The economy of the future is digital. Already today it’s hard to think of many jobs where familiarity with computers and the Internet is not helpful: in the near future, 90% of jobs will require some level of digital literacy.
So we should seriously worry about digital skills. In tomorrow’s world, if you don’t have them, you will be shut off from opportunity – whether it’s accessing government services, applying for jobs or connecting with friends and family to reduce social isolation. And bear in mind that, even today, 1 in 4 European adults have never used the Internet. Those people – “digital virgins” – are already more likely to be in groups more at risk of socio-economic exclusion; being cut off from the Internet will make that even worse.If we can get every European digital, we can cut this exclusion; and, what’s more, we will find the investment really pays off. First, because getting people online makes it cheaper and easier for public authorities to reach out to everyone – the e-Government savings from getting everyone online could amount to an amazing €30 billion per year across the EU.
But also because, in a few years’ time, pretty much every company – from small entrepreneurs to big multinationals – is going to start looking at the digital skills available before they decide where to set up shop. If we want this activity to be in Europe – rather than, say, in Silicon Valley or India – then we’d better start skilling up. Whether it’s improving the digital skills of those at risk of labour market exclusion; getting more and more people to embrace highly-skilled ICT jobs; or getting more young girls to study the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths, where they are currently underrepresented.
But here’s the difficulty. Getting all those remaining people online is going to take a lot of tailored work. It’s going to take a lot of levers – like education and training – which are operated at member state or regional level, not from Brussels. And some of the actions aren’t best done by governments at all – but by NGOs and activists able to reach out to those most at risk of Internet exclusion.
The answer is for every member state to have their own “digital champion” – a high-profile, dynamic and energetic individual responsible for getting everyone in their country online and improving digital skills. They would work with education authorities, industry, and grassroots activists; independent of central government, but reporting to it.
It’s a model that’s worked really well in the UK, where Martha Lane Fox is busy getting 9 million Brits online — and I was personally very touched to meet Martha recently and hear some of the inspiring stories about people she has helped. But equally it’s a model that can be flexibly adjusted to the different situations in each member state – and build on the good work they’ve already done. For my part, I and my services are standing ready to support this process, through a network so the digital champions can share their knowledge and experiences.
And just yesterday the European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso wrote to the leaders of all the EU member states asking them to do just that – and appoint their own Digital Champion.
Every Member State should have a Digital Champion. Does yours?
PS: while on the theme of digital inclusion – today we also opened submissions for the Digital Inclusion 2012 Award. If you or your organisation have made a difference in empowering people by getting them online, then submit your story at http://www.e-inclusionawards.eu. I look forward to meeting the winners at the Digital Agenda Assembly in June!