Digital skills key to Europe’s COVID resilience, industry chief says

Increasing digital skills, broadening the availability of the bloc's eGovernment services, and bridging Europe's connectivity divides are areas that should be at the forefront of policymakers' minds in the EU's resilience against the ongoing public health crisis, says Hilary Mine.

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This article is part of our special report Imagining Europe’s Digital Recovery: Options for Investment.

Increasing digital skills, broadening the availability of the bloc’s eGovernment services, and bridging Europe’s connectivity divides are areas that should be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds in the EU’s resilience against the ongoing public health crisis, Hilary Mine told EURACTIV.

Hilary Mine is the president of the technology trade association DIGITALEUROPE, and also Nokia’s Vice-President and Market Unit Leader for 11 countries across the Nordics, Baltics & Benelux regions.

We’re currently in the midst of Europe’s second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. As part of the bloc’s wider digital transition, how has this impacted our priorities going forward?

Coronavirus won’t be our last pandemic, and it’s clear that we need to be better prepared as a society. In the field of digital healthcare, it’s incredibly important that we have seamless connectivity all over Europe. But more broadly in the public sector, we need to increase our eGovernment capacities in order to ensure that access to vital services can continue.

These two objectives, however, also depend on citizens being able to use digital tools efficiently. Here, we must ensure that as many people are competent in digital skills as possible. If that’s not possible, we need to invest in training, upskilling and reskilling. This is where the new 20% outlay of the recovery budget should be directed towards.

Current targets state that by 2025, EU nations and companies across the bloc should have retrained 20% of the workforce, however, this leaves a deficit with regards to needs outlined by the World Economic Forum, who recommend that 52% of workers need some sort of reskilling. We should bridge this 32% gap.

What are the key components of increasing digital skills, how comprehensive are the potential societal benefits?

I really try to stress the importance of affordability as a key component. When you say that you’ve got connectivity that’s not affordable, it’s not connectivity. This is vital in order to ensure that the benefits of connectivity across the continent can be experienced by all – regardless of where they are geographically based.

In terms of upskilling and reskilling, we need to be thinking about training programs designed for all generations, not only young people. If you think about the use of health services of elderly people – who are typically the ones who need greater access to health services – if those folks can’t get access to health services, because they can’t use it, the whole infrastructure becomes useless. Here, broad inclusion in digital education programs is vital.

For jobs as well, inclusion for the poorer elements of populations is important. It’s absolutely critical that they be included in digital as well. Otherwise, you’re missing out as a society on the value of the contribution. Everybody is able to contribute to societal development, but if you don’t enable them to contribute, you lose it.

Earlier, you referenced the importance of capacity building for eGovernment services, how do current objectives align with this need?

Well, we believe that 75% of EU citizens should be using government services by 2025. Currently, it’s about 56%, which sounds good – but that means almost half of folks can’t and aren’t using the government services. And that’s a cost factor for the EU as well.

So there’s a there’s sort of a positive cycle as you start to get the digital skills up, connectivity up, you can then provide more government services more cost-effectively and at a higher quality as well.

In terms of the EU’s data strategy, what are the key elements that could help with our management of the continuing coronavirus crisis?

Cross-border data sharing is really important, and this is why we fully back the EU’s plans to build a single market for data. Creating the right data spaces to enable an increased sharing of data, particularly in the health sector, is vital for our future resilience.

There has been a recent example in the Netherlands with Philips, which was involved with some hospitals and with the government to create an Open Data program during the first wave of COVID in Europe, in an attempt to enable hospitals to share data much faster.

This allowed hospitals to treat patients more efficiently and to identify when, where, and what hospital beds were open, and all that sort of thing. But this is happening in one of Europe’s more digitally advanced countries and these sorts of practices should be more widespread across the bloc. There’s a lot of work for us to do in order to build up a harmonized landscape across the EU.

As the bloc charts its digital future amid the current coronavirus crisis, how important is the concept of European digital sovereignty, a priority of Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s when she entered office?

Digital sovereignty is about having well-defined and open mechanisms that enable us to be more competitive as Europe but in an open and transparent way.

Unfortunately, the word digital sovereignty for some stakeholders sounds a little bit like we’re going to close the world out and do our own thing, which I actually think is worse, to be honest. This protectionist approach will do Europe no favours in the long term.

We need investment, we need capabilities, we need to build our own path, a European path for digital. Doing all this, while safeguarding openness and working with global partners is the key to European digital sovereignty. The way to achieve this in the legal space is to ensure that true harmonization is attainable, and not to have such a fractured marketplace that makes certain areas of Europe unattractive for investment and development.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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