Ladies and Gentlemen,
How good it is this conference happens in Poland – a country of creativity and entrepreneurship, and a country that also has undergone great transformation.
Transformation is both a challenge and an opportunity. For Poland, it started at the beginning of the 90s, the same time as the Internet came onto the scene. 20 years on, the challenges Europe faces demand another transformation. We have to cope with a financial crisis, rising unemployment, demographic change, and ever tougher competition in a global marketplace. We have to reinvent ourselves.
As Dante said, back in the Middle Ages, "some are waiting for the times to change. Others take the time to make a change". And, through your work helping Europe prepare for a digital future, you are doing that.
This digital transformation is geared to social innovation, and preparing for the economy of the future. That is the spirit of "Europe 2020", the EU's strategy to deliver growth for the future, and jobs which are smart, sustainable and inclusive.
The Digital Agenda for Europe is a key part of that strategy. Because, as Commission President Barroso put it last week in his State of the Union speech: "growth in the future will depend more and more on harnessing information technology."
ICT has driven productivity and economic growth over the past decade. And it will continue to do so in the future.
Because investment in ICT capital pays off. In fact, it pays off better than most other forms of capital investment: the "ICT dividend" amounts to an extra return of around 7 per cent. But only when accompanied by investment in intangible capital – that is, investment in people, in skills, in digital literacy.
We - companies, governments and civil society - must make that investment for the future, and skill up to face new challenges. And we must include everyone, we must get "Every European Digital" so that we can all benefit from "smart", innovation-based economic growth.
In the 21st century labour market, being IT competent will be on a par with reading, writing and arithmetic. As ICT pervades ever more aspects of our lives, ICT skills have become a must. We must integrate ICT into how we communicate, travel and do business; how we live, work, care.
Soon, 90% of jobs, whatever the sector, will require some level of digital literacy. But about 25% of all EU citizens have never touched the Internet. And Internet usage is particularly low - 20% lower in fact – among groups like the elderly, the poor, the lower-skilled and the unemployed. Even though these groups are more likely to be excluded in other ways, and would stand to gain the most from getting online. This link between digital and socio-economic exclusion must be kept in mind, because a "digital divide" could have significant social and economic consequences.
So how do we make sure everyone becomes digitally literate? It's much like getting everyone driving. You need not just driving skills, but also high-quality roads, and safe and comfortable cars. By analogy, we need IT skills, high-speed broadband, and access to technology.
Let me briefly present what we in the Commission are doing to put Europe in digital "top gear".
First, the roads. The Digital Agenda sets clear targets to give every European access to basic broadband by 2013, and to fast and ultra fast broadband by 2020. To achieve that we are working together with the industry, and we are putting our money where our mouth is. On top of the substantial investment we have already made, such as through structural funds, we are proposing a new “Connecting Europe Facility”. This could leverage over €100 billion of private investment supporting deployment of broadband and pan-European digital public services. Supporting investment particularly in the harder-to-reach rural areas currently more at risk of exclusion.
Second, we must provide the cars: the technology. This is already developing fast. Aided partly by EU research and innovation funds, we spend well over a billion euros each year in the information society field. That includes projects which will help all users, like getting public sector websites fully accessible by 2015.
Consider the opportunities for expansion. For example, only 15% of over-65s currently use the Internet: imagine the new market for digital services and applications if we got them all digital. Especially given that, in fifty years' time, that population could double to 150 million people .
Finally it is the driving skills themselves that count: consumers should understand technology well enough to use it confidently. And our children, the generation of digital natives, should benefit from education systems that recognise the importance of ICT training in the digital age.
Getting there will take more than money. It takes effort too, a joint effort by everyone: people from public, private, education and voluntary sectors; innovators in technology and innovators in society; the centre of government and the grassroots. And an effort from our education systems too to modernise and improve education and training.
Earlier on I met some of those working out there in the field – our "local champions". I am impressed by their commitment, professionalism, and creativity, and at the great job they're doing. You, guys and girls, are the ones that always keep going and keep innovating, often with little money. In these times of crisis we need you even more. I want you to connect, to scale up, and to put digital literacy at the heart of social innovation and economic recovery.
That is why I am financing pilots in capacity building, so that experts in e-Inclusion can connect knowledge hubs, exchange information, and develop their best practices.
I have just been presented with the main outlines of what will become the Gdansk Roadmap. It has been a collaborative, Internet-based effort by local champions, experts and practitioners of digital literacy and e-Inclusion. I want to thank them all. But I also want to support them, because we need to tackle more of the problems they identify.
For the next period of the European Social Fund, we have proposed to prioritise digital literacy and digital competences, providing an important source of project financing.
And a common framework to recognise and certify ICT competences, which should make life easier for everyone; trainers, trainees, and recruiters.
And I want you to know, I am ready to fight or bang heads together, whatever it takes to get the right political support. We need the right combination of Ministers from different levels to move the agenda forward. All I ask in return is: please, let me know the results and the impact of your good work so I can go out there and spread the word.
To stimulate that, I am about to launch the Digital Empowerment Awards. Show me or tell me your personal story of digital empowerment: how ICT made a difference for you, and how we can use that experience to better support digital champions around Europe.
If we all commit to this, I am confident that we can meet the demand for e-skills in a digital, inclusive society.
I am confident, because I have seen examples working out there on the ground. I could list all of them that I found interesting or inspiring: but then we might be here all day. So instead I want you go out there, enjoy the sessions and the exhibition, and get yourselves inspired.
I come back to Dante. Let's not merely undergo change it, let's create it. Let's take the time during this event to see how to ensure all our efforts add up. Let's innovate together to work out a good future for Europe. And let's use our local and national champions as a source of inspiration and ideas. Because they know how to innovate under difficult conditions when resources are tight – and that's what we all need today!