10 key priorities for Europe's Digital Future

Europe must advocate a level playing field for all businesses. The competition rules of the European Union are among the strictest in the world. However, digitalisation has posed novel challenges as new services and technologies have emerged, which may enhance domination of the market by a few players. These unfamiliar forms of market dominance seem to be enforced by network effects and access to large amounts of user data. In addition, tech giants recurrently benefit from existing loopholes of the EU tax system to avoid paying their fair share. In practice, it leads to a direct competitive disadvantage for SMEs. Europe needs to make sure that the market dominance of multinationals does not prevent new players from accessing these markets. Big tech companies must be prevented from erecting barriers to new players, while competition authorities should preserve the interests of consumers. Europe’s public procurement market is open to all actors, also in areas of strategic interest. Europe should seek reciprocity in order to maintain a level-playing field. Foreign take-overs in strategic areas should be subject to greater scrutiny.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Support the introduction of a digital tax, which creates a level-playing field in taxation between large and small players, while not placing any additional burden on smaller players.
  • Modernise the competition framework and provide tools to tackle new forms of dominance, enhanced by network effects and access to data.
  • Prevent platforms from using their dominance or “gate-keeper” function to discriminate against competitors’ products or services and to impose unfair business contracts.
  • Provide SMEs with the means to file complaints against unfair practices adopted by multinationals and ensure that the decision-making authorities in such cases are well-positioned and competent to assess complex and highly technical cases.
  • Introduce reciprocity in access to public procurement markets, specifically in areas of strategic interest.

Europe needs to combine an open innovation eco-system with strategic thought and investment allowing us to succeed in digital technologies and to become a leader in the digital economy. This environment must allow failure when engaging in cutting-edge research – thus, funding should not always be tied to specific results. Policies and regulations should aim not to limit but to expand the potential development of new technologies, especially in the starting up and testing phase. When proposing new laws, the legislator has to act with the clear aim of maintaining a level playing field for SMEs. After all, small companies lack the resources that big companies have to follow and/or influence the decision-making process. To fuel innovation there’s a need to invest in capital-intensive future technologies such as quantum computing and the necessary infrastructure. Supporting innovation and the competitiveness of European businesses must be the primary focus of EU financial frameworks and programmes. While many companies still depend on traditional bank lending, innovation cannot flourish. New technologies, such as e.g. blockchain, can provide innovative funding solutions which should be further explored. Other world regions have led by example in creating favourable conditions – related to financial or legal aspects as well as with regards to attracting skills & talent – to foster an innovation-friendly eco-system. In Europe, we need to follow suit.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Create geographic areas with a “sandbox environment”, e.g. start-up capital like Paris, Stockholm or Berlin, which will provide an environment with favourable conditions where future technologies can be tested. These should be linked to existing research hubs and similar structures.
  • Explore ways to make sure legislation considers the limited resources of small companies and does not overburden them. There are different ways to achieve this, e.g. by allowing them to operate in a testing environment, integrating general exemptions in legislation or other means, as e.g. limited liability regimes.
  • Establish European and national digital hubs and/or competence centres with a twofold role: 1) Legally support and provide market expertise for SMEs to form consortia to respond, e.g. to large public tenders, and to provide integrated solutions to larger customers. 2) Boosting the digitalisation: Provide basic infrastructure and support to help companies digitalise their business. Making sure that Digital Innovation Hubs are industry-driven and do not duplicate services that could be offered by industry itself.
  • Introduce and support financial instruments which focus on innovation. Funding instruments, such as Horizon Europe, should also fund risk-prone projects.
  • Provide investment and funding to build up the infrastructure and further the development of cutting-edge technologies, such as quantum computing, blockchain, biotechnology applications, virtual reality, etc.
  • Set incentives for high risk capital investments and support alternative forms of funding, such as, e.g. crowd-investment platforms and so-called Initial Coin Offerings (ICO), a technology based on blockchain, where traditional bank-lending is not available.
  • Encourage SME participation in public procurement by lowering administrative burdens and eliminating structural barriers for smaller players. Make sure that SMEs have equal access to European research and innovation programmes and funding schemes.

