End of September, the European heads of states will gather in Tallinn for a “Digital Summit” where they will discuss the digital future of Europe. A digital Europe is clearly on the move. The end of roaming in June 2017 has been a success, with concrete impact for many citizens. Belgians for example have multiplied their use of mobile data abroad by a 5 to 6 factor this summer.

Numerous initiatives are in the pipeline, as part of the Digital Single Market strategy of the European Commission. But its’s not enough. The core of the digital transformation is not about technology: it’s about the kind of (digital) society we want to build for tomorrow. Hence the digital future of Europe is a question about our common future. It is a question that is crucial for all of us.

Time has come for European leaders to build an ambitious digital journey that aims at maximizing the positive impact of new technologies (on well-being, sustainability, economic growth, job creation) while ensuring participation and trust of all citizensin a digital society (with a high adherence to fundamental liberties and to security). 4 priorities should be at the center of this journey.

1. Europe must invest in « skills for tomorrow »

European leaders must recognize that technology is a source of worry for many European citizens. According to a recent study conducted by the European Commission, 70% of Europeans believe the net effect of automation will be job destruction.

It is not at all clear that technology will destroy jobs in the future. It never did in the past and many European country currently enjoy net job creation environments. But the fear is there, and it is legitimate.

Technology is profoundly impacting the (hard and soft) skills requirements of the workforce: McKinsey Institute estimates that ~2% of workers become obsolete each year. If nothing is done, a significant proportion of the workforce will just be left out of the new digital reality. Is this the kind of Europe we want?

Skills are a key infrastructure in a digital age, and hence major investments are required to reskill the current workforce and upskill the future workers. We are talking about at least 10B€/year. No European funding mechanism is currently in place to address the magnitude of this need. It also requires a new social contract, where continuous education is much more embedded in welfare mechanisms.

So far, labor mobility and immigration have been high on the agenda of European leaders. Investing in skills for tomorrow should be a top priority as well. With the right approach, investing in skills can have a tremendous impact on building Europe: that’s what the Erasmus programme has shown over the last 30 years.

2. Europe must invest in critical digital assets to remain a leader in innovation

Europe has been at the forefront of all industrial revolutions since the Renaissance, including the last one (the World Wide Web was invented at the Swiss-French border). We need to have an integrated investment strategy on the core technologies that will likely shape the next decade:

  Artificial intelligence: machine learning algorithms are all around us. US and China are investing massively in the field. While Europe is producing some of the top researchers in the field, we lack an ambitious AI industrial strategy. Countries are preparing national approaches on AI; why not joining forces to build tomorrow’s European AI leaders? 

High Performance Computing (HPC): supercomputers are expected to change our economy and our society, with applications ranging from medicine and healthcare to large-scale engineering and cutting-edge manufacturing. HPC is a strategically important technology, and the EuroHPC project could have the magnitude of Airbus or ESA. Before the end of this year, it will be critical to have a roadmap, a governance structure and funding that will ensure to have two exascale computing facilities running by 2023.

 Cybersecurity: recent cyberattacks show that protecting our core digital infrastructure is not only critical for economic reasons, but also to protect our democratic institutions. A European contractual Public-Private Partnership on cybersecurity has been launched in July 2016. Collaboration on cybersecurity should be further deepened, as part of the discussion on enhanced defense cooperation. Why not building a multi-country digital army?

3. Europe must have a taxation system fit for the new digital reality

Governments will need to co-fund the investments described above. But how can they do so in a period of shrinking tax bases, where some tech giants avoid taxation of their activities in most member states?

On the one hand, the digital transformation is an opportunity to fundamentally improve the taxation process, by automating and simplifying tax reporting and collection, and by increasing the efficiency of fraud detection. This is what we have done in Belgium with the fiscal and social framework on sharing economy.

On the other hand, the new digital business models question certain fundamental principles of taxation (such as the “stable establishment” for example). It is therefore necessary to think out-of-the box about a tax system that ensures profit is taxed and all companies pay their share to build a digital continent.

4. Europe must put “usage” at the center of data regulation to build resilient data-driven societies

Europe is becoming a global front-runner in the protection of citizens’ data, with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Nonetheless, this is only a first step. Data is a means, not an end. What matters is what data is used for. The very same data point can be used for a societal purpose (eg. improve public health or mobility), for a commercial purpose (eg. sell a product or a service) or a malignant purpose. Hence it is critical that Europe provides clear frameworks on data usage, addressing fundamental questions such as “how can citizens be informed and empowered about the usage of data they co-produce?”, “which use cases should have free and/or unrestricted access to certain data?”, “which datasets should not be commercially available for which usage ?”. These questions should be central in our public debate, because they address some of the core values of our societies.

European leaders are facing a unique momentum. The European economy is showing strong signs of recovery, and pro-European leaders have received a clear electoral mandate in several member states. Now is the right time to have a clear European project for the future. Now is the right time to build an inclusive and ambitious digital Europe.

Written by Laurent Hublet, entrepreneur in policy making, pushing Digital Belgium