Can Europe Show the World a New Way for Tech?
A new documentary just landed on Netflix. The Great Hack tells the story of Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy which sparked outrage when it was found to have extracted Facebook user data for commercial, and ultimately political, means. It paints a vivid picture of our relationship with technology: people as a resource, being electronically “mined” for the benefit of others.
With scandals like this continuing to dominate the headlines, “the tech rush” can seem like a lawless frontier. New technology offers a transformation in the way we meet individual and collective needs. What The Great Hack articulates is a growing unease with technology putting those needs last.
And yet, public services need technology more than ever. As populations grow and age, and resources shrink, we desperately need the transformative power of tech to help support public services and empower citizens. And when you look to the sector that is trying to harness that power—the GovTech sector—you’ll see that tech’s ultimate mission to improve the lives of people is still intact.
However, GovTech will not—and cannot—reach its transformative potential if it doesn’t have the trust and support of citizens. As European GovTech develops, Europe must therefore decide how Governments will interact with the tech sector. There is the American model, consisting of small government and big tech, with data rights lying principally with corporates rather than citizens. In contrast, the “China Way” favors large government which owns the majority of data, and deploys technology in a top-down approach. Both approaches have ingrained issues and neither stands out as particularly attractive. So what if there was a third, European way?
In Europe, we have a long and unique history of public service provision, larger and more comprehensive than America’s, and more citizen-first than China’s. Our public services have been moulded around the needs of citizens and welfare provision. This “European Way” is, in the words of future European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, that “we are ambitious. We leave nobody behind,” and that we use “all of our potential: our people, our talent, our diversity,” to achieve this. This uniquely European approach to public services must then call for a uniquely European approach to the tech which supports them. We need our own way to integrate technology and government, one which has citizens and European values at its heart.
How do we create a new, European Way? By turning to citizens themselves for our tech answers. As Europe builds its public service infrastructure, what’s required are innovators who will create technology with a European approach to citizen data and rights at the core. Importing ideas from the past or other countries won’t work—the Huawei controversy, which saw the manufacturer’s phones banned after accusations of espionage, highlighted the international differences in data use and citizen rights. If we want technology which will best serve and meet our public needs, it’s European citizens who need to take the reins. The European Way is about entrepreneurs and governments joining together to achieve the same goal.
To establish a technologically transformed public sector, we need to create an environment and an industry where start-ups with tech solutions are allowed to flourish. Already there are a string of fast-growing, public-minded start-ups emerging in Europe that are providing new and dynamic services for European governments. As in other industries, they are using the latest technology and new business models to outperform existing incumbents. By empowering more innovators to solve public problems we’ll see new technologies enter the public sector and deliver better, cheaper and more easy-to-use services than can be envisaged or delivered by traditional tech companies. On a purely economic level too, the GovTech sector has incredible potential, being valued at $400 billion and predicted to be worth £5 billion in the U.K. alone by 2025. If we want to see the European economy expand and grow, we can’t afford to let this vast opportunity go to waste.
I’m not advocating for a theoretical utopia; the European Way already has some notable pioneers along its path. One such success is Adzuna, which last year won a £5.8 million contract with the U.K. Department for Work and Pensions to make its cutting edge search technology the engine for the government’s “Find a Job” service. Adzuna is not alone. From tech providing home care (Cera, whose advisory board is chaired by former U.K. politician Nick Clegg) to AccuRx, a messaging service for doctor’s surgeries, we’re seeing more and more innovative start-ups working to transform public services. These European-bred start-ups have the potential for global growth, sharing with the international community not only innovation but a new—European—option for the relationship between government and technology.
As the public sector starts seeking solutions from the tech world, the time has come for Europe to make a choice. With the rapid growth of the GovTech market we must decide how to define this emerging space. Will it be the American model, China’s blueprint, or the European Way?
This article appears in Are We Europe #5: Code of Conscience