The first wave of COVID-19 infections and national lockdowns sent shockwaves through economies all over the world, highlighting a huge number of socio-economic vulnerabilities. Whilst Europe is now grappling with a fresh rise in new cases of the novel Coronavirus, the European Commission is already considering what lessons can be learned from the deadly pandemic and how the European Union (EU) can become more resilient in the future.
In fact, the European Commission has now said that it will consider all future policy making through the lens of ‘resilience', which it has outlined in its first annual ‘Strategic Foresight' report. The report outlines a proposal for the EU to develop resilience dashboards, which will be developed in collaboration with Member States, to assess the vulnerabilities and capacities of the EU.
One of the key areas of focus is unsurprisingly digital resilience (alongside social and economic resilience, geopolitical resilience and green resilience).
The aim of the ‘Strategic Foresight' reports, which will be released annually, is to "future-proof" EU policy making by ensuring that short-term initiatives are grounded in a longer term perspective. This will be focused by building collective intelligence in a structured way, to "better chart the way forward for the twin green and digital transitions and to recover from disruptions".
Detailing the importance of this initiative, the report notes:
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed a number of vulnerabilities in the EU and its Member States. An analysis of the impacts of the crisis, beyond its terrible human toll, reveals severe disruptions across Europe's economy and society.
Preparedness and prevention, early warning systems and coordination structures were clearly under strain, thus underlining the need for more ambitious crisis management for large-scale emergencies at EU level. In the first months of the pandemic, many hospitals were overwhelmed, free movement of people and goods was severely restrained and essential medicines and equipment were in short supply.
The need to treat COVID-19 patients affected the capacity of the system to deal with non-COVID-19 patients, while residential care facilities and essential support services for older people and persons with disabilities were particularly challenged. Schools and universities were forced to close, many ill-prepared to offer digital learning alternatives to classrooms, particularly to children from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with a disability. Overall, confinement measures have had a much more severe effect on the economy than the 2008 financial crisis.
Considering this context, the EU is placing ‘digital' as one of its central pillars of resilience. The European Commission notes that digital resilience is about ensuring that the way EU citizens "live, work, learn, interact and think this digital age preserves and enhances human dignity, freedom, equality, security, democracy and other European fundamental rights and values".
Unsurprisingly, it is highlighted that digital tools have been instrumental in keeping economies and societies running throughout the course of the pandemic.
The report breaks down the EU's approach to digital resilience into both vulnerabilities and opportunities. On the vulnerabilities side, some of these include:
Hybrid attacks by state and non-state actors threatening EU cyber security and democracy
The rapidly escalating US-China technological confrontation that is disrupting digital supply chains
The digital divide between urban and rural areas, where more investment is needed to close the gap
The readiness of the data economy. This was highlighted by COVID-19, as the EU found there was a lack or inconsistent collection of almost all types of data, including stock, production capacity, demand for key supplies and health data.
How digital technologies and their related business models, including AI and the platform economy, will impact the job market.
On the opportunities side of the equation, the report highlights:
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated hyper connectivity. The EU sees an opportunity to draw lessons from the COVID-19 experience, where digital played a key role, and achieve a balance between physical and digital interactions in the future.
Digital technologies can contribute to further advances in healthcare, particularly around the development of treatments, vaccines, diagnostics and predicting the spread of diseases.
Digital tools can increase the effectiveness, efficiency and inclusiveness of the EU's education and training systems.
The EU sees opportunity for Europe in its data strategy. In particular around the promotion of the EU data protection model, the possibility to improve data availability, data reuse, data interoperability and data government.
Developing the European digital economy - in particular the rollout of 5G, the use of Internet of Things, the creation of cloud infrastructure, and legislative and financial support for the creation of a single market for data.
The contribution of digital to creating a green economy. For example, technology can be used to optimise the operation of utilities, mobility, transport, products and industrial processes, as well as improve environmental and risk management through early warning systems.
Commenting on the role of digital resilience across the EU, the report states:
Strategic foresight can foster the human-centric shaping and appropriation of digital technologies, as well as their effectiveness in boosting overall sustainability. This includes anticipating how technologies could develop and ways to seize underlying and upcoming opportunities.
It also means exploring how digital technologies impact all walks of life and bring new challenges, such as dealing with an increasing flow of information and the artificial soliciting of human attention. It can help identify how the EU can shape global digital standards and rules to the benefit of people and businesses while also greening the economy.
I think what's significant about this report is that the EU isn't burying its head in the sand when it comes to recognising that it could have handled the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, had it been prepared. The European Commission recognises that there are lessons to be learnt in resilience and that whilst the COVID-19 pandemic is an extreme crisis, it won't be the last crisis to hit the trading bloc in coming decades. In other words, invest now in understanding how protections can be built in order to withstand future shocks and lead the way. I'm not sure we are seeing the same understanding and foresight from other leading digital economies.