For Europe’s digital tsar there is a place for Skype, Twitter … and a rotary dial phone
Neelie Kroes recalls that as a child there was just one phone for her street in Rotterdam: “I’m talking about just after World War Two,” says the European Commission vice president responsible for Europe’s digital agenda. “That was not just about technology, but also about how we lived after the war.”
But as a member of the Dutch parliament and government minister, Kroes saw early indicators of technology’s advance: “I remember being part of the first discussions around Bluetooth technology in the 1980s – the idea came originally from Phillips researchers. But it is strange to think that I had the privilege to fly on the Concorde before I had the chance to use a personal computer. Look at the trends since then; computing is everywhere, exponential improvement, and now there is no Concorde!”
Looking at Kroes’s desk, you would be forgiven for thinking that she still clings to the past; a rotary dial telephone has pride of place: “It’s virtually an antique now but it’s much more beautiful than the digital button version we all get at the commission. I think we should never underestimate the role of design and beauty in converting people to new ideas. Sometimes the digital sector is too narrow about this. It’s a big reason why Apple stands out – it understands the design aspect.”
And technology is ubiquitous in her life: “I use my Blackberry and iPad each day. For email, for SMS, for reading newspapers and books. My family and several of my best friends live overseas, so technology is very important.
“I couldn’t know my grand-daughter so well without it. I really value our Skype conversations. It is how you see them grow. Can you imagine, she is four and so clever now, she even made a disagreement and ended the discussion by telling me: ‘No, you have different values to me. I don’t agree.’ She is four! I would miss all this if we only saw each other once a year.”
In her job, Kroes sees daily examples of applications, both ordinary and extraordinary, that are transforming people’s lives: “I have seen how even simple technology like pill alerts and pedometers can make daily life so much better. Then there are the extraordinary examples of people with disabilities who are able to learn and communicate because of digital technology.
“I met a girl in New York, who is almost entirely paralysed, who communicates with a keyboard and a little stick placed in her mouth. That’s a nice step, but what she really wants is a robot that would help her lift things or collect her stick when she drops it. When you see how for some people technology makes life worth living again, then you realise why this work is so important.
“I am also hugely impressed by the young people in the Middle East and North Africa: they are making a new society, helped by new technology. That’s a real inspiration.”
The EC’s digital agenda for Europe is wideranging, encompassing the creation of a digital single market, interoperability and standards, trust and security, increasing connection speeds, research and innovation, enhancing e-skills, harnessing ICT to combat social challenges and greater internationalisation of online governance and trade.
“I could talk for a week on this subject, so it’s really quite difficult to narrow it down,” says Kroes. “The essence is that so many digital challenges require global solutions, and if we can’t easily achieve them, the next best answer is a European solution.
“The internet is borderless after all. So you don’t want 27 or 200 different sales laws. You don’t want your data protection to be different from one town to the next. We can’t afford to waste money on bad IT procurement, or spend our lives in government queues.
“So the digital agenda looks at what the EU can do best, where it adds most value. And it looks to mobilise people into a digital policy community so they can better take action at their own levels. It covers everyone and everything: it’s a digital age now.”
Where has there been good progress? “Estonia is brilliant at eGovernment, for example. Denmark at eHealth. Berlin and Amsterdam have the start-up buzz. The UK has venture capital at one end of the spectrum and grassroots fi bre activists at the other.
“About half of the EU countries now have 100 per cent broadband coverage. Sweden and [the] UK are the most ‘e-intense’ economies in the world. Sector-wise, we have a lot going for our nano-electronics and photonics efforts. There’s a lot of good news.”
But there continue to be areas of concern: “Well, copyright rules and privately-funded research are defi nitely lagging behind where they need to be. We clearly don’t have enough investment in veryfast broadband.
“The ICT sector needs to get a jobs coalition going or it will face a huge shortfall of necessary skilled people – not to mention that we all have a responsibility to do what we can to usefully employ people today. The unemployment situation, especially for our youth, is a tragedy that we can do something about.”
With the World Wide Web invented in Europe and the world’s most valuable company founded in America, what does she regard as their respective strengths: “I admire the American entrepreneurial spirit. It is so different to what prevails in many corners of European business and government, where a business failure is counted a personal failure. In America they respect that you get back up again and fi ght for a new idea.
“We need to combine that relentless energy and courage with what we already do well in Europe, like using public procurement to build and shape markets, like using our combined power as a union to set standards that ultimately become global standards, like the GSM mobile standard.”
As a former European competition commissioner, Kroes was involved in some of its boldest moves to curb technology company monopolies but does Europe’s business environment suffer as a result compared with America’s? “Actually, I think we have the best competition rules in the world.
“But it’s the culture that needs to change. Bankruptcy should not be a life sentence. And people running start-ups in Europe need to think of the world as their market, not their home country or their native language group. We need more global successes and that means we have to want to be the best not just in our town or country, but everywhere.”
And as Kroes prepared to go on Twitter again – to support a ‘keep politicians honest’ movement in the run-up to her country’s general election and promote a campaign to correct misinformation about the EU called ‘WeAreEurope’ – she turned her attention to Scotland: “I see Scotland as forward-looking and progressive when it comes to digital action and that is certainly the impression I get from my Scottish advisers, like Ewan McIntosh and when I met your Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. And that’s a great position to be in.
“But my main message to all parts of society and the economy is not to be complacent. If you are complacent about the digital world, your advantage soon gets wiped away. I will be fascinated to see how Scotland manages to connect its remote citizens to fast broadband. Your innovative ideas there are very welcome.”