European digital decade: progress and perspectives

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At the end of September 2023, the Commission published first “Digital Decade Report” revealing EU’s progress towards digital transformation as set out in the “Digital Decade Program-2030”. The report highlights the need to accelerate and deepen the EU-wide efforts in policy measures and investment in digital technologies, skills and infrastructures. Besides, it includes concrete recommendations to the states in preparing national strategic roadmaps and shows the EU’s perspectives in digital transformation. 

Digital investments
To reach the Digital Decade targets by 2030, massive investments and policy interventions are needed to actively promote training and upskilling schemes, as well as fostering the development of digital skills from early age to higher education level. All EU states have been engaged in formal primary education and vocational training, as well as non-formal training initiatives (via public employment services, upskilling initiatives, etc.) on digital skills. Moreover, to further address the shortage of ICT specialists, national measures also include the creation of shorter and more flexible courses to adapt to the varying needs of learners.
The Commission has considerably stepped up its efforts to boost digital skills, for example through the Digital Education Action Plan 2021-2027, the adopted digital education and skills package or the Cybersecurity Skills Academy.
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    The Digital Education Action Plan, DEAP for 2021-2027 includes the EU-wide policy initiatives in efforts towards high-quality, inclusive and accessible digital education; thus, the plan aims to support the adaptation of the member states’ education and training systems to the digital age. The DEAP, adopted in September 2020, requires greater cooperation among the states in digital education to address modern challenges and present opportunities for the education and training community, e.g. teachers and students, as well as policy makers, academia and researchers on national, EU and international level. As soon as DEAP is an integral part of the EU efforts to establish the European Education Area by 2025, it contributes to achieving the goals of the European Skills Agenda, the European Social Pillar Action Plan and the “2030 Digital Compass: the European way for the Digital Decade”; more on digital skills below.
Hence, several EU funding measures, including the Recovery and Resilience Facility, aim to strengthen digital capacities and the skills needed for their deployment, such as the Digital Europe Program, the European Social Fund Plus, Horizon Europe and Erasmus+.
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Monitoring efforts
Until the end of 2022, when the decision establishing the EU “Digital Decade Policy Programme 2030” was adopted, the Commission monitored yearly states’ digital performance through the DESI, Digital Economy and Society Index, which included annual national reports on countries’ comparisons, as well as areas of strengths and weaknesses.
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    Presently, DESI is integrated into the national reports on the state of the Digital Decade and complements the monitoring of progress towards the digital targets. This reflects a shift of focus from the assessment of a country’s relative performance to a collective effort in bridging the gap to the 2030 Digital Decade targets and objectives. The DESI-2023 consists of a set of relevant indicators which are presented as a multi-dimensional dashboard and have been better aligned to the agreed EU-level targets for 2030 in the areas of digital infrastructure, digital skills, and digitalisation of businesses and of public services: all these findings are included in the 2023-annual State of the Digital Decade report this September.
Sustainable digital infrastructure for connectivity, microelectronics and the ability to process big data are critical enablers for taking advantage of the benefits of digitalisation, for further technological developments and for the EU’s digital leadership.
The Commission’s communication “Long-term Vision for the EU’s Rural Areas: Towards stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas by 2040” (June 2021) serves as a main guiding strategy towards reliable, fast and secure EU-wide connectivity, including in rural and remote areas, such as islands, mountainous and sparsely-populated regions, as well as the outermost regions.
By 2030, all users in the EU should be connected to gigabit services provided by networks at a fixed location deployed up to the network termination point. Moreover, all populated areas should be covered by a next-generation wireless high-speed network with performance at least equivalent to that of 5G.
The EU-wide digital transformation is progressing: during last years, the states boosted actions to address strategic dependencies in critical raw materials, semiconductors, cloud and edge computing, and cybersecurity technologies. Reforms and investments have been put in place in the context of Next Generation EU program under the Recovery and Resilience Facility. In addition, the EU Chips Act has given the market the right signals and already €100 billion in investments have been announced by the industry. In addition to the existing implementation mechanisms for large-scale projects, the Digital Decade Policy Program introduces the European Digital Infrastructure Consortia (EDICs) to facilitate the setup and implementation of multi-country projects.

