Citizen engagement key to a digital, green Future of Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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This week sees the official launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe, and its democratic centrepiece is a digital platform gathering ideas. There are high hopes for the platform as the EU seeks to mobilise citizen involvement in shaping policies and ambitions. But what can institutions expect to learn from listening to the people?

Citizen involvement has been a key feature of the Connected Europe partnership between Vodafone and Friends of Europe since its launch in 2020. The Connected Europe partnership gathers perspectives from citizens, industry and policymakers to generate policy recommendations and proposals to ensure a successful, green and resilient digital transformation in Europe.

By linking citizens, civil society, business and policymaking, Connected Europe is exactly the kind of partnership that the Conference on the Future of Europe is seeking to encourage. In fact, it could be argued that this new co-creation model of policymaking, is not only desirable but essential for something as important as the Future of Europe.

Integrating citizen feedback

As with the Conference on the Future of Europe, citizens are the starting point for all Connected Europe policy discussions. Crucially, too, they are also the endpoint. This is essential for the Connected Europe clusters of activity.

Each of our three clusters of activity – Successful Europe, Green Europe and Resilient Europe – have citizen focus groups that close with online citizen debates (Debating Europe), allowing people to discuss the ideas that have developed with policymakers.

Taking a whole of society approach to digital skills

In our civil engagement, citizens strongly advocated the need to build digital skills from the school to the workplace and beyond – leaving no one behind. There was a recognition, sometimes lost in the silos of policymaking, that digital transformation can underpin the achievement of many other areas of progress.

Consider the scope of the Future of Europe Conference. There are 10 topics, but digitalisation is not only a focus topic on its own, it is also a critical enabler for many others.

For example, digitalisation can help mitigate climate change and enable the achievement of sustainability goals, it can help to improve health, strengthen the economy and enhance social justice. It can even strengthen the EU’s position in the world, by making the EU more competitive – while supporting European democracy.

The potential is clear, but the feedback from citizens can also keep us grounded in reality. They reminded us that skill enhancement is an essential starting point for the digital transformation. Digital skill certificates could be used to prove and assess capabilities.

This in turn could enhance job opportunities. It’s an approach that is fundamental to Vodafone’s Future Jobs Finder tool.

Understanding the criticality of connectivity

The last year has taught us just how essential connectivity is to life today, in terms of education, relationships and work. Connected Europe participants shared first-hand how they had experienced the joys of being connected, but also the pain of not having connectivity.

Citizens are understandably concerned about digital exclusion. This was particularly noted with the elderly and those with disabilities. Ensuring access for all is incredibly important. Addressing the digital divide and delivering connectivity for all requires co-partnership with government. Working together to bring access to people whether urban or rural, old or young.

Using digital to address the climate crisis

The green agenda must be intrinsically linked to digitalisation. We have seen the importance of digital and green in the required 20% and 37% of funding in the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) going into those respective areas.

As we have highlighted above, there is an opportunity to use digital technologies to reduce carbon emissions and use resources more efficiently.

Unsurprisingly, the citizens contributing to the Connected Europe initiative recognised the importance of the green transition. They also wanted solutions to ensure the burden for being green falls equally on consumers and business. Likewise, any burdens in the digital transition should be shared equally.

Digital innovations, such as LED streetlights connected to a central management system, can dramatically reduce energy consumption. IoT sensors on farms can measure humidity and soil health so that use of irrigation and fertilisers is much more efficient.

Neither of these innovations would result in any one group losing out. They are genuine win-wins – for consumers, industry and governments.

Furthermore, these innovations can work at scale to have a huge impact across the region. We estimate that implementing a smart city data platform with smart energy and mobility solutions in the top 80 EU cities could result in energy savings equivalent to roughly one third of the total electricity usage of Ireland.

These selected examples can help achieve the targets set out by our European Union policymakers when it comes to fighting climate change.

Bringing clarity to inform decisions

The Connected Europe citizen engagement highlighted the need for transparency to build trust, particularly in relation to the green transition. The lack of EU-wide standards and benchmarks means consumers may struggle to make informed green choices. This is an incredibly complex area, but we must find ways to provide clear, validated information.

One suggestion to bring clarity and integrate digital and green benchmarks has been the expansion of the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) to encompass sustainability. Recovery funds allocation and spend could be effectively monitored and policy reforms measured against the DESI, with this simple change.

Shaping the future, together

The strong citizen feedback in the Connected Europe partnership is a clear indicator that industry, governments and policymakers must be accountable when shaping a sustainable path through Europe’s digital decade. The messages will only emerge stronger as citizens engage with the online discussions facilitated by the Conference on the Future of Europe.

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