LIFE program: the EU rewards inspiring projects in favor of nature, the environment and climate action
The Connected Europe initiative has shown how much popular support there is for a healthier, greener and more digital society. Ben Wreschner (Chief Economist, Vodafone) and Dharmendra Kanani (Director Asia, Peace, Security and Defense, Digital and Chief Spokesperson, Friends of Europe) explain how citizen engagement will be crucial for green and digital transitions.
The recently launched Conference on the Future of Europe has taken an innovative approach, as it seeks ways to reform the policies and institutions of the European Union. It offers a digital platform for people to send ideas and engage in discussions, thus fostering understanding and debate across the EU.
This digital engagement approach reflects a joint initiative between Vodafone and Friends of Europe that has been going on for six months. Connected Europe brings together the views of citizens, industry and policy makers and uses a collaborative approach to generate policy recommendations, with a focus on practical solutions to the challenges we face. The views of citizens are central to Connected Europe: their hopes and concerns help guide the discussions.
As the conference kicks off, here are some suggestions we can offer on how to foster debate and generate useful ideas for a greener, more digital society.
Leave no one behind
Citizens engaged in the Connected Europe discussions see the benefits of technology. But they reminded us that technology cannot be a solution on its own. We need to make sure people can access the technology available to them. It means developing digital skills from school to the workplace and beyond so that there are opportunities for lifelong learning. It ensures that no one is left behind.
Citizens are naturally concerned about digital exclusion, especially when it comes to the elderly, people with disabilities and people living in remote areas. Ensuring access for all is extremely important. Governments must work with businesses to bridge the digital divide and provide connectivity for everyone, young or old, urban or rural.
There was also a recognition, sometimes lost in the silos of policy making, that digital transformation is a catalyst for many other important goals. For example, digitization can help mitigate climate change and support sustainability, it can help improve health, strengthen the economy and strengthen social justice. It can even strengthen the EU’s position in the world, making the EU more competitive – while defending European democracy.
Make it fair
In our Green Europe focus groups, around 150 European citizens from 16 countries were invited to give their opinion. Equity is one of the main concerns raised with regard to the green transition. There is a strong concern that the burden may fall unfairly on consumers, rather than on governments and industry.
However, the whole point of digital activation for a green transition is that it helps achieve sustainability goals without letting the burden fall unfairly on a single group. Both green and digital transitions are about finding opportunities for everyone so that changes translate into benefits for all.
Digital innovations, such as smart meters and LED street lights connected to a central management system, can significantly reduce energy consumption. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on farms can measure soil moisture and health so that irrigation and fertilizer use are much more efficient. None of these innovations results in the loss of a single group. These are real benefits for citizens, consumers, industry and governments, provided we all take our own emissions seriously and approach them appropriately.
The Connected Europe focus groups showed how people sometimes struggle to interpret green credentials. Most people want to do the right thing when it comes to sustainability, but when it comes to day-to-day decisions, it’s not always clear which option is environmentally friendly. The lack of EU-wide standards and benchmarks means consumers can struggle to make informed green choices.
One solution would be to create a standardized framework that operates in accordance with EU sustainability principles. It could show not only the environmental impact of a product or service, but also its digital references. One suggestion that is already emerging from the Connected Europe discussions is that the EU use the processes already underway to build a ‘digital opportunities assessment’ alongside the green impact assessments.
Another option is the digital product passport mentioned in the EU ministerial declaration on a green and digital transformation. Tracking and tracing products and materials would improve consumer empowerment and sustainable choices through information and awareness. For passports to be successful, a strong pan-European approach is needed as well as digital logistics tools capable of tracking products throughout the supply chain.
Accountability is closely related to clarity. Citizens’ concerns about fairness, trust and convenience show that we must prove that we are doing what we promise to do. But how do we make ourselves responsible when it comes to digital for green and the dual digital and green transition?
Discussions on Connected Europe have shown how important it is to work in all sectors and to develop common standards. One solution could be to use the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which monitors Europe’s overall digital performance and tracks member states’ progress in digital competitiveness. DESI could be changed to include durability. The allocation and spending of stimulus funds could be effectively monitored and policy reforms measured against DESI. Digital as a multiplier can help Member States meet the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Mechanism (FRR) commitment of at least 37% of national plans spending on green projects.
The argument for such accountability is also to show value for money: there are strong economic benefits to these changes. According to a Deloitte Report, the EU’s GDP could grow by 7.2% if stimulus packages focus on digital and green investments and if all member states achieve a score of 90 on the DESI by 2027.
Connected Europe is a truly collaborative initiative, involving citizens, industry, policy makers and academics. This approach needs to be scaled up if we are to successfully navigate the green and digital transitions. Citizen perspectives and industry expertise need to be brought together with decision makers who can support and facilitate the right framework for a collaborative partnership to function effectively.
It is clear that with the right framework, political reforms and the efficient use of EU reconstruction funds, we can do more to invest in the right area. We can build a healthier and more sustainable society, empowering citizens and businesses to seize the potential of digital transformation. We can build a green, digital and more resilient Europe.
The Connected Europe initiative continues to gather views and inputs to formulate policy recommendations and demands that will help build a more prosperous, greener and more resilient Europe. A full report will be published later this year. To get involved or to find out more about Connected Europe, click here.