The Covid Pandemic has shown us the increased importance of digitalization and innovation to tackle major crises and stay virtually connected in times of social distancing. At the same time, this increased digitalization proved to be a social issue: access to technology, fake news, youth inclusion, and gender inequalities all have shown their true nature during the past one and a half years. Following the introduction of the Next Generation EU framework by the European Commission, GreenerEU 2050 and BETA Italia decided to dedicate one of their Virtual Roundtables on Sustainability and the Future of Europe to this topic.
The event, which took place on the morning of the 22nd of September 2021, included four experts and business leaders who are knowledgeable about the topics of digitalization, innovation, entrepreneurship, European funding, cross-border cooperation, and female inclusion. The panel consisted first of all of Mrs. Cinzia Pasquale, founder of 4Scucess2EU and expert on European project management, funding, coaching, and internationalization. Secondly, we were joined by Professor Cristiana Carletti, law professor at Roma Tre University and expert on international law, Human Rights, and female inclusion. Thirdly, Mr. Uffe Wikström from the Finnish office of Interact joined us with his expertise on leadership, education, organizational development, and cross-border cooperation. Last but not least, we welcomed Ms. Jennifer Menninger, a young member of the German branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, an expert on gender studies, intersectional feminism, disarmament, and security.
The debate was characterized by a positive, albeit careful, attitude towards the Next Generation EU framework. Panelists agreed that funding creates opportunities and that digitalization and innovation are necessary to build Europe back up after the pandemic and guide it towards a more sustainable future. However, criticism was abundant for the slow bureaucratic processes that these funding opportunities are often accompanied by. Mrs. Pasquale pointed out that SMEs simply do not have the time to wait a year before hearing if their funding application is approved. Additionally, long waiting times for funding in such a fast-pacing environment as the technology sector leads to losses: companies lose their innovation opportunities when they only receive the necessary money after the next innovation has already reached the market. Flexibility in funding opportunities is thus a necessity to make them more effective.
The pandemic made it clear that digitalization can be a valuable resource for the future sustainable development of the EU, however many obstacles still need to be overcome: fake news was mentioned as a problem that increases skepticism and reluctancy to use technology; education was another important topic which needed to be improved upon, combined with simplification for targeted user groups; and collaboration between countries and communities, especially in border regions, was mentioned as a pain point for both digitalization and innovation. The discussion also centered around the cooperation between the Member States, or rather the lack thereof. Funding opportunities and innovation are available but are too often not used efficiently due to a lack of coordination and collaboration between different organizational levels. This creates an “EU in silo’s” as Mr. Wikström so beautifully phrased. Connections between the Member States and between the EU and its citizens also need to be created through education and mobility opportunities, which need to go further than Erasmus+, as these programs often only reach university-educated students.
The discussion about digitalization also included a perspective on equality. After all, women and elderly often have a harder time accessing technological tools and gender stereotypes still overpower the IT education and business world. Financial and accessibility issues, in poorer and less populated areas for example, also hinder access to technological solutions. This also ties in with the funding opportunities that Next Generation EU presents: an equal distribution of funds can only be reached if enough female entrepreneurs also apply for funding. The need to focus on more female inclusion in (STEM) education and female empowerment is only a first step. Legislation can be one tool to create equality, but social support and acceptance of female leadership are also necessary. Women need to be empowered to become entrepreneurs, preferably without having to choose between their professional and private lives. Basis support systems, like childcare services, are essential if we want to increase the amount of female-led start-ups.
In conclusion, Next Generation EU can be a tool towards more digitalization, innovation, and female inclusion, but only if it is implemented correctly and complemented with societal and educational changes. Cross-border cooperation, social support, and simplification of both technology and bureaucracy are necessary if the Union wants to effectively create a more sustainable, digital, and inclusive future for its citizens.
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Author: Marisa De Schepper