How citizens can drive green and digital transitions
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 Senior 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 start discussions, encouraging understanding and debate across the EU.
This digital engagement approach reflects a joint initiative of Vodafone and Friends of Europe that has been in existence for six months. Connected Europe collects 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. Citizens’ perspectives are essential for a connected Europe: their hopes and concerns help guide the discussions.
At the start of the conference, 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 they have. It means developing digital skills from school to the workplace and beyond so that there are opportunities for lifelong learning. This ensures that no one is left behind.
Citizens are naturally concerned about digital exclusion, especially with regard 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 improve 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” discussion groups, around 150 European citizens from 16 countries were invited to give their opinion. Equity is one of the biggest concerns raised regarding the green transition. There is a major 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. Green and digital transitions aim to find opportunities for all so that changes translate into benefits all around.
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 cost a single group. These are real win-winnings for citizens, consumers, industry and governments, provided we all take our own emissions seriously and tackle 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 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, alongside 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 can we empower ourselves with regard to digital for green and the achievement of 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 recovery 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 Facility (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: these changes have significant economic benefits. According to a Deloitte reportThe EU’s GDP could grow by 7.2% if stimulus packages focus on digital and green investments and 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 opinions 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 successful, 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.