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?