In search of European role models

By Maxim Gurvits on November 12th, 2012

They are as diverse as the continent whose digital industry they are tasked to represent. The EU’s “digital champions” come from all walks of life and are the outcome of a recent experiment by the European Commission, in which each EU country appoints a prominent spokesperson for its digital industries.

Will this effort help to put Europe on the map as a tech powerhouse, or is it just a lot of hot air and nonsense from a crisis-stricken political behemoth?

You can’t deny one critical aspect of government work. For every successful technology ecosystem, there was or is a government department that patiently sets the stage for its best minds, fostering the right conditions for geeks to deliver the technology to solve the big problems of the day – often long before there is a market to support the innovation.

Partly with this in mind, the European Commission launched the EU Digital Agenda in 2010, setting out key development goals to be reached by 2020. These goals include the establishment of a common market for online services, universal access to high-speed internet, the introduction of “e-government” and a lot more besides.

All these things must be implemented by national governments.

Champions

To help the goals come to life, the Commission has requested that each government should appoint someone to be the national focal point for this development, bestowing upon them the title of “digital champion”.

Europe being diverse, its digital champions are no less so. There are seventeen of them so far, meaning that only ten countries haven’t yet appointed theirs. In late September, the group convened in Sofia for the second time since the program’s inauguration in June.

I had the pleasure of meeting the champions and learning about their intended plans.

Finland and Slovenia are represented by start-up founders - Linda Liukas of CodeAcademy and Ales Spetic of Zemanta – while Italy appointed its current telecoms minister. Sweden chose the dean of the technical university of Stockholm, and the Netherlands its former transportation and education minister.

Talking to the champions, one gets a feeling of how much a single, coherent voice for European challenges is still lacking. There are markets to be integrated, young people to be empowered to choose technology careers, and the whole continent must be advocated as a source of tech talent and products, in places ranging from Silicon Valley to Bangalore.

All seventeen champs were confident in articulating the needs of their specific geographies, be it universities, governments, or technology companies, but they will need to bring their differing requirements under one powerful “leadership strategy” to get a pan-European tech agenda on the table.

They will need some help.

Giving a voice

While Europe may be one market on paper, it’s terribly fractured in practice. Even with a single currency, the language and cultural barriers still prevent early initiatives from being truly “European”. When it comes to creating new technologies, whether by a start-up or a group of researchers, in Europe one will always be bound to a national framework, language, and location, which are often too limited to give a promising early concept full European scalability. To say nothing of global reach.

Of course, this hasn’t prevented European scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs from achieving greatness. From Galileo to the Airbus A380, and to great online companies like Skype and Prezi, European discoveries and products are out there conquering the world, often without the public at large realising that they would be impossible to achieve without the integration that Europe has managed.

Unfortunately, too seldom do our great achievements shout “Made in Europe”, and too little do we learn from each other about achieving success, preferring instead to look at Silicon Valley for validation.

Role models

There are clear, winning strategies that our digital champions can showcase as best practices European countries should adopt. From the way the UK government has implemented Tech City, sporting a tech campus, university integration and tax incentives to entrepreneurs in the very heart of London, to the astonishing engagement of the Croatian startup scene with their President, which resulted in the Presidential invitation for Geeks On A Plane to come down to Zagreb.

Estonia is doing great things too: a recent event saw its President elevator pitching one of Estonia’s awesome start-ups.

As a member of the founding team of one of Europe’s newest early-stage VC acceleration firms, Eleven, I am seeing that what we lack is not tools, but values. We used to indulge ourselves in saying that we don’t have appropriate funding, that we don’t have the office space, or talent, or technological adoption.

The last two years have proven that this is not true: accelerators and incubators are sprouting up at an incredible rate, smartphone penetration is practically the same as in the US, and our internet speeds can be even higher. Most importantly, money is finally accessible. Just come to Sofia to see two amazing acceleration and seed funds worth a total of €21 million, investing in dozens of start-up companies.

What we still need, however, are role models. We need our politicians and business leaders to stand up and talk about start-ups, like they’re already doing in Croatia and Estonia. We need entrepreneurs to visit schools and tell kids that they can grow up to be Mark Zuckerberg. We need our opinion makers to showcase our results as “Made in Europe” achievements.

As Slovenia’s digital champion Ales Sepic told me: “When a factory with 800 workers opens after five years of planning, the Prime Minister visits it, and it’s on the evening news. When a tiny country’s start-up community creates 800 jobs over five years, no one even notices”.

What Europe should do

To be sure, it’s never easy to build an ecosystem. It wasn’t for Frederick Terman and William Shockley, who set up labs at Stanford and brought together the “traitorous eight” that would go on to found IBM, Cisco, HP, and Intel.

It isn’t easy for tiny Israel, where in sixty-odd years a meritocratic, defence-powered industry has been refined, yielding the world’s highest per capita concentration of technological breakthroughs.

And it may never be done in the unthinkable way the Soviet Union did it, by setting up a network of research prisons that famously took Russia from a wooden plough to a nuclear weapon in Stalin’s own time.

But, easy or not, we need to make it happen in Europe, if we’re not to become a moribund backwater. The truth is that all the key components for excellence are in place, but we still lack vision and leadership.

As we’re searching for a way to inspire our leaders to decisively push in this direction, let’s push our digital champions hard to advocate our interests. I’ll be sure to keep close contact with Bulgaria’s, the wonderful Gergana Passy, who hosted the latest gathering of digital champions in Sofia, and I encourage you to do the same with the champion in your country.

Let’s leverage that common stage, because as a united Europe it’s high time we told the story of our contribution to changing the world through technology.