Listening to different European voices is key for the green digital transition


Digital & Data Governance

Picture of Ben Wreschner
Ben Wreschner

Chief Economist at the Vodafone Group

Over the past year, Vodafone’s Connected Europe partnership with Friends of Europe has explored the relationship between citizens and technology, while developing new ideas on how to build a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient Europe. The Connected Europe report was launched on 14 October at Friends of Europe’s annual State of Europe flagship event in Brussels.

Speaking on the ‘Digital for a Successful Europe’ panel at the event, I shared the results of the report and explained that this partnership was really a first for us at Vodafone in that we are bringing citizens along on the digitalisation journey that we are enabling.

This isn’t a token gesture. To do our job properly, we need to know the real interests, concerns, fears and hopes of Europeans. That won’t always drive our decisions, but it will shine a light on what drives society and how industry should respond.

At Vodafone, we gather some of Europe’s finest engineers, programmers, business leaders, economists and marketers. But they are not a representative cross-section of European society. To know what the average European thinks, we need to look beyond our immediate community, and the Connected Europe initiative offered us insights in this regard.

When it comes to the substance of the initiative’s focus groups, we were particularly keen to see how people saw the digital green transition, and the European Union’s role in shaping it. The EU’s massive €750bn recovery package, aptly named the Next Generation EU, will in part be payed for by the next generation. So, we must bring them along on this journey.

The pandemic has created a new sense of solidarity across Europe

Four takeaways from the report demonstrate why is it so important that we do so.

The first is that digital is not a force for unequivocal good. That came across very strongly in focus groups and citizen discussions. They have concerns about privacy, big tech, and whether we are moving towards a divided world of digital haves and have-nots. While Vodafone believes heartily in the power of connectivity to open opportunities in education, health, mobility, climate change and much more, we should also recognise that the transition must prove its value for citizens.

That also means that, as corporate entities, we must get our house in order. We can talk about the twin green and digital transitions, but people should see them as one. I’d like to think that Vodafone made its own contribution when it committed to become net-zero 10 years earlier than we first anticipated.

The second point is that no-one should be left behind. Interestingly, the people expressing this view were ones who were not left behind as they were in fact taking part in Connected Europe online focus group debates. Yet they were sufficiently self-aware to be concerned about those at risk – and to want to bring them along with them.

That was one of the most powerful messages that resonated from the initiative. And it was amplified by circumstances in which it took place: the pandemic has created a new sense of solidarity across Europe, a recognition that we are in this together and that we should help one another, especially during the recovery period. As we head towards delivering the EU’s Digital Decade 2030 targets, we need to make sure that the fantastic 5G technologies – from digital education to virtual medical treatments – are available to all.

The European data strategy is vital, as it aims create a single market for free-flowing data

The third insight was, to be honest, a bit troubling. The citizens taking part in the initiative felt resigned to the leakage of personal data. They felt that control was lost and that there was no point in even trying to protect it.

Confronting this realisation, the first thought that came to mind was that we cannot let this happen. In the years and decades ahead, the value of the European economy will hang in large part on the value we can source from data. If all that value is extracted outside Europe, then we have a major economic problem.

Our report says the European data strategy is vital, as it aims create a single market for free-flowing data, with strong emphasis on privacy and data protection. But to truly reap the benefits of Europe’s industrial data, it is essential to maintain an enabling policy environment that allows for the sharing of such information while also keeping European companies in control and ensuring that their value stays on the continent.

That brings me to the fourth and final insight: we must build trust. Trust in institutions, trust in companies, and trust in everyone to work collaboratively on issues from education and basic access to data and cybersecurity. When we were unable to access social media platforms for a few hours in early October, it set off an alarm bell that even a service used by billions is vulnerable.

Recovery is a collective word

So, how can we use these insights? Firstly, we must recognise that citizen concerns are industry concerns. It is not about what we need at Vodafone, it is about a partnership. We must make sure that the direction we want to go is the direction they want to go.

We have to see this as a journey we take together. At the State of Europe debate, Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola said that recovery is a collective word: “if we understand that we are all in this together, then we can only get out of this together.”

Together, we can do more. The Connected Europe report is a call to policymakers, industry and society to work together to enable and drive the urgently needed green digital transition. If Europe prioritises investment in digital infrastructure – and backs it up with a supportive policy and regulatory ecosystem – then we can build the inclusive digital society that citizens have been calling for.

This article is part of the Connected Europe initiative, launched by a partnership between Friends of Europe and Vodafone, to foster a successful, green and resilient digital transformation in Europe.

There are three clusters of activity within the Connected Europe initiative:

  • Successful Europe
  • Green Europe
  • Resilient Europe

Presenting the results of the year-long pan-European study, the “Connected Europe: A digital brand for a just transition” report shows how Europe can achieve a successful, green and resilient digital transformation through collaboration and with citizens at the heart of the debate.

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