Internet access rates in Europe vary strongly from country to country and region to region. Some of the most economically developed countries, such as Germany, lack basic internet services in rural areas. If we want to strengthen our SMEs we need to provide affordable fast internet access to all businesses and citizens wherever these might be. Often these companies are not located in urban centres but integrated into local rural communities across Europe. This requires investment in basic digital infrastructure by the member states, also in border regions. At the same time, we should uphold the net neutrality principle when implementing new internet standards. This principle should not be given up for the benefit of certain service or telecommunication providers. Moreover, Europe’s public administrations need to step up digital services for their citizens. Some European countries are leading the way, and others need to follow suit. eGovernment services that are in line with strong European data protection rules and cybersecurity standards should be implemented on a much broader scale. Barriers to achieving a fully functioning digital single market continue to persist. New legislation sometimes risks producing fragmentation when implemented differently across countries (see, e.g., the Copyright Directive). Therefore, particular attention needs to be paid to making sure that new legislation is conducive to the overall aim of achieving a digital single market. Traditional obstacles remain and need to be tackled: For SMEs, different tax regimes on VAT are a central problem when operating across borders. This may discourage companies to do business abroad and prevents their integration in the internal market.

 How to achieve this goal:

  • Ensure that all countries and most regions have reliable and fast broadband access. Invest in the deployment of secure mobile internet standards of the newest standard (5G).
  • Further competition among telecommunication providers Europe-wide to ensure low prices. Ensure a single market in telecommunication.
  • Create an SME-friendly business environment and harmonised rules that allow business to easily engage in cross-border business activities. Tackle persisting obstacles in traditional areas such as VAT, contract law etc. and make sure new legislation keeps in mind the overall goal of achieving a digital single market while limiting the regulatory burden on small players.
  • Ensure that new internet standards are deployed in line with the net neutrality principle. Keep a fair balance between the technologic benefits of new mobile internet standards and the net neutrality principle.
  • Promote eGovernment: Digitalise and standardise public administration in order to reach, for instance, a “One-Stop-Access”: This principle implies that citizens can enter their data once and that the data is stored in compliance with existing data protection regulations and forwarded to the respective authorities (e.g. implemented in Estonia).

Data is the basis for automated analysis and machine learning. Access to data is crucial for innovation and economic success, and therefore needs to be guaranteed to smaller players. For the moment, Europe is not home to any of the large data platforms as they exist in the US or China. We therefore need to strengthen the access of European players to data and create opportunities for data sharing. At the same time, Europe needs to make use of its leadership in privacy regulation to create an integrated rule-based system that fosters trust and transparency. Users and customers should have the final say and ownership over their personal data, while service providers need to ensure high security standards. Ideally, this will lead to an accessible and open data market & economy, where large data players share user data with other players. As a consequence, innovation can flourish as data is made available for different purposes in an anonymised, accessible, secure and fair way. Collaboration among data players could take place across industries by relying on data platforms or open data sharing standards and interfaces.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Create a legislative framework that enhances user trust and allows customers to transfer their personal data to other service providers, thus creating a true data economy. In this environment, personal data can be shared for different purposes, but control over personal data ultimately lies in the hands of the consumer. This could be supported by a public-private partnership on data.
  • Ensure that the manufacturers of data-producing machines provide the open (or openly documented) interfaces which enable SMEs to read and use non-personal data.
  • Create clusters and pilot projects of data sharing between research organisations/academia and companies. Foster an open access to re-usable public sector data.
  • Secure stronger privacy in electronic communications in line with GDPR while opening new business opportunities which strongly respect privacy.

