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European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda
Address at Erasmus University Rotterdam
Rotterdam, 6 September 2010
Voorzitter van der Meer Mohr, rector Schmidt, dames en heren
Fifty-two years ago I was sitting where you are today. Can you believe that? Sometimes I struggle to believe it myself.
At that time we were the Nederlandse Economische Hogeschool (NEH) and Europe was a very different place. Europe was a divided continent with a fragile peace. We were certainly not rich and socially it was a very conservative time. There were founding fathers of Europe and the NEH, but no founding mothers. In fact I resigned my job here when I got engaged, by the convention of the time.
As we sat listening to the Professor opening the academic year, it was hundreds of men and only five women in my degree course. (28 women in the entire university) ... at least it was easy to find a date!
Seriously though, I don't remember a word the Professor said that day. To avoid that fate myself, I won’t be giving you any lectures this afternoon. Instead my hope is that you will leave today with more questions than answers. And I hope Erasmus University goes on to help you to become a more curious and determined person, because that's the essence of what University can offer you. To gather knowledge is not the most important thing to learn whilst at University, but rather it is to acquire a way of thinking. A good university teaches you how to think for yourself. A great university like Erasmus teaches you to look outwards and to think "out-of-the-box" - it teaches you to ask ‘why’?
When I look back at my life and wonder 'how did this all happen to me?' I realise that much of it is due to how Erasmus University taught me to think and be curious.
By having the courage to ask questions and explore opportunities I gave myself the chance to lead a fascinating life. If my university life had only been about reading, study and parties, then I would probably have stayed a junior academic and become a housewife when I married. While there is no shame in that, I would not have found so many of the things that I now love. Just think of all the experiences and people and memories I would have given up had I not been curious!
You should always ask 'why' in your classes and you should challenge the status quo. Maybe your teachers and friends will hate me for saying that! In fact, maybe you don't need the advice at all. Your generation finds itself in the midst of a remarkable era. For the first time in human history, members of the young generation are in a position to teach as well as learn about things that really matter – like technology. When I arrived at university in 1958; I could not have taught my professors much and would have even considered it inappropriate. Today, different generations have complementary skills, allowing them to be at an equal level.
Moreover there are no geographical boundaries either and you will find that you are preparing yourself to compete in a global talent pool. If you don’t challenge yourself and your professors, you will face a tough reality at the end of your studies as you are seeking employment.
Where is our world heading?
This new dynamic between the generations and geographies is a sign of a changing and globalising world. Europe is no longer the centre of the world's attention, but today you have many more opportunities than I and my university classmates did. Some of those opportunities are thanks to the European Union – and I will get to that later.
Today, half of you here are women. Many of you grew up thousands of kilometres from Holland. You have known a world mostly of peace and prosperity, with fewer barriers of time and distance.
You will do more as individuals in your lifetime than any group of people who lived before you. But with these opportunities and choices come stresses and problems. Today everything is less predictable and the world is more complex.
I don't want to sound dramatic; maybe every generation has the right to take some things for granted and to laugh at older people and their warnings. But I also think there is something different about your situation compared to that of your parents.
Your parents missed the hard years after the war and they were growing up before Europe faced real economic (and political) competition from the likes of India, China and Brazil. But you are coming of age, as I did, at a time when you can’t afford to take anything for granted.
You might look at me and think ‘isn’t she old.’ Well, at 69, I am definitely getting there. But by the time you are 69, you will be considered only middle-aged! Our over-60 population is going to triple by the time you reach 60! 100 million more pensioners in Europe. Dealing with that change in our social structure – not to mention climate change and debt - will make our current crisis look tiny by comparison.
These are huge and inevitable challenges. To address these, we'll require healthcare models no-one has ever thought of. Ways of converting energy that no-one has imagined. Levels of digital connectivity that no-one has ever experienced
While we cannot know where life will take each of us as individuals, we do know that everyone of us will be faced with effects of these developments. You will have to remember this when making important choices. We have to realise that we are all much more connected than before, making sustainable solutions much more complex.
