Championing the fourth art
Robert Madelin pre-empts his observation with an apology if it sounds “a bit highfalutin”. Madelin heads the European Commission’s Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content & Technology – or DG Connect, for short.
“I think we are moving to a new renaissance,” he says, “partly from the progressive intermingling of what we used to think of as siloed disciplines; chemistry, physics, biology, nanotechnology, cognitive sciences and computing.
“And partly because through the integration of disciplines and the pervasiveness of these new technologies, we are unlocking powerful new ways of seeing the world. But [the danger is] you can miss the renaissance; the original was not uniformly felt across Europe.”
Madelin was in Edinburgh last month to hear from the Scottish Government on the progress of its digital agenda, from Edinburgh University, about its informatics research and commercialisation, and from Glasgow’s Future City team, about its £24m programme which will demonstrate how technology can make life in the city smarter, safer and more sustainable.
“The purpose of people like me leaving Brussels and coming to the real world is to abandon the ivory tower and hear what’s really going on. What I take back is that the broad shape of the digital agenda is not wrong; we need connectivity, we need the skills.
“What I also take away is that, where you can learn lessons from work on connectivity in areas such as the Highlands and Islands, we really need to look across Europe at other sparsely populated areas and make sure we are not leaving groups of citizens behind.
“Equally, if you look at the smart city initiative in Glasgow and the teams at Edinburgh University, where there are world-class beacons in the Scottish experience it would be good to share that light more actively across Europe.”
Madelin, 56, read French and History at Magdalen College, Oxford, and then studied at the École Nationale d’Administration in Paris. He joined the civil service in 1979, serving mainly in London and then in Brussels before joining the EC in 1993.
He worked for Sir Leon Brittan, EC Vice-President, until 1997 and since then has been a Director in the Trade Department, and then Director General for Health and Consumer Affairs. He took over at what would become DG Connect in 2010, today working for Neelie Kroes, the EC’s Vice President responsible for Europe’s digital agenda.
His background informs his approach: “I come from the humanities side,” he says in response to a question about education and computing science. “The issue is not about pure science, technology or maths; it goes deeper than that. What we now know about advanced physics, about complex systems, should transform the way we look at the world.
“I think it’s more about positioning programming and the cognitive world where the Scottish education system positions music, for example; it’s accessible to everybody. You are not necessarily going to be the next great composer but you are exposed to that creative side of life.
“It’s an art we are failing to sell correctly. Steve Jobs – his combination of technology and calligraphy skills – should not be an aberration. Governments everywhere should commit to digital literacy as the fourth art.
“And there needs to be a huge investment in teaching so that we are digitally literate whatever we are learning; it’s about technology being an integral part of every subject we study.”
Madelin’s generation spans the pre- and post-digital worlds: “We didn’t have a phone in the house until I was 10. My mother would write to my grandmother and say, ‘I’ll phone you at 7 tomorrow,’ and they would both walk to phone boxes at the end of the streets where they lived.”
When he started in the civil service in 1979, there were no computers in evidence; there was just the typing pool. They were there when he joined the commission, but it was not until he was in a senior position in 1997 and began travelling that he asked for a modem: ‘No one’s asked for one of those before, but we’ll find you one,’ came the reply.
“So, we have come a long way; high speed, a lot of intelligence – in your pocket. The other thing that has changed is the social aspect of the network effect,” says Madelin, citing the directorate’s gradual move from email to a prototype social media tool for internal communication.
Next month, Madelin will attend Digital Venice 2014; a high-level meeting hosted by the City of Venice and promoted by the Italian presidency of the European Council with the support of DG Connect. It will gather policy, industry and innovation leaders from all over Europe to trace the road to a growing, sustainable digital economy.
The event, intended to be held every year, takes place at the start of the Italian presidency to mark the emphasis placed by the Italian government on digital innovation as the key to sustainable economic development and a boost to new employment.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will host a discussion with Neelie Kroes, other prominent European policy-makers and representatives of leading international digital companies. A ‘Venice Declaration’ summarising the vision and recommendations emerging from the conference will be presented by the Italian presidency.
Digital Venice will also stage five workshops, during which some 300 innovators, government officers, experts and researchers will make their contribution to the future European policies on the digital agenda.
A pivotal year lies ahead: “We are now in year five of the digital agenda for Europe, that was launched at the beginning of the current commission mandate and by Christmas we will have a new boss,” says Madelin.
“The first thing we want is to move from digital being an important vertical policy area to being the horizontal strategic driver. We need to have a digital strategy in all areas – the commission must be ‘digital first’ in all policy areas – education, social services, energy and so on.
“Second, we need to innovate in the real world and not the lab. If you look at the smart city work in Glasgow, it’s a very impressive integration of economic opportunity, social inclusion and more efficient city management – all through a vision of the application of innovative ICT.
“That’s an approach we need to be taking much more widely; you don’t have to be as big a place as Glasgow to be a smart community.
“And the third thing – which we are doing well – is that we need to continue research excellence in Europe. Here we are in Edinburgh; the university is the biggest UK ICT research winner in Europe and one of the top 15 across the whole of Europe.
“We have to maintain our focus on being the place where we design and invent smart new chips, new apps and we provide the environment for small and medium-sized enterprises to start in Europe, to stay in Europe and to grow in Europe.”