A large share of waste worldwide is associated with technological appliances – phones, computers and other hardware. At the same time, the resources to produce these appliances are becoming more and more scarce. The environmental footprint of buying a new phone every other year is significant. Considering the environmental challenges, Europe is taking a step in the right direction by introducing circular economy rules and models. Circular and sustainable thinking needs to be integrated in manufacturing and technology as well as business management – to the benefit of the industry, the customers and the environment. While Europe’s cities and regions differ widely in their size, demographic composition and administrative structures, we need use the enormous potential that smart city solutions can bring to improve our daily lives. Such innovative solutions hold vast potential for energy savings and could thus benefit greatly the environment. Other world regions, especially in Asia, are deploying smart city solutions to enhance efficiencies related to traffic management, electricity smart grids and water and security. However, these technologies also bear the potential for mass surveillance and control. Such features stand in contradiction to the core values of our democratic societies. Therefore, we need to enhance the possibilities for smaller local players to scale up and provide secure, sustainable solutions which safeguard our basic European values.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Promote circular economy rules and standards, while making sure that this does not put additional burden on small companies.
  • Enhance cooperation between smart city and smart home solutions. In particular, smaller businesses together with local communities to develop tailored joint solutions for European cities and regions. This can be supported by open standards for data sharing.
  • Encourage cross-industry collaboration to scale up innovative solutions in other areas.
  • Further the positive impact of efficiency gains in ICT appliances and data analysis for sustainability and environmental protection.
  • Explore other suggestions such as “the right to repair” which could potentially open new markets to SMEs.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and deep learning will be at the centre of technological advancement and innovation but will also bring major societal changes. The automatised analysis of data with AI tools allows us to improve day-to-day services, to analyse complex social interactions and to improve the efficiency of industrial production processes. Its benefits in the fields of healthcare diagnostics, supply chain management, and others, should not be underestimated. The use of AI tools can bring major business opportunities, e.g. by offering tailor-made goods and services. Europe is already lagging behind its main competitors (the US and China) in the uptake and development of AI technologies, at least in some sectors. Therefore, sufficient financial investment and an encouraging legislative framework should be created. Further, Europe needs to step up its capacity in researching and developing technical know-how to compete in behavioural data analytics relying on AI. On the backdrop of the Cambridge Analytical scandal and the potential for misuse, e.g. in the context of elections, Europe needs to set clear rules as regards their application.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Encourage investment in the development of AI technologies and necessary infrastructure.
  • Provide funding for and access to high performance computers.
  • Ensure access to data (especially for SMEs) which is a core requirement for machine learning and automated data analysis.
  • Allow and encourage the use of modern data analytics tools, such as text and data mining.
  • Explore a sustainable regulatory framework of AI with fundamental rights and the rule of law at its centrepiece. This framework must be complemented by ethics and a human centred approach to AI.
  • Limit manipulation possibilities offered by behavioural analytics and the exploitation of psychological weaknesses. Enable users to make informed choices (e.g. by ethical-by-design algorithms). Step up European capacity in this area.
  • Preserve the European Social Model by continuously upskilling European citizens. Develop new and flexible working, social security and learning models to alleviate potential labour market tension that may arise from automation.

The current European labour market is short of more than 750,000 ICT professionals due to a growing digital skills gap. European SMEs are sometimes losing the competition over the most talented ICT graduates to multinational companies as they can offer more competitive salaries and benefit packages to attract qualified professionals. Not only does this prevent European companies from advancing the digitalisation and innovation, but this may also lead to a brain-drain from Europe. A European-wide strategy is needed to attract, train, upskill and retain ICT professionals. As technologies change rapidly, so do the competences and skills necessary to fulfil certain job roles. A common skills reference is needed to help companies identify the skills gap for specific profiles and to ensure a true digital single market, where people can easily move between EU countries. To bridge the skills shortage in the short to medium term, barriers to hire ICT employees also from outside the EU should be lowered.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Build and further develop public-private partnerships on ICT skills and jobs, including industry and trade associations, national, regional and local governments, companies, education providers and ICT professionals.
  • Promote a more strategic and evidence-based approach in skills development, which considers market needs, thus laying the basis for innovation in Europe.
  • Leverage on the growing network of Digital Innovation Hubs and existing local structures when implementing digital skills initiatives and ensure that the hubs are industry-driven.
  • Encourage the choice for ICT careers, especially among female school-graduates or other less represented groups. Enable more flexible ways of working that would allow to attract more female ICT professionals.
  • Promote and encourage the use of a common language for skills and ICT competences (e.g. building on initiatives as the e-CF).
  • Promote basic competences such as critical thinking & logic, STEM, self-learning in education instead of solely deploying digital tools and material for learning.
  • Further open access and online education and affordable certification, e.g. for cybersecurity.
  • Reform the application for the BlueCard: Currently, the annual salary required to obtain such a blue card is set too high even for ICT professionals.

