The high-speed digital train brings ever more innovation, new technologies and fundamental changes for consumers, for our society and for businesses. This means huge opportunities but also some challenges that policy makers and digital leaders need to unpack.

As top policy and business leaders gather in Brussels for the European Business Summit, 2017, the importance of public-private dialogue to address these has never been more important.

Blurred boundaries

Firstly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is blurring boundaries between the digital and physical world. This includes the Internet of Things, big data, and cloud computing which are transforming European industry – both in manufacturing processes and services.

This industrial digitalization is expected to increase efficiency by making value chains shorter and more vertically integrated. But to take advantage of this potential, the EU’s 16-point policy plan will need to ensure that Europe invests in research, innovation and the development of e-skills. Without these building blocks opportunities will be missed.

BusinessEurope recently estimated, a successful digital revolution could increase Europe’s GDP by two trillion Euros up to 2030. But Europe is at risk of losing ground in the digital economy for a range of reasons. One of the most significant of which is cyber security and its impact on the ability of companies to do business online and for consumers to feel confident about their data and privacy.

For instance, it’s estimated by Statista, that nearly 280 million people in Western Europe will own a smartphone by 2019. But as everything becomes smart: smart phones, smart watches, smart cars and smart video cameras people’s personal and work lives are changing by creating digital online environments where we are constantly connected. But with this comes increased vulnerability to cyber-attacks.

Cyber-security

As the ‘real’ world increasingly merges with a digital world, cyber criminals see an opportunity to exploit new ways of making money, such as stealing personal and business data, harvesting and selling personal information, and demanding ransom in return for valuable, private files. The recent ransomware attacks that hit well over 100 countries, attacking public and private sector organizations, shows just how challenging this can be.

But interestingly, while the connectivity inherent in the digital economy means there’s an environment where cyber criminals can attack, digital tools also enable us to detect and mitigate these issues.

Take artificial intelligence (AI) for instance. AI tools can now automatically detect fraudulent behavior and trends and put in place ways of preventing damage.

The field of cyber security offers a leadership opportunity for the EU. Increasingly frameworks exist for cooperation between different sectors such as energy, health, transport, and finance. By bringing together stakeholders from key areas of the European digital agenda, this alliance between business and society could create a value-driven cyber security environment.

Secondly, from the customer’s perspective, we are all increasingly aware of the impact of digital transformation, not only on the global economy but also on our daily habits. Innovations are changing how we interact with families, colleagues and governments. They are now integral to how we communicate, live, work and play – to our humanity.

And the lifeblood of this digital revolution is data, both personal and commercial.  With the European data economy valued at €272 billion in 2015 (year-on-year growth of 5.6% according to the European data market study), this global trend holds enormous potential. But ensuring the free flow of data, while protecting consumer rights and guarding against cyber threats, is central to the success of the digital economy in this region.

Legislating a digital world

There’s an urgent pressure for European legislation to catch up with the reality of how we are leading our lives – both enabling the digital economy to flourish and to protect and defend citizens and businesses from some of the undesirable externalities – like cyber-attacks.

Finally, the digital revolution has an impact on society as a whole. Recent uncertainty in Europe has shown that, according to Luciano Floridi, director of research and professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, “the complacency of reason can corrupt digital into a negative force. Today, reason needs to awake again and guide digital as a force for good. This is possible, but only if we have what I like to call a ‘human project’ that can shape and orient the change”.

The important point is that we must insist that the digital age balances the great opportunity of the digital economy with the needs of society and communities. For instance, a focused approach towards skills and inclusion is vital and could help direct us towards the right investments in this new environment, helping us avoid a potential digital divide.

The exciting fact is that we are living through these changes and therefore have it in our gift to shape the future we want to see. Amongst the complexity and uncertainty we are not powerless. The emboldening reality of the digital age is that individuals, communities and policy makers are able to create their own destiny. Keeping an open dialogue between the private and public sector is an essential part of the journey.