Do you feel you’re living in a golden era? By some important metrics, 2016 was the best year in humanity’s history (I know, hard to believe). According to World Bank figures, every day about a quarter of a million people moved out of extreme poverty, and that’s the highest it’s been in, like, ever. Disease, famine and war are at their lowest ebb too (yes, really), but it doesn’t feel like that, does it? You might be looking at your social media feeds and thinking the world is going to hell in a handcart, but it really isn’t. What we’re living through is technology disruption writ large as it moves mainstream into our politics, economies and societies.
For me, the elephant in the room isn’t Trump or Brexit; it’s Europe and what sort of future it can offer its people regardless of where they live on the continent. As a resident of Europe, I want it to be a shining light for the rest of the world to follow — open, pluralist, collaborative: key tenants forged on the back of two shattering world wars.
And for that, Europe needs to get its act together and fast. Despite bold quantitative easing and record low interest rates, anemic demand continues to hobble GDP growth throughout much of what we call the European Union. In several EU countries, more than a quarter of the population has been unemployed for close to a decade, and political discontent is boiling over into extremism — the very thing the European project was meant to prevent.
Prepping Europe for the Digital Age
My role at the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work is to challenge our clients to think differently about their future. I’m not arrogant enough to assume I have the answers for Europe, but I can offer some ideas for business and political leaders in the region to think differently about Europe’s future and regain the beguiling swagger it had in the 1990s. New ideas then, like now, were on the march, albeit with a different set of winners and losers.
(Sidenote: It’s time to bore the kids … I turned 20 in 1990, and it felt like a rocket ride. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, while the Cold War fault lines fracturing Europe had begun to disappear. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously declared a new destination for us in his “End of History” essay, while closer to home, the Stone Roses changed music, and dance music made Glastonbury feel like a proper festival for us, the young! Disruption was everywhere in politics, music and culture.)
What’s clear is that Europe needs a new North Star; a goal around which its countries, corporations and citizens can coalesce to reignite the growth that will propel it forward into the middle of the 21st century. I believe that harnessing the power of digital technologies can provide that new goal, that new North Star, and turn Europe into a powerhouse for innovation.
A New ‘Hybrid’ Economy
Injecting “digital” into every aspect of work, life, culture and society can act as the forcing function that raises employment and productivity, and acts to build social cohesion across the continent. We need to see the new waves of digital technology coming at us thick and fast as the beginnings of an entirely new economy – a digital economy. Powered by platforms, data, algorithms, “bots” and connected “things,” this new economy is taking shape and, in the process, generating massive amounts of new money from ideas that represent the future.
Succeed with this imperative, and Europe could marry its historical strengths – culture, education, ingenuity – with the mores of the digital world to create a “hybrid” economy with which it can reassert its rightful place in the world. Fail, and Europe will fall further adrift from the entrepreneurial power of the U.S. and the mass populations of Asia Pacific. The stakes could not – literally – be higher. (For more, please read my full report on this topic.)
This is the opportunity in front of Europe today and for decades to come. Europe’s business and political leaders must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reengineer and revitalize Europe’s role in an increasingly hyper-connected global marketplace. This is Europe’s digital imperative.