The strides being made by the European Commission to achieve a digitalised society for all are explored by Assistant Editor of Open Access Government, Megan Warrender
Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for ‘A Europe Fit for the Digital Age’, Margaret Vestager, (2019-2024), is responsible for setting the strategic direction of this political priority. Among other responsibilities, Vestager also coordinates work on a European strategy on data and on a European approach to artificial intelligence (AI) including its human and ethical implications. Her priorities cut across all the European Commission’s work, from industry to innovation, and her new policies and frameworks will enable Europe to deploy cutting-edge digital technologies. In February of this year, the Commission unveiled its strategies for data and Artificial Intelligence, in order to shape Europe’s digital future.
“We want every citizen, every employee, and every business to stand a fair chance to reap the benefits of digitalisation. Whether that means driving more safely or polluting less thanks to connected cars; or even saving lives with AI-driven medical imagery that allows doctors to detect diseases earlier than ever before.” (1)
This statement made by Vestager summarises the thoroughly ‘human-centric’ goals of digital transformation within Europe. It presents a European society powered by digital solutions that put people first and simultaneously open up new opportunities for businesses. Furthermore, this initiative will boost the development of trustworthy technology to foster an open and democratic society and a vibrant and sustainable economy. Over the next five years, the Commission will focus on three key objectives in digital:
- Technology that works for people.
- A fair and competitive economy.
- An open, democratic, and sustainable society.
To achieve these objectives, AI will play a large part in development. Vestager states that “artificial intelligence can serve us in many sectors of the economy, such as health, transport, communication and education. It can enable wide-scale automation of decisions and processes that have an enormous potential to increase quality, efficiency and productivity.” (2) The technology itself, which is based on self-learning and self-improving algorithms, can, however, raise many policy issues, such as accountability or social acceptance. Commissioner Vestager’s responsibility is to navigate this, coordinating work on a European approach on AI. This effort will feed into the broader workstream on industrial policy and technological sovereignty, it is a priority that European citizens and companies can also benefit from this technology as well as shape its development.
It is clear that the strategy, led by Vestager, wants every citizen, every employee and every business to stand a fair chance to reap the benefits of digitalisation now and in the future. But why is this, and in what ways can all Europeans reap these benefits and thrive in a digitalised society? Below are a number of examples:
- Better medical diagnosis and treatment: Secure remote access to personal health records for targeted and faster research, diagnosis, and treatment.
- Stronger digital skills: Lifelong access to digital technology and skills training.
- Trusted digital identity: More personal privacy, less fraud and quicker interactions with government and business.
- Lower climate impact and money saved: Individual energy production and storage and lower energy bills, thanks to intelligent heating and cooling and smart grids.
- More environmentally friendly agriculture: Better food with fewer pesticides, fertilisers, fuel and water thanks to AI, data and 5G.
- Longer lasting electronic equipment: Electronic devices that last longer can easily be updated, repaired, and recycled.
- Cleaner environment: Electronic waste contains scarce resources and precious metals, but only about 35% of electronics are currently recycled.
- Digitalised transport: Better and safer mobility thanks to interactions between cars and road infrastructures.
- Fight against online disinformation: Access to diverse and reliable media content.
New data economy
Europe has the means to become a leader in this new data economy: it has the strongest industrial base of the world, with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) being a vital part of the industrial fabric; the technologies; the skills; and now also a clear vision. The European data strategy (3) is in place to make sure the EU becomes a role model and a leader for a society empowered by data. It aims to set up a true European data space, a single market for data, to unlock unused data, allowing it to flow freely within the European Union and also across sectors for the benefit of businesses, researchers and public administrations.
With the SMEs Strategy for a sustainable and digital Europe, the Commission wants to support and empower SMEs of all sizes and sectors, from innovative tech start-ups to traditional crafts. Many SME’s can grow and scale-up across borders, also benefitting digitalisation. As part of this strategy, up to 240 Digital Innovation Hubs will advise SMEs on how to integrate digital innovations into their products, business models and processes.
More recently, the European Commission has been focussing its efforts on combatting the COVID-19 crisis, therefore digital innovation perhaps being seen to take the backseat. This is not the case, however, as throughout the pandemic initiatives for state aid have been approved in many member states, which will also help better equip Europe for the digital age. Stated by Vestager, “SMEs are the backbone of the European economy.” (4) There are many examples of this state aid, including an approved €300 million to Luxembourg, (5) €3.3 billion to Romania, (6) a €1 billion Hungarian aid scheme, (7) and a €322 million Croatian scheme (8) for loan guarantees and subsidised loans to support SMEs in the COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite combating urgent unforeseen challenges, “A Europe Fit for the Digital Age” is still in progress, and this aid and support for SME’s all over Europe will not only keep them afloat during COVID-19, but also contribute towards the SMEs Strategy for a sustainable and digital Europe, unleashing their full potential, and thus moving forward in digitalisation.