Ways forward for digital Europe

19 November 2019

The new Commission headed by the designated “President-elect” Ursula von der Leyen has put the digital agenda at the very top of its list of priorities. According to the new college of Commissioners, two members of the Commission will predominantly be responsible in the course of the next five years. “Europe fit for the Digital Age“ and “Internal Market“. In her digital strategy, von der Leyen mainly pursues continuity in the focus areas as was agreed in June 2018 in the “Digital Europe” programme. This is also in accordance with the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027 which foresees investments of 9.2 billion euros. The focus areas concerned are high-performance computers, artificial intelligence, cyber security and trust, digital skills and ensuring the wide-spread use of digital technology across the economy and society.

Artificial intelligence

The breakthrough of the Internet of Things puts artificial intelligence into focus. It has long been implemented everywhere – from mobile devices to assistance systems for autonomous vehicles and smart factories. AI will be one of the deciding factors in the technology race of the next decade. Europe must therefore consolidate its forces now to trigger real innovation in neural networks, deep learning or natural language processing. The European network of technical universities with their teaching and research programmes is well prepared for this next step of digital technology innovation. In collaboration with already existing industry clusters and technology hubs we now have to solidify our efforts in order to have the necessary technological authority in AI by the middle of the 2020s which will allow us to make our digital economy a globally respected supplier of AI.

But we need many more skilled professionals to implement an AI focus. At present, the EU is short of 350,000 experts in the areas of data science and big data analysis. These professionals will be necessary to push scientific research in artificial intelligence or cyber security forward. We also need a modified education system which teaches everyone – from kindergarten to university – the skills it takes to manage the digital change. Furthermore, we must succeed in stimulating enthusiasm for STEM subjects early on and establish digital literacy as a basic qualification side by side with reading, writing and arithmetic. Given the short innovation cycles of this competitive industry, it is essential for a digital society to provide continuous training for employees and workers in order to keep knowledge on current network and technology developments up to date. The “Digital Europe” programme will provide a robust investment volume of 700 million euros to promote training in advanced digital skills for small businesses as well as IT professionals and young entrepreneurs.

Promoting genuine esteem for business start-ups

With the aim of playing a role in the area of innovation, ideas for intelligent products and services need an effective investment system to get them into the markets. Start-ups contribute to the economic growth and create jobs. European digital champions can only develop and keep up with the speed of global technological change within a well-designed start-up ecosystem.

In the course of the past few years, Europe has been quite successful in this matter. Between 2012 and 2017, technological investments in Europe grew from 3.6 billion euros to 17 billion. The three major European start-up hubs London, Paris and Berlin together raised 7.1 billion euros in 2017. Europe nevertheless needs to catch up. In 2018, only 41 out of 266 globally existing “unicorns” (privately owned start-ups in the tech industry with an enterprise value of more than one billion dollars) were located in Europe, among them the music streaming service Spotify or the retailer Zalando. If we want to achieve real added value in industrial digitisation and keep our know-how with us, we must not follow the Silicon Valley start-up mentality of achieving rapid monetisation through the sale of patents to large US companies.

I therefore think that the promotion of a culture in which businesses are seen as the drivers of innovation and social progress is key to the economic success of Europe’s digital economy. In the course of their education, young people should be actively familiarised with the appeal of entrepreneurship and learn the skills required to go that way.

We now need more than just creative start-ups. We need entrepreneurs who keep their original enthusiasm and constantly work on the development of their ideas. If we succeed in promoting entrepreneurship and the adventure of business with its opportunities for development in such a way that young people want to achieve personal fulfilment by setting up their own businesses, we will no longer have to worry about social esteem and an innovation-friendly environment in which top achievements can thrive.