ICT standardisation is necessary for digital companies to achieve interoperability of new technologies. Standards can open up closed proprietary ecosystems and enhance competition. This can bring significant benefits to both industry and consumers. Standardisation can facilitate market access and integration of new players into supply chains. It ensures product safety, reliability and environmental care. SMEs can develop innovative products and services on the basis of standardised technologies, which would not be accessible to them in a closed proprietary eco-system. Therefore, SMEs should be made aware of the benefits of standards by active promotional campaigns. Also, SMEs must be given the opportunity to have an active voice to defend their interests in the creation and the access to standards. Further, standards can increase the level of cybersecurity if accessible and available to smaller players.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Support standards-based innovation: facilitate the development of industry ecosystems based on key standardised technologies (e.g. IoT, Intelligent Transport, smart homes, etc.), which companies of all sizes can access and use as a basis to innovate.
  • Support the representation of SMEs in the standardisation processes.
  • Encourage open and inclusive standardisation processes, allowing the effective participation of SMEs.
  • Foster collaboration between the European Commission and industry to facilitate the development of strategic standards, which are crucial for the competitiveness of European companies.
  • Invest in educating and training standardisation experts that can help European companies, especially SMEs, benefit from involvement in ICT standardisation.

Cybersecurity is a horizonal requirement, which is crucial for all companies going digital. Ensuring secure networks, software and transactions will be a precondition for emerging future technologies such as AI, smart city application, etc., to thrive. A strong cybersecurity framework will allow the economy and industrial applications to move to the next level. Therefore, sufficient investment in innovation, certification and horizontal application of security standards is needed. Europe needs to develop its own capacity to autonomously secure its digital assets and to compete on global cybersecurity markets. With cybersecurity being at the heart of sovereignty and autonomy, it is crucial to recognise the importance of this domain and for it to be dealt on a European level. Member States alone cannot provide the level of coordination and the harmonised rules needed to safeguard European citizens and businesses in the digital realm. Digital SMEs can be a strong building block to develop European digital autonomy in cybersecurity: SMEs are the major ingredient for securing the supply chains of ICT products and services. As cybersecurity technology is changing rapidly, digital SMEs, due to their agility, can provide the cutting-edge solutions needed to remain competitive. Creating an inter-connected, Europe-wide cybersecurity industrial and research ecosystem is only possible by generating a stimulating environment for digital SMEs.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Build on the existing ecosystem of SME cybersecurity vendors, aiming to create the best conditions for European cyber SME champions to compete on global cybersecurity markets.
  • Support access of SMEs to funding for cybersecurity solutions under the Digital Europe Programme and Horizon Europe Programme.
  • Create a trusted label for IT security solutions developed in the EU, allowing companies to rely on products of the highest European data protection and security standards.
  • Increase SME access to certification schemes by lowering financial and administrative burdens.
  • Develop a long-term industrial strategy for strengthening Europe’s cybersecurity sector.

A minority of the population is responsible for the most important technological advancements changing our societies. Most programming, app developing and other ICT roles are carried out by men. At the same time, the algorithms and technical rules developed by this minority shape how our world of tomorrow will function. Therefore, we need to ensure either strong oversight or a more balanced representation of different societal groups. This is key to ensuring that technologies of tomorrow guarantee accessibility and reduce bias. We would like to see an inclusive society ready for the digital century, granting equal opportunities for all. Automation and artificial intelligence might lead to disruptions in the labour markets as some job profiles or certain tasks could be replaced by AI. In the medium to long term, we will feel consequences of growing inequalities and resulting pressures on the current European Social Model. If Europe wants to maintain and improve its successful social models, we need to be ready to adapt and enhance efficiency of such models. Our governments need to create new flexible ways of social support that allow for citizens to continuously develop their skills to be ready for the challenges of the digital century.

How to achieve this goal:

  • Test and introduce innovative ideas to reform the social systems such as, e.g. a general basic income.
  • Promote gender equality in ICT jobs by providing mentoring programmes and role models starting in early education.
  • Enhance life-long learning opportunities.
  • Promote a core set of skills and knowledge which ranges from critical thinking, creativity, logic to the bases of European values and Europe’s founding principles.