Gutenberg’s printing press took over a century before its true impact began to be felt. At a hearing yesterday organised by the Industry Committee of the European Parliament, my message was that, despite upheaval in the entertainment and news industries, the true contours of the ‘Digital Economy’ are still to emerge. And, as we think about future policy my advice to policy makers was: “think less about digital, and more about the economy”.
The Internet of Things will be a real game-change, as it takes ‘communication’ beyond the realm of humans into a vast array of items and sensors. That said, we can speculate about its impact, but we’ll probably be wrong.
A more immediate example of the scale of transformation technology enables can be seen in the “sharing economy”, and that is where I focused my contribution. There are many definitions of the sharing economy, but for me it means the aggregation (through technology) of micro-supplies to deliver a service seen as comparable to those provided by the firm-centric, industrial model.
This covers pure sharing services, but also includes commercial couchsurfing (AirBnB) and ride sharing (Uber), and characterises the shifts underway in Germany in the name of Energiewende. All are changing the competitive landscape for sectors that may never have imagined they would be affected by ‘digital’ and creating new choices for consumers.
The conclusion from such an analysis is that while sharing economy services are affected by the traditional elements of digital policy, such as privacy, net neutrality and copyright, the key breaks on potential European champions lie in other parts of our regulatory framework. This can mean sectoral rules (e.g. of taxis), but also more general regulation of small businesses and freelance workers.
There is no silver bullet for unleashing growth, but there is a political opportunity for Brussels policy makers. ‘Structural reforms’, which have hitherto been perceived by citizens as painful austerity, can genuinely be presented as preparing the continent for the digital era.
If Europe is play host to the next generation of global internet champions, we need policy to let out start ups grow quickly in whatever sector they choose to disrupt. You can find signs of this, for example, in the way Portugal has opened up its tourism industry. But the structural reforms agenda does not just apply to ‘programme member states’ alone, and the ongoing reluctance of other member states to open markets (such as the unenthusiastic implementation of the Services Directive) is now the real digital agenda.