Viviane Reding, European commissioner for all things hi-tech, is known for telling it like it is. A passionate advocate for new technologies, she has made a name for herself by confronting anything or anyone she thinks hinders European citizens from benefiting from what technologies have to offer.
In a wide-ranging speech at Microsoft's European Growth and Innovation Day in Brussels on 5 March 2009, Reding shared her thoughts on some of the burning issues in Europe at present, from the shortage of trained ICT experts in Europe, through the role ICT can play in getting the economy going again, to how it can help reduce Europe's carbon footprint.
The Commissioner pointed out that Europe's ICT industry is currently short of 300,000 experienced and high-level engineers and ICT specialists. “If we don't get those the industry won't be able to develop in the way it has a chance to,” she said.
Commissioner Reding delivers her keynote address to Microsoft’s European Growth and Innovation Day
Photo Olivier Anbergen
The IT industry is the tool for getting the whole economy out of the economic crisis, and it should be viewed as the pre-eminent tool for growth and jobs. “We know that while the economy goes down, the ICT and the IT businesses are growing,” Reding said. "There is an opportunity not just for the industry but for the economy as a whole, she said: those small and medium-sized companies which utilise technologies in the future are the ones that will grow."
But for the broader economy to benefit from technology we need to take some basic steps, she said. These include having enough manand womanpower, but there's more. “We need to have secured that we have a real internal market,” she said – an internal market in the European Union without barriers where businesses, big and small, can operate right across that market. They need this to have enough scale to develop their technologies, she said.
“Those companies that utilise technologies in the future are the ones that will grow.”
For that you need basic infrastructure. “One of the reasons why I am pushing so much […] for seamless infrastructures is because that is basic to develop the content and the service industry,” said Reding. We cannot afford to have 30 per cent of citizens living in the countryside not connected to broadband Internet, she said. “If we want to close the gaps and cover the white spots in the rural areas we certainly need to have a very serious reform of radio spectrum,” she said, because without it Europe will not have the wireless development it needs.
The Commissioner explained why she believes high-speed infrastructure is so important: “Broadband has a direct impact on productivity growth […] Data show that those EU member states that are broadband leaders grow by 0.5 per cent faster than the slow adopters.” ICT has been responsible for 40 per cent of productivity growth in recent years, and this is largely due to fast Internet access.
After touching on cloud computing and the crucial role in this of small and medium-sized companies, Reding moved on to the role ICT can play in more specific goals the EU is trying to tackle, rather than just improving economic productivity. Specifically, the Commissioner referred to the contribution of ICT to the fight against climate change. “The smartest investment of all is to build a sustainable economy which promotes the transition to a low-carbon future and that is the task which will be made possible by ICT solutions,” she said – though she warned that due to the horizontal impact of ICT across industries, “the carbon footprint of the [ICT] sector is also growing”. But she was confident that the industry would be able to deal with this by itself.
She pointed out that the ICT industry stands to gain from efforts to cut down on carbon emissions, and called for a focus on making ICT a green technology. “Think of the travel substitution [by] video or teleconferencing,” she said, or RFID-enabled recycling. “All these may permit the re-engineering of supply chains towards a sustainable information society,” she said.
“My dream is that, for example, we will have in the future a connected city which is green, where traffic management systems, environmental controls, waste treatment, urban maintenance systems are all connected and optimised for low-energy use […] Most of you [here] are putting the small stones together so that this dream can become a reality,” she said, and quickly, too, with the help of the policy makers. Imagine the energy saving – and the increased quality of life – from having smart meters for whole cities, for example. “Here are whole industries waiting to be developed,” Reding said.
“When we speak about technology, actually we mean people.” Everything, said the Commissioner, is directly related to citizens. Consider the aged, for example, who with the aid of technology, and specifically e-health, could stay at home and still remain connected to family, friends and doctors.
Today, for every retired person there are still five in employment. By 2025 the ratio will drop to 3:1, and by 2050 to 2:1. “We won't solve that problem for the next generation if we do not utilise the technology in the right way,” Reding said.
“This is the real chance technology offers. It empowers people, it empowers talent. You do not need to be employed, you do not need to go through a whole career, you just can go there and show your talent. Utilising those talents in a positive way […] is the real chance [for] Europe,” said Reding.
“This means that as businesses and policymakers we start to think in a different way. This means that we put the people in the centre of our thinking.” It is people who will advance our society. “That is what we can achieve with the help of technology, not for the sake of technology, but for the sake of the wellbeing of all people living in Europe,” she concluded.