European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda
Developing a culture of entrepreneurship and research in Europe
Address at BeNelux-Europa Prize ceremony
Breda, 12th June 2010
Ladies and gentlemen,
Change is the theme of the week and of our times it seems. We will have new governments in Belgium and the country I pretend to know best, The Netherlands. More broadly, Europe faces change as global power balances shift; as our newer Member States catch up to Europe's most prosperous. And we ourselves must change to meet our 21st century challenges, be they ageing or climate change or debt.
In times of change and crisis policy-makers and leaders tend to want to fix things themselves. But that attitude does not always work in this new digital and global era.
Today's power dynamics are too complex
Leaders have perhaps a more important role than offering quick fixes – that of building new cultures and climates around the sectors they need to affect.
Take my portfolio, for example – the Digital Agenda. It is a truly horizontal role. ICTs are no longer just invisible helpers in our lives or props in futuristic movies – they are the heart of how we live and work today. So this Agenda cannot be implemented without dozens of Commissioners and Member States, and millions of companies and citizens each taking action.
When I think of the seven key problems we outlined in the Digital Agenda, it is not spending or legislation that will solve them. They help – but they aren't enough.
Brussels policy makers cannot build a cluster like Silicon Valley from on high – it takes thousands of direct connections between partners. It requires chances for people who share a passion and speciality to work across old barriers; an end to the toxic image in Europe of personal bankruptcy; and a true level playing field in information and labour.
In short, it's about everything except technology. It is about a borderless, entrepreneurial, inclusive and competitive business and investment culture. If we develop that in Europe – that is priceless. It is worth a dozen stimulus packages.
With that culture we could get our entrepreneurs out of their silos without also pushing them away to Silicon Valley or MIT. It is how we can both pay our bills and keep our social securities. We would use all our talent and not just the male half of it.
Simple regulation and accessible research programmes are critical to supporting that environment.
In both research and the market development that follows we are often held back by our best intentions. We want perfect accountability, and to get it we sacrifice the things that enable great research. But process is not a goal itself. If you let me show a little national pride and steal a Philips slogan – I would say that 'sense and simplicity' should be our mantra in governing research funding.
Great research happens in a circle of trust and openness and experimentation. This is more risky than putting our money in a savings account and we must embrace this reality.
When such risk is anchored by the ideas like those in the Monti report (on the future of Europe's Single Market) and the Digital Agenda, we have good reason to take them. This is not at like sub-prime risk. These are risks we would take with our eyes wide open for specific strategic ends.
Beyond research we need to get better at taking our ideas into new and existing markets. I do not mean that the EU should take over the job of venture capitalists; but I do think our researchers and entrepreneurs should be better linked. That is the key to owning the benefits of our research; to better managing the issue of technology transfer. And like nearly every part of the Digital Agenda this requires actions at regional and national level.
We are not short of policy ideas any longer. Nor are we short of examples of European ICT successes. From Skype to Spotify to SAP, it can clearly be done. We need now to build the culture that lets these examples be more of a rule than an exception.
I have met with dozens of people, and especially young people, whose words and actions make clear that we need this shift. We will lose their excellence if we do not act on their warning. That is why I am giving them a real stake in my work – including asking members of Europe's Campus Party network to tell me what they would do in my shoes. It is a small step of openness that shows I am serious.
I do not apologise if this sounds disruptive – this is what Europe needs to get back into the R&D&I driver's seat.
Developing these business and research cultures would be the best asset and legacy of today's generation of leaders. Doing this would be Europe's message to the world that we are vibrant, open for business and relevant in all debates. It would give us the keys to unlock many of our current problems, and also ones we cannot even predict today.
I have seen what it takes to lift Europe into a global leadership role through my work in antitrust enforcement. And in developing the Digital Agenda for Europe I have learnt just how much we can gain – or give up – depending on our attitudes to ICTs and innovation.
Will you get the care you deserve in old age? Will your grandchildren be left with your debts? What type of job can you expect to hold in 10 years? The answers are bound up in the fate of the Digital Agenda for Europe and the wider progress, or not, or the European Union.
So – please take the more interesting but harder road of helping Europe to improve and adapt. Do it for yourself, for your children and grandchildren and your community. I hope very much that you will join me in this vision for the future of Europe.