Connecting Europe's Digital Ecosystems

"Our success is based on the three T's: Talent, Technology and Tolerance", said senator Cornelia Yzer at the "Digital Ecosystems Europe" workshop in Berlin. The gathering served as the kick-off meeting of the World Economic Forum’s European Digital Leaders Network to which I had been invited. The objective? To answer questions such as: How can we foster increased digitalization across Europe? What can we do to ensure that Europe maintains its competitive position as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds? 

The main take-home message for me was: bundle forces. Europe has a unique opportunity for major innovation-driven economic growth. With seven of the top 10 National Readiness Index (NRI) countries, no other continent can boast such a diverse group of leading nations. Even more, at latest count, Europe has a total of 47 unicorns (startups valued at over $1 billion). But to capitalize on this, the EU will require better coordination and support between its many leading tech ecosystems. 

A recent report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) describes an embarrassment of riches for some of Europe’s leading startup cities. For example, Luxembourg has the highest skilled workforce in the world with 60 percent high skilled jobs. Despite its recent controversy with Brexit, the UK is home to 18 tech unicorns and is building one of Europe’s largest technology centers at the London Olympic Park. The Netherlands is the first country in the world with a network dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT). Lastly, Finland is recognized as the best country in the world for education and skills.

There have been some recent efforts to bring major European corporations and the EU’s most promising startups together in order to help these young upstarts achieve scale. Launched by the former EC Commissioner Neelie Kroes in 2014, the Startup Europe Partnership has aimed to jumpstart collaboration and investment between corporations and leading startups. Initiatives like this one as well as Startup Europe and the European Digital Forum, are a good start in bringing Europe’s disparate tech ecosystems together to make a much larger impact than they can alone. 

In Switzerland, we pioneered with DigitalZurich2025 a novel model on the city-level – perhaps for other tech hubs to aspire to – uniting leaders from the private and public sector as well as academia in a cross-industry association with the shared vision of turning Zurich into a leading digital innovation hub of Europe. After its initial success, we expanded it this past September into a national initiative, known today as digitalswitzerland.

Some of the world's most renown startups are able to connect people across the globe. In this day and age it’s not too hard to fathom Europe’s tech hubs connecting in pursuit of shared innovation and growth. For example, what if there were demo day exchanges between each city’s respective top startups bringing about a fruitful cross-pollination of ideas to inspire further innovation? Or what if Europe had an annually coordinated schedule of market-entry camps across the continent to enable startups with fast-track access to Europe's 51 independent states?

The "Digital Ecosystems Europe" workshop has left me hopeful that connecting Europe's tech ecosystems is more than a dreamy vision; it's a strategy with the potential to drive Europe's future economic growth. But as I said in a recent interview to Computerworld about digitalswitzerland (which I headed as Managing Director in the past), I believe the decisive success factor for multi-stakeholder initiatives in the digital domain lies in the mentality of those at the helm of it. Digital transformation is as much about the technology as it is about the culture that enables it (or not). 

Europe - just like Switzerland - has all the ingredients it takes to create a more connected tech ecosystem. But we need a culture shift, where we choose action over talk, embrace collaboration, bundle forces across nations, and enable cross-industry, cross-national team work, starting at the very top leadership level. Everything else that it takes - capital, talent, world-class education and R&D institutions - that's already here. So what are we waiting for? 

DigitalZurich2025: Ready, set, go! 150 Days Later

It's now almost 150 days ago that something truly remarkable happened in Zurich, Switzerland. In early July 2015, Marc Walder, CEO of Ringier, Switzerland's largest media corporation, succeeded in unifying 20 of the most powerful corporations, academic institutions and political leaders of Switzerland for one shared vision: to turn the Greater Zurich Area into a leading European digital-innovation hub. The initiative organizes five projects launching in 2016, focusing on three key areas: attracting outstanding digital talent, helping existing companies master digital challenges and significantly strengthening the Swiss startup ecosystem. My role in all of it? Make it happen, or more officially: managing director of DigitalZurich2025

Zurich is not the only city in Europe looking to get it right. There's Startup Amsterdam. There's Startup Britain. There's Copenhagen For The Win. There's ParisandCo and its French Tech Ticket Paris initiative to name but a few. We're not the first to realize that a digital world is happening and that we better get on the bandwagon of the future. In fact, we are actually late to the party. So late, that when Compass published its analysis of the top 20 startup ecosystems in July - a full 153 page report - Zurich did not even make the list. Still, we have a ton of potential to make our vision a reality. Why am I so convinced? Three observations: 

First, as Ruedi Noser, member of the Swiss Council of States and founding member of DigitalZurich2025, noted in his op-ed in Switzerland's premier business newspaper Handelszeitung last July, Zurich has all the ingredients it takes: highly educated, technical talent thanks to the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH, ranked number 9 in the world), ample financial capital to invest in digital opportunities and great access to international markets. And the best part? In Zurich, it's all within 30 minutes reach of each other. 

Second, when Switzerland does something, we do it well, very well. There's a reason why Made in Switzerland is a global trademark for the highest quality known to mankind. According to the Global Innovation Index and the Global Competitiveness Report we rank number 1 in both innovation and global competitiveness. That's a great foundation and starting point. Now add the perspective that 20 of the country's most powerful leaders from politics and business have united to turn Zurich and Switzerland into a leading digital innovation hub. You don't get a better chance at success. This is it. Now we just gotta run ahead and build that bright future. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, even though it's time to run ahead, we ought to keep in mind that it's a marathon not a sprint. Silicon Valley took nearly 70 years to become what it is today. Most cities in Europe are currently between kilometer 10 and 15, and Switzerland is about to complete its first few kilometers. But as all long-distance runners know, starting in a pole position and speeding ahead for the first few kilometers doesn't mean you'll finish first. Having completed a full marathon just this summer myself, I can assure you that a lot can happen in between those 42 kilometers. 

DigitalZurich2025 is proof that business, politics and academia can move ahead together in Switzerland. The extent of our success, however, will depend on two factors: On the inside, it will depend on our ability to make steps fast and repeatedly in the same direction, fully aligned side by side. Externally, success will depend on the number of people from Switzerland and abroad who will join us in making this country a hotspot for digital innovation today and any day in the future.