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Europe's digitalisation delay: help via (higher) education

The European Commission is dedicating 1.5 billion euros to accelerate the EU's digitalisation, but one single US university, MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts (above), invests 1 billion. While EU universities can't do it alone, they can still make an enormous difference. DrKenneth/Wikimedia, CC BY

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Europe always has been a key player in the run for globalisation, and the European Union has opened up its markets internationally like no other region in the world. Yet as digitalisation has become the new globalisation, Europe is lagging. In areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, or the Internet of Things (IoT), the world’s champions are the United States and China. In this battle, the old continent is looking old indeed.

Looking for leaders in the AI sector, one rapidly ends up with the US big five: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. China also has its digital champions: Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. All are highly profitable – especially when comparing them to giants of the old economy. For example, Facebook makes a profit of nearly 20 billion dollars with revenues slightly above 40 billion dollars. By comparison, Daimler, with revenues four times as high, only achieves a profit of 10 billion dollars.

Opportunity or threat, one thing is clear: digitalisation is changing not only the economy but also society and whoever wins this battle will have global influence. Some already speak of the “Cold Tech War” between the US and China – Europe isn’t even seen as being part in this race. The European Commission, which dedicates 1.5 billion euros to the development of artificial intelligence, is seemingly aware and willing to tackle the EU’s digital delay. Yet just a single US university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alone invests 1 billion into the same cause. It’s enough to raise the question of whether the EU really understands what’s at stake.

Education’s potential power

Higher-education institutions in Europe do not have the budgets to compete at this level, and in any case, the education sector cannot be Europe’s sole remedy for its delay in digitalisation. That said, the education sector can definitely play its part.

  • Digitalisation needs to broadly enter the classroom and its influence on business and society at large needs to be discussed and analysed. Every student needs to master the basic digital vocabulary and have a clear picture of the future challenges and opportunities triggered by digitalisation. Furthermore, coding, data manipulation, and alike should be on any program’s curriculum. While this is already the case in China, in Europe we often seem to still work with blackboard and chalks.

  • A strong interdisciplinary focus becomes increasingly important. Here European (business) schools might even have an advantage in comparison to their US counterparts since these historically were always more focused on interdisciplinarity. Students need to learn to go into more depth by themselves in case such knowledge is needed in a future job. Tasks and requirements of future employments will change quickly and evolve regularly, leading to the need for a live-long learning process. Instead of professors providing students with content to be memorised, they need to be trained on how to find the relevant content autonomously. Teachers need to evolve even more from knowledge providers to learning coaches.

  • Universities across Europe need to encourage students to thrive for innovation, even disruption, and to see potential failures as a step toward success. European companies in comparison to their US and Chinese counterparts tend to invest less in innovation. Yet, innovation is the main answer to change and a prerequisite to stay in the game. Such an entrepreneurial spirit should even be taught to students in Europe already from their primary and secondary education onwards.

  • Whoever has access to the biggest data pool will win the race in the development of AI. Stricter data protection regulations in Europe combined with its culturally more prudent approach to personal data, represent a barrier to the development of AI compared to China or the US. Students, i.e. future European policy and law makers, need to be made aware of the consequences of their decisions in order for them to find smart solutions to guarantee data protection and privacy, concepts Europe is rightly proud of, without making it impossible for European firms to compete on a global level.

Europe as advocate for digital humanism

Last but not least, awareness for the bigger societal impacts of the digitalisation needs to be created. By all likelihood, many employees will lose their jobs and will be replaced by automation and robotics. This doubtlessly will create enormous challenges for any future society within Europe but also, and above all, on a global scene. Students need to be conscious of these changes and able to contribute to a sustainable and equitable world in which everybody has his or her place in society.

Europe often prides itself with its humanistic values. However, the past and presence show that the application of such values to all people in the context of globalisation seems to be a challenge, at least this is how several parts of society feel. A debate on this has started within the European Union. The digitalisation, as the new globalisation, will most likely be more challenging. For the EU to promote digital humanism, it would certainly be necessary for Europe to be part in the digital race and not to run behind it. (Higher) education can also help here.

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