Main findings of the Digital Decade
= Digital skills: according to the basic assessments, up to 2030 approximately 59% of the population will have at least basic digital skills. If the growth continues at current rates, it will be challenging to reach the 80% target by 2030.
Despite the sustained growth over the last 10 years, the number of ICT specialists in employment was 9.37 million in the EU-27 in 2022: under present conditions, the number of ICT specialists will be about 12 million by 2030, falling short of around 8 million of the 2030 target with at least 20 million ICT specialists. Moreover, in 2022, the gender gap in ICT specialists was still substantial: women occupied only 19% of the total ICT workforce. EU states have been engaging in formal primary education and vocational training, as well as non-formal training initiatives (via public employment services, upskilling initiatives, etc.) on digital skills. Moreover, addressing the shortage of ICT specialists, initiatives at the national level also include the creation of shorter and flexible courses to adapt to the varying needs of learners.
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    = Connectivity: in 2022, high-capacity networks including fiber networks, reached 73% of households in the EU-27, and 5G networks were available to 81% of households. However, the deployment of 5G stand-alone networks is lagging and 5G is still falling short in quality with regards to end-users’ expectations and industry needs.
Though, main challenges to bridge the connectivity gap in rural areas still remain: in rural areas 9% of households are not covered by any fixed network and 55% are not served by any high-capacity networks, 5G networks reached 51% of populated rural areas, up from 33% in the previous year.
The EU will leverage connectivity investments through the European Regional Development Fund with €2.4 billion, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), InvestEU and EIB loans, and through the Connecting Europe Facility Digital with €2.1 billion until 2027. Besides, investments in digital connectivity have attracted about 13% of the RRF digital expenditure amounting to about €16.4 billion, with €13 billion going specifically toward funding gigabit-network. In addition, the European Electronic Communications Code facilitates investments and addresses long-term challenges in the electronic communications sector. The recent draft Gigabit Infrastructure Act aims at reducing the cost of rolling out gigabit infrastructure in the EU by streamlining, digitising, and reducing the cost of network rollout procedures.

= Supporting corporate digitalisation
Significant EU funds have been mobilised to support the achievement of digitalisation in the business sectors: the Digital Europe program foresees €7.5 billion for projects in 5 key capacity areas, while 19% of the Recovery and Resilience Fund allocated to the digital transformation, i.e. €24 billion is dedicated to the digitalisation of businesses.
Among the initiatives aimed at the digitalisation of industry are the Key Digital Technologies (KDT) Joint Undertaking, the Made in Europe public-private partnership, as well as several multi-country projects, such as network of European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs) under the Digital Europe Program and the Important Project of Common European Interest Next Generation Cloud Infrastructure and Services (IPCEI-CIS).
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The Commission invests €1.5 billion (during seven years) in the European Digital Innovation Hubs (EDIHs) to provide tailor-made digitalisation support to SMEs and public sector organisations in the member states. The pre-notified IPCEI on Next Generation Cloud Infrastructure and Services gathers 13 EU states and more than a hundred enterprises EU-wide.
As to artificial intelligence, AI only 8%, i.e. less than one in ten enterprises in the EU has adopted AI technologies. With this pace of reforms (and without further investment and incentives), the EU-wide projected trajectory indicates that by 2030 only 66% of businesses will use cloud, 34% big data and 20% AI, while the target is for at least 75% of EU enterprises taking up cloud computing services, big data and/or AI by 2030.
In 2021, only 34% of the EU enterprises purchased sophisticated or intermediate cloud computing services (e.g., software for the purposes of finance or accounting, resource planning, customer relationship management, security, etc.).
As regards to Big Data, in 2020 big data analytical tools registered the lowest uptake with only 14% of enterprises in the EU using them, the majority of them (34%) being large enterprises, followed by medium (21%) and small sized ones (13%).

= Digitalisation of public services
Several EU member states are relatively well positioned to achieve the target of 100% online availability of public services for businesses and citizens: generally, 88% of central government services are completely online compared to 76% for regional government services and 62% of local government services. However, despite the EU average increasing from 75 in 2021 to 77 in 2022, 15 countries score below 80 (out of 100) and are therefore still far from the Digital Decade target to be achieved by 2030.
Moreover, investment in public procurement of innovative digital solutions (e.g., based on AI or big data) is insufficient and would need to increase substantially from €118 billion to €295 billion in order to make innovative digital solutions available in public services. Regarding the access to e-health records, the EU performs are well on track to meet the EU target of 100% of EU citizens having access to their electronic health records, with an EU average score of 72 in 2022.

    More information in the following Commission’s web-links: – Press release: First report on the State of the Digital Decade calls for collective action to shape the digital transition; – Fact-sheet on the State of the Digital Decade; – First report on the State of the Digital Decade; and – Digital Decade country reports.

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