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Digital Europe - 06.12.2018

A conversation with Commissioner Mariya Gabriel on digitalisation in cities and regions
It is a fact: the digital era is transforming our societies and our economies and the EU is taking a step to address challenging elements of digitisation: cybersecurity, digital skills or data protection

To better know what opportunities the digital transition offers to cities and regions, CEMR decided to speak with the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel

The European Commission recently launched the second call for participation in WIFI4EU, to promote free Wi-Fi in public spaces in our municipalities. How would you assess current results? 

We launched the second call on 7 November, and we have been inundated with responses from local governments across the EU who want to take part in the scheme. Over 21,600 municipalities have registered to apply for the vouchers to the value €15,000 to create free Wi-Fi hotspots. 

The vouchers will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, with at least 15 vouchers for each participating EU Member States, plus Iceland and Norway.  

It is still too early to say which municipalities in each country will get the vouchers, but obviously, I am happy to see that there is such high interest in the scheme. It shows the vital importance of high-quality digital connectivity everywhere in Europe. 

For the first time, the EU will have a dedicated funding programme for digital (‘Digital Europe Programme’) with a budget of €9.2 billion. Could you tell us the aim of this programme?

Artificial intelligence, big data, super-computing and cybersecurity offer many opportunities for businesses, governments and citizens alike. But this will only happen if we support their availability and deployment at scale - through strong financial backing but also by sending the strong political message that Europe is united in the need for a coordinated strategy. 

Through the proposal for a digital Europe programme, we demonstrate a firm commitment to regain Europe’s leadership in this area. 

We need to remember that all these technologies are part of a bigger puzzle (Digital Single Market) and that they need the right political, economic and market conditions to flourish. 

How it will work? 

EU funding will be complemented by financing from Member States and, where needed, the private sector. Furthermore, it will focus on projects designed to make the most out of these core digital technologies in every-day life, for example the super computers will be used for improving diagnosis and cure of diseases. 

Furthermore, digitisation needs to be embraced by every public administration in Europe to expand the services provided, making them more user friendly and less costly for the taxpayer. 

One of the main objectives of the new programme is to help companies become more digital by using more of the available technologies.  And this is not just about technology companies but about all companies. Almost every single company today has data processing and communicates online, therefore they all can benefit from the new technologies by improving their products, services or internal processes. 

The Digital Europe Programme will fund Digital Innovation Hubs, at least one in every region of the EU, which will bring together resources, create synergies and know-how to help enterprises, for example by testing or demonstrating new tools or by simply giving concrete advice.  

To what extent are cities concerned by this programme?  

Cities are often the test beds for new digital services. Accordingly, the EU’s action plan for the deployment of very fast 5G networks envisages that each country will have at least one 5G city by 2020 where to pilot the many new services made possible by 5G. The broader deployment of 5G networks will then turn each city into a smart city.

The network of Digital Innovation Hubs we are developing to bring together academia, research and business to drive innovation and the development of new digital services relies heavily on cities. These centres are often located in urban areas pooling the expertise around the cities, even if they very often support jobs and growth across the wider region. 

What about rural and sparsely populated areas? 

We are also of course conscious of the need to support the digital development of rural and remote regions as well. We cannot afford to leave them behind, and we are working in particular on improving connectivity in these rural areas, through a concrete action plan to help bring high-speed broadband and eventually 5G there, too. 

One of the cohesion funds, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), also aims at boosting digitalisation. How can a city know which fund it should apply for?

The aim of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) is to strengthen economic and social cohesion in the EU by correcting imbalances between its regions, and this includes imbalances in terms of connectivity, use of digital technologies by businesses, etc. 

But other programmes have different objectives. 

For example, the Digital Europe programme aims to increase the EU's international competitiveness as well as developing and reinforcing Europe's strategic digital capacities. This notably applies to high-performance computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and advanced digital skills. So, the focus is more on building up capacity and ensuring wide use across the economy and society by businesses and the public sector alike. 

The Horizon Europe programme will fund research and innovation projects which are important for universities and applied research clusters that are often located in cities. Hence, there are opportunities everywhere for cities to get increased EU support. 

Cyber security is among the top priorities of your mandate. How do you propose to reassure citizens and local administrations that their data is protected so that they can surf the internet safely?

If we want the digital future to become a reality, we have to make sure citizens are confident in using digital services and in surfing safely. There are many aspects to this. 

On cybersecurity, we are proposing, among other things, an EU-wide certification framework. This will help make the security of products and services into a visible part of the offering. Suppliers can signal the security level, checked independently, and buyers will have an easier time deciding whether something is secure enough for their needs. New EU rules have also come into force this year that require that each Member State has a beefed-up cybersecurity centre and clear rules on the security of national networks and information systems. 

Meanwhile, the new rules on data protection that came into force earlier in 2018 (GDPR) will significantly tighten the rules on the use of personal data in Europe. We have proposed a new reinforced mandate for our agency ENISA

We are also working on making the internet a safer place, through campaigns such as #SaferInternet4EU and initiatives such as the Better Internet for Kids, which works with teachers and parents to tackle issues such as cyberbullying or exposure to harmful content. 

How would you make sure they trust public administration? 

As regards trust in our public administrations, the Regulation on electronic identification (eIDAS) , which also came fully into force this year, sets out the legal framework and standards for electronic identification and trust services that will empower and protect users online. 

In the Commission, we do a lot to make sure we turn intentions into actions – and I am working with my fellow ministers in the Member States so that they do the same with their public services and so that we cooperate better and more consistently.

How does the Commission intend to support the take up of artificial intelligence tools by local administrations to better serve their citizens?  

The Commission and Member States have made it very clear that increased investment in artificial intelligence is a priority in the years to come. we are finishing the intense work on a coordinated action plan setting out the next concrete steps to be taken by the EU and Member States acting together. 
 
Artificial intelligence will increasingly become part of all our lives and there are numerous advantages for local administrations. In many of the areas where we see artificial intelligence having the biggest and fastest impact on the public sector, such as transport and healthcare. 

This could be anything from introducing driverless public transport vehicles to improving traffic flow predictions as part of the urban planning process, or using artificial intelligence to providing improved diagnostics or treatments for patients. We are already seeing many public sector authorities working on developing projects using artificial intelligence, in particular in these key areas of transport and health, and EU funding is definitely available to support these efforts, through the research programme or the regional funds, for example, or in the future through the new Digital Europe Programme. 

The EU’s role is also to help share best practices from across Europe to encourage their wider take-up.  

You said in an interview that the future of Europe was inevitably digital. Where do you believe progress still needs to be made?

The €9bn we have proposed for the Digital Europe programme will be instrumental in further developing the key priorities at the heart of the Digital Single Market - high performance computing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity & trust, developing digital skills and ensuring a wide use of digital technologies across the economy and society. 

Progress in these areas is needed and, if we get it right, will bring tangible benefits to our citizens because these are the core issues for digital becoming part of everything else, from healthcare to finance or transport. 

In order to succeed, together, our digital future, we must shape an innovative, competitive, inclusive and value-based Digital Europe. Digital Europe that brings about benefits, protects its citizens and maintains them at the centre of all policies.
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