Europe’s Digital Decade​: A Compass without a map?

April 8, 2021

Paul Keller

On the 9th of March the European Commission presented its long term (10 year) strategy for shaping the digital transformation in Europe. In a Communication titled "2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade" the Commission outlined a number of broad policy objectives for the remainder of what it has termed Europe's "digital decade".

While it is welcome that the European Commission has presented a long-term vision for its digital policy agenda, the substance of the communication is far from convincing. Instead of presenting a strategy outlining how the use (and regulation) of digital technology can contribute to solving urgent societal problems, the Digital Compass primarily consists of a series of quantitative targets. And while some of these targets address real challenges, others seem primarily inspired by the belief that technological progress in itself will provide solutions for the societal challenges that Europe is facing.

This brief examines the Digital Compass communication with an aim to understand how the digital transformation can be better leveraged to achieve a number of key policy objectives. It proposes that, instead of quantitative targets that the Commission has presented, it should be these broad policy objectives guiding the European Union shaping its policy on the digital space during the remainder of the digital decade.

Context

The Commission's communication comes in response to the October 2020 invitation by the European Council "to present a comprehensive Digital Compass by March 2021" that would outline "digital ambitions for 2030, establishing a monitoring system and outlining key milestones and the means of achieving these ambitions". The work on this long-term strategy has taken place during a period during which the Commission also presented the tentpole proposals of its current digital policy agenda: The Data Governance Act, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act while at the same time finalising the Digital Europe Programme. As a result the Digital Compass communication is relatively light on specific policy interventions and instead focussed on identifying objectives and targets for the development of the digital space in the EU.

The chosen time horizon until the end of the decade, spanning the work of the current and of the next European Commissions, seems appropriate for identifying strategic objectives in this field characterised by a fast pace of (technological) development. And while the strategy does not come with a dedicated budget, it is clearly intended to give direction to the 20% of the Recovery and Resilience Facility that have been earmarked to support the digital transition.

Objectives vs Targets

The communication itself is divided into two main parts. The first one identifies policy objectives while the second one (the actual "Digital Compass") identifies targets that the Commission seeks to achieve by the end of the digital decade and that the Commission will use to monitor progress towards realising the policy objectives.

On a very high level, the objective identified in the consultation is to "build a healthier and greener society". More specifically, the Commission wants to ensure "that all citizens and businesses in Europe can leverage the digital transformation for a better and more prosperous life" and that digital technologies contribute to "the transition to a climate neutral, circular and more resilient economy". To achieve this the consultation aims to "empower people and businesses to seize a human centred, sustainable and more prosperous digital future" and for Europe "to be digitally sovereign in an interconnected world".

These are broad and ambitious objectives that require a concerted effort on the European level. It is also clear that the digital transformation should be leveraged and shaped to achieve these objectives. What is less clear is how the targets identified in the second part of the communication relate to these objectives. The communication identifies the following 8 targets:

  • 20 million ICT specialists
  • full coverage of populated areas with 5G
  • full coverage of homes with a gigabit network
  • 75% uptake of cloud, big data and AI in enterprises
  • at least 90% of SMEs with a basic level of digital intensity
  • at least 20% of market share of EU semiconductors
  • Doubling the number of EU unicorns
  • 100% online provision of key public services

While is clear that increasing the number of ICT specialists, improving connectivity across the continent and investments into key technologies underpinning digital value chains such as semiconductors will be key to ensure that Europe maintains the ability to shape its own digital future, to build "resilient, secure and trustworthy infrastructures and technologies'', and to achieve a certain level of digital autonomy, the remainder of the targets is difficult to reconcile with the overall objectives expressed by the Commission. They seem stuck in the basic vision that more technology means better society, defined several decades ago. While ubiquitous access to digital technologies is indeed a basic necessity, Europe needs a vision that connects technological development to broader societal goals.

Instead of showing a clear pathway towards climate neutrality and a more equitable distribution of economic prosperity, these targets only measure the updated uptake of specific technologies or encourage economic concentration for the sake of economic concentration. To put it more bluntly: unless the Commission provides evidence to the contrary, we cannot assume that increasing the number of companies with a market capitalisation exceeding €1 billion (the definition of a 🦄) will lead to a reduction in carbon emissions or create a more human centric digital economy. The same is true for the indiscriminate uptake of AI, big data or cloud computing. At best these targets will serve as indicators of Europe's technological competitiveness, but focussing on achieving these targets will not get Europe closer to address the big societal challenges of our time.

Instead of translating the overall objectives expressed in the communication into quantitative targets that will guide investment into these technologies irrespective of their contribution to the desired societal outcomes, the Commission would have done much better positioning them as mission objectives that Europe strives to achieve in the course of its digital decade.

The EU digital strategy for the next decade should be derived from the societal outcomes that it is intended to achieve. In line with the aforementioned objectives these must include a commitment to deploy digital technologies to enable a green transformation of the economy, as a means to reduce inequality and increase participation, as a means to increase Europe's digital self determination and as a means to support democratic norms and values. The past decade has shown that such outcomes will not be realised by leaving the digital realm to market forces alone or by focussing on linear technological progress.

If achieving the ambitious policy objectives identified in the communication is indeed the primary driver for the European Union's digital policy making, then any legislative interventions and any support for specific technologies must be judged based on how they contribute to these objectives. In practice this would mean that instead of throwing its weight behind specific networks architectures like "intelligent edge computing" the Commission should define desired outcomes (for example maximal reduction of carbon emissions) and set incentives for technology providers to maximise their contribution to such goals. The result might still be a move away from centralised cloud storage to edge computing (as predicted by the commission). A strategy that makes support for specific technologies or technological architectures which is dependent on verifiable contribution to higher level policy objectives has a much higher chance of achieving these objectives.

Such a reorientation to put digital technology at the service of societal outcomes must be one of the core missions for EU policy making in the decade to come. To achieve such a reorientation a mission-oriented approach would provide a much stronger model for attaining the Commission's goals than one using DESI-derived digital targets. While such targets may provide a useful tool for measuring progress, they cannot constitute a framework for systemic change on its own - which is necessary for Europe to attain the stated goals.

Mapping the course ahead

The digital compass consultation sets an initial direction for the European Union's strategic policy initiatives for the upcoming decade. Given that the digital decade is still young, there will hopefully be opportunities to correct course and more clearly tie digital policy interventions to the high level societal objectives as identified in the first part of the Communication.

In the Communication the Commission has committed to setting up a stakeholder forum to provide further input for a more formal Digital Policy Forum. This process will provide civil society stakeholders with an opportunity to advocate for interventions and targets that are more closely aligned with the big societal challenges of our time: the green transformation of the economy, the reduction of economic inequality and the strengthening of our democratic norms and values.

In our contribution to the Commission's roadmap consultation on the initial version of its strategy we highlighted three recommendations that can contribute to this overall objective:

  1. Any strategy in this area must be based on societal outcomes such as the green transformation of the economy, the reduction of economic inequality and support for democratic norms and values. Support for specific technologies and legislative interventions must be made conditional on their contribution to these overall objectives.
  2. The European Union should invest in interoperable public digital infrastructures that reflect the civic and public values underpinning our democratic societies and can become the basis for a strong digital public sphere. A focus on public digital infrastructure can also contribute to reducing our dependence on a small number of commercial gatekeeping platforms and increasing Europe's digital sovereignty.
  3. In order to leverage the potential of digital communication tools to reduce inequality and increase democratic participation, the proposed set of digital principles must include a strong focus on access rights to information and culture. Public investment must be focussed on building digital commons wherever possible, to ensure that key digital resources exist as public goods.