I recently took part in a panel discussion on driving an inclusive recovery, which focused on how we create a digital and sustainable future for all in Europe. It was great to be part of a discussion that talked about what recovery might look like rather than focusing on how we need to respond to the day-to-day challenges and the harsh environment that the pandemic continues to bring to both our professional and our private lives.
Recovery truly is urgent and it’s already clear that it needs to be both green and digital in its nature. The European Commission has set aside €750 billion as its NextGenerationEU fund to repair immediate economic and social damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The centrepiece of the fund is the Recovery and Resilience Facility with €672.5 billion in grants and loans, which reinforces the commitment to driving a recovery that is both digital and green. (37% for climate investments and 20% for digital transition). Add to that its long-term budget, and together the €1.8 trillion stimulus package has the potential to drive a recovery that creates a better and more inclusive future for all.
My fellow panellists characterised the change we are going through as one that’s just as important as the industrial revolution of the 18th century. When the history books are written, 2020 will be remembered not just as the year of the pandemic, but also as the year when digitisation truly became a reality. I agree. We have the technology that we need to make this change and what we are seeing clearly now are the use cases and that’s what will make this real.
So, What Needs to Happen Now?
For me, the conversation brought out three areas where we need to take action: connectivity, sustainability and skills.
In the past year we’ve seen, more than ever before, the need for secure, highly available connectivity and we’ve also learned that what can be done digitally must be done digitally. Video conferencing skyrocketed and increased demand was put on the internet. We saw growth of 25-45 percent in many regions across the globe – and it held up remarkably well.
But, there are still more than 3 billion people around the world without internet access. The digital divide continues to grow leaving people without access to vital information, learning and opportunity. In nearly every country, this affects rural communities and the poor the hardest. We need to change the way that we build networks and improve the economic model to enable much broader provision of services. The next generation of wireless technologies including WiFi 6 and 5G will help with that. By 2030, the European Commission wants all EU households to have gigabit connectivity and all populated areas to be covered by 5G.
A big change that I have seen happen over the past 12-18 months has been the increased conscience around sustainability. It’s a topic that customers want to discuss and it’s a concern for employees too. They want to know what we are doing about it ourselves but they also want to know how our digital technologies can be used to help others as they seek to lessen their own impact.
For our part, we are doing a number of things. We have committed that by 2025, all our new products and packaging will use circular design principles. By 2022 we will get 85% of our global electricity from renewable sources (several European countries are already at 100%) and we are reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, last week the Cisco Foundation announced that over the next 10 years it will invest $100m in innovation and education projects that will help combat climate change. Thinking about the products we sell to customers, within our 8201 router (to give just one example) we’ve condensed 2,300 different elements into a single chip. That means that something that used to be 10 pallets of kit is now the size of a pizza box and its power needs are also much reduced.
This is a really important area as we think about inclusion. More and more often our first experience of a brand is through an app. That’s much more comfortable for some people to deal with than for others. Users of all ages need the chance to learn how to be responsible and smart users of technology through digital literacy programs. The European Commission has set a goal that 80% of EU adults should have basic digital skills by 2030 and that 20 million people will be employed as ICT specialists across the EU.
I am proud to say that this is an area where Cisco has been very active. Our Networking Academy program was set up over 20 years ago, and in that time, over 4 million students have been trained in digital skills in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
The digital divide is still very real and we need to keep doing all we can to remove it.
What Happens Now?
For me it’s all about driving accountability for change. In the conversation we had, there was a strong sense that we all know we need to do something but it’s really important that we don’t just talk about it, we take action on the problem. We need to take the chance that this moment gives us to do something. Funding is available and the political will is there. The challenge we all need to set ourselves is to take action now and to truly hold ourselves accountable for the change we need to see.