Davos: ‘Virtually every business is a digital business now’

Neelie Kroes, head of the European Commission’s digital agenda, is in Davos to promote the EU’s new drive to help European digital start-ups. Here she explains why Europe can take on Silicon Valley.

Several trends are emerging from discussions at the World Economic Forum in Davos. At the social level, it’s hyperconnectivity – the fact that we’re now always connected, addicted to screens and the question of where it will stop, if it all and how that links to everything from what our kids do online to surveillance scandals.

My own personal view is we need to think about the implications of this digital tsunami. It’s a discussion about what life we want to lead, not just what innovation and the market can deliver.

At the policy level there are many discussions about governance – from whether the internet is going to break up into national nets and how we can stop it; to what counts as legitimate leadership in a democracy in the 21st century.

From Turkey to Ukraine to Iran and more, you can sometimes feel the tension in the air. And about how we can ensure security without scaring everyone into a backlash against big data, which so many things depend on – from our ability to tackle climate change to our ability to care for an ageing population

At the economic level, I’ve been focussed on digital issues, which I am in charge of at the EU level.  Those issues are becoming all-pervasive. Virtually every business is a digital business now.

Shop floors and factory floors alike need workers with digital skills. I’ve met with bank CEOs who tell me all their business models are about to be torn shreds, that the future is mostly virtual banking and their main competitors are tech companies not other banks.

My own pet topic has been entrepreneurship.

If Europe wants to challenge Silicon Valley as place that generates digital business our start-ups need to learn how to ‘scale’.

They need to get better at growing: breaking through national and language barriers so they mature into global champions that last.

This thought led me to initiate a new accelerator forum – the StartUp Europe Partnership – launched this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Our founding partners are cover all corporate, university and finance angles. They include Telefonica, Orange, BBVA, European Investment Bank, Cambridge University, IE Business School, Humboldt University, the Lisbon Council, Nesta and Mind the Bridge Foundation.

It’s crucial that each party understands their useful role in this scaling process.  I am very clear that politicians don’t create jobs, entrepreneurs do. Sometimes the best thing a political leader can do is clear obstacles and then get out of the way before they become an obstacle themselves.

So when it comes to startups I want the EU to bring people together, to give some scale of our own to the push to take on Silicon Valley.  I want to push start-ups out of their comfort zone and make sure everyone knows the scale benefits of our single market. And then we’re going to get out of the way.

This is the sort of the European Union you can believe in.

A Union that uses its weight to stop Europe from ending up in a situation where we are mere digital consumers: buying hardware from the Far East, and software from the Far West, with no jobs for our own economies in the middle of that. And I am well aware that without digital skills, it will be impossible for our young generation to thrive in the digital world.

So in starting this partnerships the EU is listening to the people who know how to make jobs. By pushing our start-ups to take on the world we going to ensure extra jobs and a dynamic economy.

It’s not just about helping new companies to grow. Every medium and large company needs the creative and disruptive input of start-ups to avoid a wipe-out of their own.

We aren’t copying Silicon Valley, because we don’t need to. We’re doing it our own way that works for our own economy.