Europe’s digital future: united and determined to win

Europe's World

Digital, Skills & Inequalities

Picture of Jan van Tetering
Jan van Tetering

Head of Europe at Nokia

The European Union was arguably the best thing that could happen to Europe. While it has by no means been perfect, it has granted peace, freedom and stability on the continent and it furthered economic growth and prosperity over the last decades.

Europe’s future now depends to a large extent on how united we will be in the next years and decades, and how successful we will be in leveraging the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by digital technologies such as 5G and fibre connectivity, advanced cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Europe’s assets include a strong industrial base with numerous global leaders in a number of industries. It also boasts key global players that provide enhanced connectivity and are capable of building industrial platforms and contributing to the Internet of Things (IoT). Add to that, its many renowned universities and research organisations, and a significant market with approximately 500mn inhabitants, and Europe is in a favourable position.

While Europe has the ability to lead, it still requires a change of mindset. The EU is moving in the right direction, but its members are advancing at many different speeds. This staggering economic change necessitates a strong commitment to a swift adoption of emerging technologies.

Digital is no longer strictly about smartphones. The so-called ‘digital industry’ has gradually become all-encompassing. Embracing ‘digital’ has become critical for the success of modern economies. These technologies are changing the world by enabling fundamental shifts in traditional industries through unprecedented levels of automation.

Europe is capable of exploiting this opportunity by innovating on existing fixed and mobile infrastructure. Two of the world’s leading players on the telecommunications equipment market (Nokia being one) are rooted and headquartered in Europe. Additionally, Europe is home to some of the world’s leading communication service providers.

We need to have a discussion on how to provide citizens with the right skillsets

Europe is also a leading innovation power in industrial automation.  To unleash this potential, the EU must move to bundle disparate industries. Cross-sectoral collaboration will require enhanced dialogue and cooperation between the digital and other more traditional sectors.

However, improving exchange across the private sector will not be sufficient without a line of dialogue between businesses, the backbone of our economy, and those that govern them. Strategies and regulatory frameworks should not be drafted in isolation. The right way forward is to innovate together and test new technologies or business models on the go via regulatory ‘sandboxing’ with all industry sectors engaging.

Admittedly, there is room for improvement. In terms of developing AI technology, for example, one of the key technologies for our digital future. Europe is not leading. The High-Level Expert Group on AI (AI HLEG) has played an important role in formulating the parameters of good strategy through their work on the ethical guidelines for the use of this technology.

However, the private sector must have an increased role in its definition as they have proven to be prolific drivers and users of this innovation. For instance, Nokia is using AI and machine learning in its factory in Oulu. Businesses are increasingly using this technology to improve everything from quality assurance, product design and logistics to the betterment of EU as a whole.

Instead of having debates on whether digitalisation is creating or killing jobs, we need to have a discussion on how to provide citizens with the right skillsets, empowering them for the digital age. This conversation is important as, not only will it put Europe in the drivers’ seat but it will also ensure the jobs of tomorrow will stay in Europe.

Europe needs one EU ‘digital’ strategy across policy fields

According to Eurostat, the number of people employed as ICT specialists grew by 36.1% between 2007 and 2017, which was more than 10 times higher as the corresponding increase (3.2%) in total employment. The Commission predicts that the gap between the demand and supply of ICT specialists will grow to about 500,000 by 2020.

Europe’s biggest threat is fragmentation. Today, there are more national regulatory approaches than member states in the EU. The Digital Single Market is a core component of the Single Market – but it is still far from being sufficiently implemented.

If member states are serious about digitalisation, they must harmonise policy fields and provide more competence to the EU where it makes sense. A coordinated national approach makes sense in a few specific policy fields, but it should be an exception. Start with spectrum policy- today, 5G spectrum is assigned only in a small number of EU member states.

Europe needs one EU ‘digital’ strategy across policy fields. Take the Commission’s transport department: it should not be prioritising WiFi at the expense of 4G LTE/5G for V2X connectivity, especially when technology neutrality would have been more appropriate. This fragments Europe as other parts of the world see everybody pulling on one string, allowing every other sector to go full steam ahead towards ‘cellular and 5G’.

All this needs to be reflected in Europe’s industrial strategy. The EU should incentivise innovation, focus on the establishment of European industrial platforms, and promote the development of key emerging technologies like industrial IoT applications, digitisation of vertical sectors based on high-performance fibre and 5G connectivity and adoption of AI strategies.

No single company or industry can achieve what is necessary to bring Europe forward and make the continent ready for a prosperous digital future. Member states and institutions must act together.

There will soon be a new European Parliament and later this year a new EU Commission. Hopefully, this future session will retain strong digital ambitions. Europe has many advantages as it heads into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Now’s the time to build upon them and act as one Europe.

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