I am optimistic that you, of all young people, will be able to deal with such responsibilities. When I think of my country, and when I ask people around the world about The Netherlands, there are several qualities that always emerge. The Netherlands has for centuries taken an outward-facing, entrepreneurial and curious outlook on the world. We are an engaging people – we say what we think, but in a good spirit. If you can combine this Dutch spirit with the rigorous thinking you will learn here at Erasmus, you will have every chance at success.
Please do realise that what you are doing has an impact on others and the world around you. And for that reason I also hope that on your path you will occasionally reflect on the contribution to Europe and the European Union to our future. It has been instrumental in shaping the world as you know it today. What happens in Europe is not obvious and needs your input.
What future for Europe?
As a Union of 500 million people and 27 free nations, Europe faces a very challenging future. What will that mean for you, and for all of us?
No-one in my 1958 classes - just after the signing of the first Treaty - could have predicted the growth and success of the European Union. A lasting peace, prosperity, twenty-seven Member States, a common currency, a Single Market.
Nevertheless, the European Union is still a relatively cautious project with modest powers. We do not have enormous financial resources or a leader with strong executive powers such as the president of the United States. That is a good thing because this allows for greater national and regional diversity. But at the same time it does not make it easy to reform a set of economies or mindsets, as I believe we need to do to tackle the challenges of the future.
So you may well wonder - what is the point of the EU? Why do I need the EU if I have a brain, a phone, a degree? What will Europe ever do for me? If you are thinking that – let me ask if you also ask this question in relation to The Netherlands, or Rotterdam?
The goal of a United Europe is to improve the cooperation between 27 countries in a changing world. The aim is to face future challenges together, because we have learnt that every country on its own will not be able to offer security and welfare to its citizens. The rules conceived in Brussels are just a small piece of that.
The EU does a lot more than ensure cheaper phone calls and get rid of visas for travel abroad! I had to deal with all of the banks in 2008 and 2009, and the car industry, and others – keeping them and national governments in line in order to protect all of us as taxpayers. And I promise you that we would be in a depression today if it was not for the market rules of the European Union. We were very close to disaster if we had not held strong against all of those that wanted us to go back to the bad old days of individual countries looking after only themselves.
But Europe needs more than European Union rules – we all need to get into a new mindset, and you will be a critical part of that. One of our biggest problems is that we are often looking backwards or resting to catch our breath. That is a recipe for disaster in this century. China, India and Brazil are not stopping for breath. They are racing ahead, and it scares many people. But fear is not an answer to that challenge - the only real answer is to come up with smart ways to join the race. I do not mean crazy working hours and giving up quality of life – I mean harnessing the potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and taking a more entrepreneurial outlook on life.
Europe needs more than ever a new mindset: a change in which you, as the younger generation, with all the dynamism you have, can play a crucial role.
A new Europe must create more opportunities for entrepreneurs and create a climate that stimulates risk-taking. That is not the same as being reckless like the banks have been in the lead up to the crisis. Entrepreneurs risk their own money and reputation rather than someone else’s, so I am talking about something quite different. Entrepreneurs start businesses and create new jobs. It is their ideas that improve our lives. So I want you to join with me in a movement that builds this mindset. Perhaps you too could be an entrepreneur...
We at the European Commission must be a bridge between the people of Europe and our shared problems. To do that we need a firm vision about the future of Europe. If we cannot provide this vision and be this bridge, then who will? That is why I am using every day to build up a new Digital Agenda for Europe: so that your generation has more opportunities to build a successful society.
Leaving the digital dark ages behind
So what is this vision about?
Tim Berners Lee calls the Internet a "tremendous grassroots revolution." It’s about using technology to take our society forward. It is the definition of the bridge I just mentioned. Lifting productivity, connecting people, improving daily life.
In the first edition of "Wealth of Nations" in 1776, Adam Smith depicts the advantages of division of labour and specialisation. They deliver great economic growth but at the same time also lead to fragmentation, causing society to disintegrate into endless links and nodes that do not communicate with each other. This undermines the importance and the role of people at work. ICTs and particularly the Internet have the power to either strengthen or break this fragmentation and loss of human essence. We must therefore ensure that we anchor the digital revolution in European values of freedom, openness and solidarity so that the use of technology benefits our society.
