A test lab for the Digital Single Market

Torben Aaberg,
Interregional Programme Manager,
Aalborg University Copenhagen,

The countries in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR) are said to be digital frontrunners. With advanced digital services and developed infrastructure, high skilled citizens and innovative start-ups they are leading in many aspects of the digital economy. They also have a long tradition for cross-border trade, informal networks and a trustful public-private dialogue. All together a good starting point for becoming the first place where an integrated digital market becomes reality. But how can this digital potential be released?

DESI index, EU’s digital scoreboard, displays a digital gap between countries. There are also digital gaps – and a risk of fragmentation – between urban and rural areas, companies more or less ready for digital transformation and between groups on the labor market. Furthermore, digitalization is still to some extend taking place in silos where every country and sector prefer to develop their own solutions.

With the Digital Single Market (DSM) all EU countries have committed themselves to break down barriers, develop common standards and ease cross-border flow of data. But it takes time for 28 countries to agree and there are many bumps on the road.

Could someone show the way with examples of how things can work smoothly across borders?

BSR is a place to look. Even here there is a digital gap as the Nordics are ahead of the Baltics and Poland, with Germany in between. But the ranking of countries is not constant across indicators (think tank “Top of Digital Europe”). A country like Estonia is catching up with the Nordics. Other eastern BSR countries are pioneers in e.g. fintech and ICT startups.

This indicates that regardless of formal scores the BSR countries can learn from each other by combining strongholds and aligning approaches to digitalization. They share digital opportunities and could benefit from being part of a larger macro-regional market. As they all have different success stories to bring to the table transnational collaboration is an efficient way to tackle digital challenges and bridge digital gaps.

But how to do it in practice?

One example is “DIGINNO”, a pioneer project exploring new ways of transnational digital collaboration, co-funded by EU’s Interreg BSR programme for the period 2018-2020. The aim is to increase the capacity of industry and governments to promote more efficient uptake of digital solutions and speed up the process towards a DSM. A partnership of 26 government digitalization agencies, ICT industry associations and knowledge institutions in nine BSR countries has identified areas where action is most needed:

  • promote ICT uptake among industrial SME’s
  • improve cross-border interoperability of publicly provided e-services for companies
  • strengthen cooperation and coordination of digital policies between BSR countries.

Lack of cross-border interoperability can be an obstacle for companies that want to trade, invest or establish cross-border. DIGINNO partners design show-case models of cross-border e-services for business, including feasibility analyses. They combine national priorities with business needs to develop “ideal solutions” based on direct dialogue between government agencies and industry in neighboring countries. They discuss what works and doesn’t work in digital awareness raising. Inspired by identified obstacles, needs assessment and a creative approach to interoperability they propose policy changes as inputs to national and EU discussions.

What difference can such a project make?

Firstly, it offers a bottom up macroregional approach and a launch pad for new ideas of digital innovation. There is no one-size-fits-all in the DSM and adopting a full spectrum of cross-border interoperable services is not realistic. Technologies are available but there are legal and institutional obstacles and differing thematic priorities. DIGINNO prototypes can serve as supplementary tools for the member states and exemplify what can be agreed on across borders.

Secondly, at the personal level the project is an eye-opener for the national agencies and industry partners involved. Explaining differences in thematic priorities and approaches – combined with new personal contacts across borders and sectors – is inspiring curiosity and a transnational mindset. A key driver for change.

Thirdly, policymakers are increasingly aware of the value of informal transnational collaboration. MR Digital, the Nordic-Baltic ministerial collaboration, acknowledges DIGINNO use cases as tangible inputs to the work. The European Commission has shown interest in how the project can inspire the implementation of EU regulations.

Pioneer initiatives are on the rise with the ambition and ability to break down digital barriers. Other innovative tech regions globally are fast movers. But BSR provides an open lab where countries that trust each other can jointly provide functional solutions to make life easier for citizens and businesses, showcasing the added value of interacting with neighbors.

Email: toraa@cmi.aau.dk

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