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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Take your chances – Europe needs you
Opening of the academic year 2012-2013
University of Technology, Delft, 3 September 2012
Today I want to talk about the future; your future, and Europe's.
And about how we, and you, can ensure that future is as strong as possible.
The fact is, in the European Union the last 50 years were an unparalleled time of peace & prosperity.
That brought exceptional stability, wealth and privilege to hundreds of millions of lives.
Will the next 50 years follow the same trend? I don't know. I hope so. But they won't necessarily. We cannot become complacent, or decadent. Quite simply, our future depends on our present. On our mindset, on our decisions, and on our ability to innovate.
I want to talk about the theme of innovation at a higher level, by highlighting more depth and greater perspective compared to how political parties currently talk about it. I want to connect it to:
1. The position of the Netherlands in Europe
2. The position of Europe in the world
4. The humanisation of the world.
1. The Netherlands can participate in developing, applying and disseminating progressive IT and digitisation for new, sustainable products and processes that bring prosperity quantitatively and qualitatively higher consumers around the world, now and in future. This can give way to meaningful and high-quality employment. This program is only feasible with an interactive Europe. The discussion on the financial and monetary aspects of the crisis has diverted too much attention away from this innovative route to sustainable economic and social development. The implementation of the Digital Agenda is the vehicle for "creative destruction": the term the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), used to characterise what is happening in the world: demolishing the old and creating the new.
2 Given that this process is happening elsewhere in the world, no country in Europe –not even Germany- can maintain its position alone when competing with the global strength of new emerging economies. Europe must therefore work together sensibly. The current financial restructuring at EU level is a sign of Europe's growing sustainable and qualitative economic development, which can compete with other blocs in the world.
3 Sustainable economic development will lead to massive investment and meaningful employment but it requires continuous innovation. This is above all about impressive gains for The Netherlands, Europe and the world. Gains which consumers experience with increased prosperity. Improving the environment, clean drinking water for everyone, sustainable energy and reducing climate threats are tangible improvements for citizens. So here are tremendous opportunities for innovative businesses that respond to new needs and which the Digital Agenda also provides for. Economists who believe that the environment only costs money do not see, for example, that the renovation of all houses in The Netherlands would fulfil private and social needs more for sustainability than building new offices and homes which remain empty. Sustainability is the future.
4 By this I mean that the people in question, ie in their role as consumers, should come back into the picture - in corporations, healthcare and education where there is talk of dehumanisation. The Digital Agenda can serve this purpose.
Europe faces many challenges these days. If we don't adapt – quite simply, we may not be able to keep those happy lifestyles.
When I say challenges, I don't just mean the economic crisis. There is also, for example, the challenge of managing energy resources in a world of climate change. Or the challenge of a society that's getting older, and more dependent. All these, and more.
What's my prescription? It's that we need to make the most of our strengths. Here are three things in particular.
First, in Europe, we are privileged to belong to the biggest single market in the world, and a community of common values.
For the Netherlands, the EU accounts for three quarters of our exports - exports worth 120 billion euros a year, and 1.5 million jobs. The economic benefits are clear.
But that link between our markets, and between our 500 million citizens, didn't happen by accident. It happened thanks to vision, to a spirit of innovation and cooperation.
We should be inspired by that example.
Because we can't face up to the challenges ahead by calling each other names. Nor by complaining about our neighbours and partners. Nor by pretending we could do without them.
No: that won't work. Plenty of other parts of the world are ready to race ahead of us.
We must keep up, and so we must work together.
Let me give just one, simple, example of how. Wireless devices - your phone, your smartphone, your WiFi router - they only work thanks to radio spectrum. Well, that spectrum is becoming extremely precious; demand is growing exponentially. Each year, wireless broadband use doubles.We'll have to deal with that issue. And we should do so collectively and cooperatively. Otherwise tomorrow's smartphone may just stop working when you cross the border.
