses in the Highlands and Islands.

But Mr Grant added: "It is a double-edged sword. The same technology also opens the market to competitors in places such as India."

'Thinking globally'

However, Calum Davidson, head of the key sectors team at Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), said technology had allowed local companies to turn local factors to their advantage.

He said: "If a business in a rural area is competing with one in a city, it has a competitive advantage on property - usually with a lower turnover of staff, meaning less spending training new employees with a highly qualified work force.

"People in rural areas are not just thinking about selling to a local market, but are always thinking in terms of the global market."

Mr Davidson added: "We have seen a very clever use of technology and the internet by some small communities and specialists of high value food and drink products."

In the future, this sector could one day expand to talking headstones and text alerts from the seabed.

Lab cooks up hi-tech fashion firm
28 May 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Inside the Distance Lab
29 May 08 |  Highlands and Islands

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