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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
How to race online with no one left behind
Microsoft Government Leaders Forum
London, 4 November 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Everywhere I go I take the message of "Every European Digital." This is not just a slogan – it is the baseline for taking our society into the more competitive, environmentally fragile and demographically lop-sided age in front of us. Our shared future depends upon it.
Once people realise the opportunities that come with going digital, they nearly always embrace them. They nearly always want to know how to make it happen, for themselves and their communities.
It will not happen in ivory towers. Instead, practical approaches and partnerships are called for. You can think of the EU's Digital Agenda as the digital 'big society.'
We are not short of inspiration and concrete examples. I am so impressed by the range of efforts in Britain that are connecting the population. Whether it is farmers like Christine Condor1 in Lancashire doing their own fibre digs; the people of Rutland forming their own telecoms company2; or the BT – UK – EU partnership that will make Cornwall one of the most connected places on earth. To see last month, as I did, the poorest school in the poorest district of Birmingham, you would expect it to be a very un-digital place. The opposite is true: 450 students with laptops, teaching their parents, and grandparents too. Every generation was transforming – literally digital regeneration! These actions show the appetite of people and public agencies in the UK for digital action.
It can be so easy for people to feel the digital era is passing them by. But across the UK there are models for putting an end to that feeling. You are truly leading Europe in this regard.
While 76% of Britons are regular internet users, most do not have in-depth skills. That is a crucial point. Being digital means more than simply being connected. It means having enough skills for effective use of the Internet. Really knowing what to do, and having a community to support one, makes all the difference. I can't tell you how confusing I first found my Blackberry. I didn't have a clue about Twitter. That is natural, certainly at my age anyhow! But with the right support, anyone can break through those barriers and into digital competence.
Digital competence implies that users are critical and confident. They not only see the opportunities, but they take them. The Dutch have calculated that by 2015, 90% of jobs will require digital competence. We clearly need people applying for jobs online, acquiring information and building relationships.
The digitally competent are also safe. It is my plea that special attention is paid to protecting our children on the Internet and on teaching them how to behave safely. But as with all elements of the EU's Digital Agenda, that is a shared responsibility. I will start soon with my own grandkids, and am glad of government support. But the fact remains that responsibility must start at home.
Speaking of people who know how to take responsibility, let me turn now to the work of Martha Lane Fox and the Race Online 2012 campaign.
The commitment of this team is outstanding. Not only are they reaching out to the 9 million Britons who have never been online, they are fostering the networks that will keep them online and push them to the level of digital competence I mentioned.
They have put numbers to digital dreams too. Britons who go online save an average £560 a year. Even the poorest families save £270 a year. Of course, the greatest value of digital connection is the change it engenders in how people see themselves and their own power to make connections and a difference to their lives. But in an environment of severe fiscal restraint, it helps to know that large sums can be saved if just one or two citizen-to-government transactions could move online each month. Multiply that across the private sector and across Europe and the dividends reach into the billions. It's not a bad impact for one outreach campaign.
Of course, there is more than one way to do this. In Poland it is the Scouts who are training pensioners. In Portugal it is the Internet Spaces Network – now 10 years old – that has covered the country with volunteers and net connections.
But looking forward, I think Race Online 2012 is a textbook campaign:
Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, I would like to suggest that you take the Race Online initiative and actively promote it as best practice among your European colleagues in the EU's Council of Ministers. Europe needs such inspiring examples. We must ensure that the political leadership of Europe agrees that there is no literacy without digital literacy in the 21st century. That no one should be left behind as we shift to the digital era.
We need the top-level support to get things moving, here and across the Continent, but it is at the grassroots that we will really cement the change.
May I take the opportunity at this business sponsored event to also point at the clear and evident role of the private sector? This is a matter of self-interest as well as public-interest. You are connecting your future customers after all.
Many are already taking these opportunities. The most recent data shows Britain's e-Commerce market is booming. Indeed, I can't think of a higher compliment than to label the UK a “nation of digital shopkeepers,” as the Financial Times did last week. The best web-using SMEs in the UK are growing 7 times faster than the less connected (4.1% as against 0.6% annually) – and the internet has become either a launching paid or a lifeline to tens of thousands of these businesses.
So how can we take this further – this dual need for greater inclusion and greater growth? The elderly make up a large chunk of those offline – but form a huge potential market. They are waiting for targeted services! Work with the new generations of devices and interfaces that are helping them online. Exploit the endless health-related opportunities. Capitalise on how social media can connect the generations.
All the elements of the ICT sector all natural allies in the 'race online'. I call on you to take on that responsibility.
The European Union will be there to support you with pilot projects, funding risky research and enabling better networks. But you make it happen at the end of the day.
It is a digital society that enables a full-functioning ICT-based economy. Let's not forget that. And let us be optimistic: you have all the ingredients for success here in the UK:
This has to work in the UK. My aim is to make it work all over Europe.