Europe’s top 5 priorities to kick-start the digital decade

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

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Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, Director-General of DIGITALEUROPE./ ©DIGITALEUROPE, 2020.

This article is part of our special report Making Europe fit for the digital age.

Europe is still reeling from the pandemic’s effects and many countries are battling a third wave. Digital technologies have been proven to be essential in the crisis and are rightly viewed as a way to reinvent Europe’s economy after COVID. European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen has even called the next ten years the ‘digital decade’, pledging billions of euros to digitally transform our societies. But how can we make sure that in 2030 we live in a stronger digital Europe? This will be the key theme of our flagship European digital policy conference, Masters of Digital, on 3 and 4 February.

By Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, Director-General, DIGITALEUROPE

Here are my top 5 priorities to kick-start the digital decade:

  1. Investing in our digital future

Europe has set aside an unprecedented amount of money to deal with the immediate effects of the crisis and put us in a stronger position when we emerge from it. 20% of the overall stimulus package has been earmarked for digital spending.

Member States must be submit their spending plans to the Commission by 30 April. But three months before the deadline, only 11 have been handed in for scrutiny. Details are often scarce and the lack of transparency in come countries is worrying, especially as Member States don’t always have the best record in actually spending EU funds.

Of the plans we have seen there are promising signs. In Spain, there is a detailed plan to spend around one third of their EU funds on things like digital skills and 5G. In Romania, there is a big focus on modernising their healthcare, whilst in France there is a strong focus on the digitalization of SMEs and the start-up scene.

The best plans have one thing in common – engagement from the private sector. Last Autumn, we outlined ten pan-European digital investment priorities, complemented by over thirty concrete projects ready to be scaled.  This is our blueprint for the digital recovery.

  1. Digital for the Green Deal

Ahead of the next big climate conference in Glasgow later this year, the European Union is setting ever more ambitious targets for cutting emissions under its Green Deal.

Digital technologies have tremendous potential to help Europe achieve its climate goals. They can can help manage our resources more efficiently, monitor pollution and improve air quality. With the right reforms and investments, they could enable a 20% reduction in global CO2 emissions by 2030, across a range of sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture. 

This will require us to embed digital technologies into all Green Deal initiatives, such as the ‘renovation wave’, which aims to upgrade the EU’s buildings, or the smart mobility strategy.

  1. Supporting European innovation and grassroots entrepreneurship

The greatest ideas of last century have started more often in garages than boardrooms. But the EU unfortunately has a poor record in nurturing promising scale-ups. Only 12% of the world’s unicorns come from Europe, and half of those are from the UK. We think this should be 30%.

We know the talent is out there. Every year, we set off to find Europe’s most promising SMEs in our Future Unicorn Award, those that have what it takes to become the next digital leader. 

This year, we spoke to every nominee from the past three years to hear what they thought were the main barriers for them to grow in Europe. By far, their biggest investment priority was unlocking public data and building European data spaces. Second was investment in digital education, both to equip the next generation with skills and help make European citizens more comfortable using technology.

  1. Making 2021 the year of data

2021 will be a crucial year to shape how companies in Europe access and share the large amounts of data at our disposal. We expect a proposal for EU-wide AI legislation in the next few months, and a Data Act later in the year. At the same time, the Gaia-X initiative aims to build Europe’s own cloud infrastructure.

The EU must take advantage of the massive wealth of industrial data we’re sitting on – 80 per cent of which remains unused. This is especially a problem for smaller companies, only 12% of which are currently accessing the potential of big data and therefore missing out on a big growth driver. Access to large amounts of high-quality data is crucial for technologies like artificial intelligence. 

The big challenge is to boost data availability, access and sharing, both within the EU and beyond. The most efficient way to do this is through cross-industry collaboration, taking advantage of the best technologies available. This is not a chance to turn in on ourselves.

  1. Digital goes global

Digital knows no borders, and emerging technologies are increasingly intertwined with questions of foreign policy, defence, and security. Our world has radically changed from just one month ago: the UK has left the European Union and we have now a new US administration with an ambitious digital agenda. This calls for closer cooperation and for renewed efforts for the EU to lead in the global digital space. Collaboration between the private and public sector, such as my work with NATO, will be increasingly important.

The transatlantic relationship in particular will be crucial to figure out the answers to the big regulatory questions like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. We recently set out our six priorities for EU-US digital collaboration. Most pressing is to find a solution to transatlantic data flows – essential for our digital economy and currently under threat.

If you want to hear more about these priorities, please join us on 3 and 4 February at Masters of Digital, our annual digital policy summit. This year we have a stellar line-up of speakers, including Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.

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