A few days ago the EU tasked Openideo with a challenge aimed to develop the best possible program to support digital startups: “How might we support web entrepreneurs in launching and growing sustainable global businesses?” Maybe it’s because I am EU citizen but I have found it very interesting (and I am participating) because I think this is a critical project for Europe, one that might shape a future economy that truly leverages the possibilities of digital convergence.
So can the internet save Europe? Europe is an old continent, one that thinks in terms of centuries and embraces change at very slow pace- hey, what’s a year compared to the history behind our back? So as troubled economies have put the Euro-zone under scrutiny, the immediate reaction on behalf of many has been to challenge the whole idea of a convergent currency. But the linear progress of technology suggests that convergence is the only way forward, and the EU economy has the opportunity to come out of this economic recession by truly embracing the internet culture.
In fact even if there is not really such a thing as an “European culture” – a united Europe is a very recent phenomenon compared to centuries of separate Countries divided by languages, borders, customs and sometimes actual walls- there are indeed some commonalities when we compare the European mindset against US or Asian ones. So at the risk of oversimplifying I’d like to list some opportunities that the internet can offer to address some key cultural barriers that currently prevent Europe to develop a successful digital economy.
1) Think big. There is an absolute necessity for scalability in today’s economy, and I think Europe has now – lately- realized that, well, ‘size matters’. The cultural barrier to address is the negative attitude that many European cultures have towards ambition. In many countries there’s an accepted notion that being ambitious is good but showing ambition is inelegant. The likes of Facebook and Google are demonstrating that in a digital world you must be ambitious to create scalable success, and that a certain dose of ‘ballsiness’ is actually inspiring and energizing. By breaking down the legacy regulations that prevents business from scaling, digital could pave the road for a culture of healthy ambition. Young people all over Europe would certainly need it to find their spirit in these gloomy times!
2) Move fast. Europeans have the tendency to overthink things, an habit inherited by a longstanding and rich philosophical culture. However this attitude totally undermines the ‘fail fast’ rule of any innovation. Access to scale and the widespread of a digital business culture could actually re-balance the dynamics between thinking and doing. Digital can reduce the cost of trying out innovation so much that there is actually less risk in doing things than thinking them too much, and this could rehabilitate the culture of “doing” at the eyes of Europeans.
3) Move. Since the EU was created some Eurocitizen have started traveling from their place of origin to seize work or lifestyle opportunities. However only a small 3% of people live away from their place of origin. This is due to many reasons: cultural heritage, language, lifestyle.. but also economic ones. The traditional economy and tax regulation still make it a hassle to move around the EU unless you are driven by a strong need or a strong incentive. I can see how a digital-friendly tax regulation could create higher freedom in picking a residence for businesses or choosing collaborators from different countries. This could increase competitiveness, a better circulation of talent and, as a result, a more dynamic working population.
4) Think different. The digital economy is challenging some accepted notions of how business works and how companies should be run. We see the emergence of a new marketplace where a democratized production meets niche demands (Etsy), we see opensource tools and collaboration challenging the IP dominance. These models can actually shake traditional ones- built around barrier to entry- generating opportunities to innovate in every space, from private economies to public administrations.
5) People first, not systems. This might be difficult to explain, but I’ll try. Europe has built its entire social, economic and political infrastructure around systems, and people are often seen as receivers/contributors/pieces of mechanism rather then the focal point of it. This has some benefits (eg. some truly democratic healthcare systems) but also disadvantages (sometimes the system’s benefit supersedes the one of individuals, like in many political systems). The web is built around people, and nothing is successful unless it is created with people in mind. I wonder if in a (distant) future this culture will create not just an economy, but a whole society that is measured more directly against the value it provides to individual and communities.
If Europe will succeed in making this changes happen it could actually turn its mature approach to business into a real competitive advantage against the “teen spirit” of US digital companies, or the purely “scale-driven” approach of Asian businesses.
But can the contemporary internet really change historic and long standing cultural dynamics? In a continent that has such a high percentage of resident population over 50 it seems unlikely. However we’ve always seen big changes coming out of necessity, especially when big economic recessions have happened, so I truly hope that the internet will actually save Europe.