The digital age will be an era of winning and losing firms. If Europe doesn’t act fast it seems likely that the winning firms will be in American and China. Why is this happening and what does Europe have to do to maximise its digital potential before it’s too late?
It is evident to everybody that digitisation is changing every industry in Europe. But European policymakers are struggling to keep up, and the disparity between regulations in different member states is making Europe an unattractive place to scale up innovative ideas. And so, it’s no wonder that the Europe Union only has 47 so-called “unicorns” (unlisted startups valued at over $1bn), while China has 97 and the USA boasts 194.
The European Single Market has been very instrumental in the facilitation of trade in goods across borders and allowing manufacturers to sell products without fear of national regulatory barriers. But as European firms and countries transition into service economies (eg car manufacturers: from cars to mobility), the single market toolbox has failed to keep up because, so far, it hasn’t been able to synchronise the rules and regulations that dictate the use of services. For instance, it is often said that data is the oil of the 21st century because companies can use it to better understand their processes and customers and to train their AI algorithms. And the more data they gather, the more powerful they become. The combination of size and incumbency are becoming a formidable competitive advantage, creating “winner-take-all” dynamics. According to Claire Bury, Deputy Director-General for Communications Networks at the European Commission, network effects like these are estimated to be responsible for 70% of the value created by tech companies since the birth of the internet in 1994. While there is nothing to stop companies in America gathering data across 50 states and little to stop Chinese firms hoovering up data from over a billion users, those operating in Europe must navigate 28 layers of laws and regulations while their international competitors disappear over the horizon.
An often made retort is that these national regulations exist for a reason and reflect the historic values of a continent where privacy is considered sacred. For understandable reasons, many Europeans often think of tech firms as monopolies and associate their innovations with intrusion, worrying that their market dominance will result in more restricted, less attractive, more expensive choices while fearing that their jobs could be at risk in the years to come. Meanwhile, there is also a risk that tech firms will become sceptical of government efforts to facilitate their growth if they perceive it as an excuse for excessive taxation and the increased possibility of prosecution from competition policy authorities. Therefore, it is vital that both business leaders and policymakers extoll new technologies as a clear benefit to society.
To create a better habitat for unicorns, as well as for smaller beasts, Europe’s member states and Commissioners will have to work together on a policy that spans every sector, every region and every industry without alienating the public. Because digital technologies touch everything, no pan-European digital strategy will be able to succeed in a vacuum. And because digital technologies also have already disrupted so much, no policy will survive without reassurances that technology will serve the people instead of the people serving technology.