Digital Transformation in Belgium ?

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Today Alexander De Croo was at VOKA (more precisely: at VOKA Halle-Vilvoorde) and explained his views about Digital Transformation. Alexander De Croo is a.o. responsible for Belgium’s Digital Agenda & he clarified his action plan, called “Digital Belgium“.

ADCThis plan was made relatively quick (“in just a couple of months”), like the way start-ups develop the prototype of their product as soon as possible, and then test market demand, ask for customer feedback, etc.

Together with a group of employer organisations, a group of “ambassadors”, etc. new ideas & initiatives have been brought together in this plan.

The target of this action plan: by 2020 Belgium wants to be in the top 3 of the “DESI”, or the “Digital Economy and Society Index“, which focuses on the following dimensions:

  1. Connectivity: deployment of broadband infrastructure and its quality,etc.
  2. Human Capital: measures the skills needed to take advantage of the possibilities offered by a digital society.
  3. Use of Internet: accounts for the variety of activities performed by citizens already online.
  4. Integration of Digital Technology: the digitisation of businesses and their exploitation of the online sales channel.
  5. Digital Public Services: the digitisation of public services, and focuses in particular on eGovernment and eHealth.

Personal question: sounds good, with today’s knowledge. But if a country is or becomes successful in each of these 5 domains, does that really (by itself) guarantee that such country will be successful in the 2020 economy ?

I don’t think so. If all countries develop in this direction, how do we differentiate, in this new landscape? By selecting / developing certain sectors / industries, and giving up on other industries ? How about creating competitive advantages in manufacturing (3D printing, etc.) ?

Policy making: the new “Digital economy” will change today’s world fundamentally, and the government needs to deal with policy questions like, for example, how to deal with new business models such as Uber ?

  1. Scenario 1, ban these new models from the market, because it violates current legislation, because lobby groups ask for it, etc.
  2. Scenario 2, fully embrace these new business models & allow all new kinds of innnovation, “by definition” ?
  3. Or Scenario 3, the “in between” scenario : stimulate innovation with respect for the rules & legislation ? Examine in detail how legislation can / should be finetuned for new business models & new ways of organizing our life ?

Question is if it’s smart that the city of Brussels makes life difficult for UberGrowthFirst of all, because in many US areas, transport by taxi seems to have boomed, and has increased multifold after the entrance of Uber. Because Uber lowered the entrance to operate in this business (also : allowing upwards mobility for people), etc. they have increased the usage of taxis.  Hence the net effect of this new business model is positive. Correct ?

Question for government & policy making: if a new business model “is there to stay”, is it useful to fight this ?  Or is it better to adjust / optimize legislation and go for joined progress, and explore win-win solutions ? In the case of Uber, it’s easy to see the “interests” (and the concerns) of the existing, traditional taxi drivers, but on the other hand : for the economy as a whole, it may be beneficial to embrace new peer-2-peer business models ?

The E-Commerce case: in Belgium the “night shift” starts earlier than in the Netherlands. It’s good & it’s noble that we protect our employees with all kinds of labour laws, and that we regulate night work.  However, in this case the net result is that we lose thousands of jobs directly to our neighbours, i.e. the Dutch labor market.

The “Digital Belgium” action plan focusses on stimulating start-ups. Today, European hotspots for start-ups are London, Berlin and Amsterdam, and Stockholm and Lissabon may be added to that. Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, not there yet. Slide

One of the initiatives in the action is a tax shelter for investments in start ups, there are a lot of “funds” in Belgium, but “frozen” on savings accounts, etc.

The new initiatives will stimulate direct investments, crowd funding, easier access to loans, etc., but also reducing tax on salaries in start-up companies.

Personal question: are these today the real hurdles? What about our culture & our value system? Will Belgium develop towards a society where “failing” and “risk taking” are positive, respectable things ?  Not yet, in 2015 ?

The action plan will also stimulate technology and communications infrastructure, and related investments. In this respect, the taxes that the Brussels government tries to raise on mobile sites (e.g. for ultrafast mobile internet) can be seen as an “anti-innovation tax” ?

Personal question: when we look at broadband infrastructure in Belgium, are we doing such a great job ? When we look at Belgacom, Telenet, etc. & their prices : I’m not so sure. The argument from Telco’s that their prices are so high because they invest in additional bandwidth etc., sounds good, but in reality, it seems a big hurdle to reaching the DESI ambitions ? How can government policy increase accessibility to internet access ?

Skills & jobs: more & more we live in a digital world and as many people as possible need to understand the basics of technology, or become advanced at it (professionals in ICT etc.), which is a big challenge in Europe and also in our country (“de digitale kloof”). Young people who are at school now, seem OK (true ?), they seem to adapt. But for example employees in the Healthcare sector nowadays need to understand & use new technology, at an unseen rhythm of change.

Jobs jobs jobs: we should think through what will jobs in 2030 look like ? What will be the skills & competencies for new jobs in 2030 ? Perhaps creativity, or emotional intelligence ? Does today’s education system reflect the changes ahead of us ?  This is linked to “digital inclusion”: we have to ensure that everybody survives in a more digital world. Yes, there will be jobs, but how do we ensure that everyone has access to these new jobs ?

Alexander De Croo concludes that we have many strenths in our country: digitalentrepreneurship flourishes (e.g. “KMO’s”), the multilingual nature of our country (is it still there ?), we are easy-going people, we can colllaborate well and we are solution-oriented, etc.

As such, we need to embrace the digital revolution, it is an opportunity to create new business, new jobs, etc.

Personal question: are these strengths sufficient to maintain our wealth ? More importantly, are we fixing our weaknesses firmly ? Do we have the right governments (federal, regional, provinces, locally, so many “layers” ?) to drive change, and to do so swiftly ? Is the “Digital Belgium” action plan well-defined in terms of ownership, who will be accountable for wich of the initiatives ? What will be role for non-profit organisations ? What about social entrepreneurship, in this respect ? How can Digital Belgium help to sort out (CSR) challlenges in society ?

Many questions.

It was great to learn more about “Digital Belgium”, very interesting. Let’s hope this works out better than many similar government initiatives that were designed “relatively quickly”, with not enough focus on implementation & obtaining buy-in.

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Peter De Groof

https://be.linkedin.com/in/peterdegroof

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