Today, the European Commission set out how the "shared use" of spectrum can fuel innovation for wireless devices.This is a bold and essential proposal. If we work together, we can deliver something essential to our citizens' futures. If we don't, we could strangle the wireless revolution.
The second thing to do to secure our future, is to grab every opportunity we have.
Technology is one of those opportunities. Particularly Information and Communications Technology. Its amazing potential offers me so much hope.
Make no mistake: ICT is huge.
The new services the Internet enables give you so much more efficiency, that the Internet helps small companies grow twice as fast, creates 5 jobs for every 2 lost, gives a massive boost to GDP. No wonder ICT provides half of Europe's productivity growth.
Already, today, Europe's Internet economy is bigger than The Netherlands, and growing faster than China. There seems no limit to it.
Of course ICT delivers not just growth, but government services, healthcare, education, electricity. As we saw in the Arab Spring: digital tools can even deliver democratic change!
And technology makes it easier than ever to do things differently. Online, you don't have to ask anyone's permission to innovate. It's cheaper, easier, less risky. Barriers to entry are low; what counts is energy, boldness, and being empowered. That's why you and your generation, can achieve more than mine ever could. And if you can tap just a small fraction of that potential, of that innovation, there's more than enough to keep us all afloat.
The third thing we need is to use the huge talent we have here in Europe.
I saw that talent on display last week in Berlin, at “Campus Party”. 10,000 young innovators and inventors between 16 and 30, all dedicated to tackling new challenges, to finding new solutions, and prepared to work day and night to deliver them.
And I saw that talent today here in Delft. Some very clever young guys using modelling to solve the world's problems, from simulating brain activity, to predicting floods. And one fantastic company, founded by Delft graduates, making electronic chips in a very innovative way.
I also recently visited a waste factory in Rotterdam which made new products out of the waste.
I know there's a lot of talent waiting to emerge right here in this room, too. Remember, it's our number one resource. Use it wisely.
But here's one more thing. The reason why I'm telling you all this.
Up until now, when things have gone wrong, it's someone else's fault, someone else's job to fix it: your parents, your professors, your employer; bankers, bureaucrats, politicians.
But soon, for you students, it will be your generation in control. You and your colleagues making the decisions that affect people's lives. Then it's going to be your responsibility to fix it, and you to blame if we don't. Take that seriously. Don't make the same mistakes as the current generation. Understand your responsibilities; and step up to them.
To do that, to solve the world's problems, you will need serious skills, know-how and experience. From now on, equipping yourself with those things is your duty.
And for you, faculty in the room, you have a duty too. A duty to teach your students how to learn, and how to innovate. A duty to ensure they take nothing for granted. A duty to ensure they dare to be bold.
That's the environment where innovation thrives; and change happens.
If I have one piece of advice for all of you today, it's this: don't be afraid to take a risk. And don't be afraid to try out a different kind of career.
If people tell you the only good job is safe job in a big organisation with a nice pension: ignore them. That's one lifestyle – but not the only one.You could also be self-employed. A freelancer. A consultant. An entrepreneur. An innovator. Whatever you want.
But only YOU can decide what the right path is – and then don't let anything, or anyone, stand in your way.
Because quite simply, we won't innovate and adapt if people play it safe. We need entrepreneurs, prepared to take a risk, prepared to try things out.
So do try it. If it doesn't work, don’t worry: failing is the most important, most instructive thing you'll ever do in life.
And if it does work, maybe you'll have found something you're amazing at, an idea that works, a change to improve our world.
Now is the time in your life take those kind of risks. So take advantage.
I'm going to leave you with just one more thought. I remember when I was at university, all the things I dreamed of, and all the schemes I had. I remember most of all believing then that I could do them all by myself.
But at some point you'll realise you're just one among a huge crowd of others.
Just one of those birds in that flock you saw on the video earlier. Just one person working your way among a swell of individuals, each seeking their own path, moving in their own way.
And just like those birds, you won't stay static. You'll lead and follow, disband and regroup, innovate and learn, organise and adapt.
And the result will be amazing.