We need to prevent ICTs resulting in more mechanisation and spread a 'thinking in the box' attitude that leads to less communication in society. The goal is to maximise the benefits and opportunities of ICTs. These are the bridges that we will build. Increase productivity, connect people and sectors, and increase the quality of daily life.
Think about it. We can include more people in the functioning of society by taking the internet to everyone. And we will create a million jobs by rolling these networks out.
Chronically ill and older people will be able to live independently and in a dignified way for longer by making better use of ICT applications in care, such as telemedicine.
We can reduce our environmental impact, and cut down the forms and queues when you deal with government.
What is more – we have no choice. Because few people want radical changes to retirement ages and taxes or immigration, we have to look elsewhere for ways to fund our great environmental, competitive and aging challenges. Digital technology is the best solution left.
This is where we face the biggest challenge. How can we make sure we get the most out of using ICTs and at the same time anchor this digital revolution in our European values of freedom, openness and solidarity? How can we use ICTs to connect people and make different sectors cooperate, without individualising and dehumanising our society?
So my job is to work with thousands of partners to match up these solutions with the problems on our horizon and to facilitate this transition by building bridges between parties with existing and new interests in this field.
This work means getting everyone aware that ICTs will be an essential part of our daily lives. It is not about throwing money at a problem – though greater investments in networks and risky research, for example will help. And it is not about deciding in Brussels that we need to build a European Silicon Valley. The Digital Agenda is a trigger for a new culture that will facilitate research, innovation and entrepreneurship. We trigger – but you are the answer.
The answer is people sharing that borderless, entrepreneurial, inclusive and competitive mindset.
But do not underestimate how hard it is to change a culture. I have seen what it takes to lift Europe into a global leadership role through my work in competition enforcement. Every step of the way there are entrenched interests who resist change. On top of that we can sometimes be our own worst enemies, for example when well-intentioned systems have unintended consequences. I see that all the time in our research programmes. We aim for full control and accountability but this does risk our PhDs spending their time doing administrative work instead of the research we need them to do. We should instead be encouraging the circle of trust, openness and experimentation that gives birth to great research, and after this, entrepreneurship. And we should realise that sometimes a risk doesn’t work out, and that’s OK, so long as we take the risk with our eyes wide open.
Therefore I ask you: will you join me in building this new mindset? Will you found the next Skype? Will you be a European Commissioner? Perhaps you would rather focus on making a difference in your local community and in building your family. I think all of those choices are great choices. But the message I want you to take away is that whatever you do, try to make a difference.
Making a difference requires leadership qualities. I’ve thought a lot about what makes a good leader in recent years – about what sort of people we need to lead us out of the crisis and into new forms of progress. And in my mind it is clear that what Europe needs is people who can think beyond a dogma; people who can respond to what is in front of them with good judgement. People who can be pragmatic and yet retain a firm vision.
Europe needs people who can provide “collaborative leadership” – where a difference is made by involving followers in change, so that you and the change become more than a one-minute wonder. I know you are learning this point already – that is what social networks like Hyves and Facebook and Twitter are all about. They are platforms – not ceilings – just as the Digital Agenda for Europe is a platform: for millions of other people and positive actions to come together.
I would never dare to tell you how to live your life. But if there is one thing I have learned in the 50 years since I sat where you are sitting today, it is that life is not predictable. You must live life, and you must make it your own life.
That's how you are going to be able to make a difference: by doing something you love. And when you have found your passion, don't pass up opportunities because you think you're not ready or deserving. Taking the opportunity is the only way to get ready or become deserving.
Make life fun. And remember there are bigger things in life than you. People talk about getting chances, well everyone gets chances in life. The real issue is not which particular chances you get, but being able to see them, recognise them, make up your mind to use them!
You are the third generation living in the European Union: Europe 3.0. You will be building Europe for its place in the truly global era. Stefano Marzano (the head of design at Philips) reminds us that:
“We may think that what we do doesn’t matter, that it is merely a drop in the ocean, but we shouldn’t forget that without all the drops there wouldn’t be an ocean at all.”
In other words: you are Europe and Europe is you.