The Digital Single Market is not about bits-and-bytes, not about technologies, not about virtual media. It is about the people, it is about the citizens, it is about the jobs, quality of life and civic participation. Therefore it is important to look into the role of regions and cities in making the Digital Single Market work for Europe.
Our task is to boost digital skills, learning across society and the creation of innovative start-ups. We need to ensure digital literacy and skills for citizens, workers and jobseekers. This also includes the need to imbed digital technologies in education in order to prepare the future generations. We are looking forward to the European Commission’s New Skills Agenda 2016, which promises the promotion of life-long investment in people.
Not only is it enough to have local and regional authorities involved, we must engage our citizens and business to co-create and develop regions and cities together with all stakeholders, if we want to be successful and create thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems in our regions. Public sector, universities, schools, and the private sector all have to actively participate.
The main task of the European Committee of the Regions is to create a “bridge” between the policies and actions. In Europe, we need to connect to digital world in our everyday life in schools, universities, civic organisations and companies. Broadband connectivity in all regions, including remote and rural areas, is a prerequisite for this. The European Commission should report regularly on progress made in overcoming the digital divide, particularly at regional and local level.
Poor profitability means that in the rural areas there is often no market-driven development of high-speed broadband networks, so that the support options at European and national level need to be consistently further developed.
We need to engage cities and regions to invest in digitalisation and broadband connectivity and to use different financing including innovative public procurement and other funds. Here partnering is key to create growth and boost European economies.
In addition, we must continue to promote synergies between different programmes and financing instruments like EU structural funds and Horizon 2020 and European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), and promote European multi-financing and integrated European funding in order to support cities and regions to reap the full benefits from the Digital Single Market. Cross-border, transnational and inter-regional cooperation are also crucial to exchange the best practices between regions.
Entrepreneurship is one of the strongest drivers of growth and job creation. Digital and web entrepreneurship in particular have the potential to boost the economic recovery of Europe. Cities and regions can create a favourable climate for innovations through their interaction with citizens, universities, civic society and local businesses. They have a pivotal role in creating a friendly environment for public and private investments and necessary conditions for the strong startup ecosystems.
In my own city, Espoo, I have participated in the creation of several initiatives to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, such as Aalto University, Startup Sauna, Urban Mill, and the Espoo Innovation Garden.
Investing in entrepreneurial culture and entrepreneurship education is an investment in the future. We have to make sure that promising entrepreneurs can obtain the funding they need to start a business. We have to cut down the regulatory burden our entrepreneurs face. We have to support start-ups that are ready to grow and internationalise, and we should also equip entrepreneurs with the necessary skills to successfully start and run a business.
The CoR is promoting entrepreneurship in Europe’s regions via the European Entrepreneurial Region (EER) awards, created in 2009. EER regions provide us with living examples that illustrate what regions and cities can do to promote entrepreneurship education.
One of the very first EER winners was Kerry County in South-Western coast of Ireland. The County has focused on the early stages of educating future entrepreneurs via Junior Entrepreneur Programme, which introduces entrepreneurship in schools for pupils from 8 to 12 years. The programme has been so successful that it was adopted nation-wide, with 10.000 pupils participating in 2015.
Along with digital divide, we should address the question of innovation divide in Europe. Particularly in rural regions, the public sector is a driver for change and a key player in raising local awareness. There should be a focus on innovation in the public sector itself, as well as on rethinking management processes in public institutions. This will enable these regions to catch up.
Commissioner Carlos Moedas highlighted in the CoR plenary session the new role of cities as the new global powerhouses for progress and societal innovation. Cities create favourable conditions for urban innovation – the synergic interaction between universities, civic society, local and international businesses as well as citizens. This is why we must renew the Urban Agenda to include the Digital Single Market, entrepreneurial spirit and human smart city initiatives.