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Bridging the Digital Divide in the COVID-19 era: Shaping Central Eastern European Perspectives

Nov 17, 2020 @ 10:00 am - 11:45 am UTC+1

The emergency presented by the COVID-19 pandemic is shaking up the established order of things, and no one doubts it is yet another turning point in modern history. The digital transformation has proved to be key in preserving certain economic activities throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, it has also exposed the negative consequences of the digital divide, in terms of access to distance education or health care for example. Therefore, it is essential to improve the skills of workers in the digital economy, as well as to invest in education and business development. What has been the Central European experience or response so far?

This event aims at providing a unique reflection from the Central European region on the following key questions:

  • Which policies and government strategies no longer fit with the world we are heading into? Which structures and processes have revealed themselves to be inadequate, unsuited or inappropriate for the world emerging from the crisis?
  • Which policies or government approaches have proven themselves COVID-proof, and therefore still relevant (or even more so) after the crisis?
  • What should we as policy-makers do differently? What should we change, what should we experiment with? Which primary goals or key principles should we keep in mind when supporting the creation of more resilient societies?
  • Which questions are still unanswered? What challenges, to increase the administration’s crisis resilience, are not jet solved and which processes were tested but not successful?

Speakers: 

  • Ingrid Brocková, State Secretary of the Slovak Foreign and European Affairs Ministry (confirmed)
  • Robert Kroplewski, Plenipotentiary of the Minister of Digital Affairs for Information Society of Poland
  • Anett Numa, Digital Transformation Adviser, e-Estonia
  • Krzysztof Szubert, President of the Management Board, NCBR Investment Fund ASI I Former Secretary of State, Poland
  • Žiga Turk, Professor at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

Led by: Alena Kudzko, Director, GLOBSEC Policy Institute.

Recording of the event

Write-up of the event

There is a write-up of the event by the event organisers.

Event reflections

These reflections are from the event host.

Summary of the event

The emergency presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has been shaking up the established order of things, and no one doubts it is yet another turning point in modern history. The digital transformation has proved to be key in preserving certain economic activities throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, it has also exposed the negative consequences of the digital divide, in terms of access to distance education or health care.

Our webinar aimed at evaluating the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on digital transformation in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). What is more to map the strategies that the governments in the region have to close the digital divide in the region.

We got involved in Government After Shock foremost, but not exclusively, because of two reasons. Firstly, to be part of a global discussion and to connect with the policy makers and secondly, to promote GLOBSEC as a hub for research and network on the topics related to digital transformation.

What was the most powerful idea, insight or realisation that came out of the event?

The digital world has no borders, but what ties Central Eastern European countries together are some political, economic and cultural similarities that allow us to analyse the region all together. Likewise in other places, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many challenges in the region that were not diligently dealt with in the past. It demonstrated the importance of digital technologies in government, business and everyday lives.

Digitalisation in CEE countries have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic and has been happening without much coordination and control from the governments. Based on the polls presented during the event, our participants felt that the governments were somehow “forced” to take more proactive approaches towards complex challenges arising in the society.

Secondly, as deemed by our participants and speakers, the greatest barrier facing the government in the area of digital learning is the lack of digital skills, along with the lack of IT infrastructure. However, CEE countries have been increasing the investments for technology in the recent years. During the first months of the lockdown, the growth of the digital economies in the CEE doubled in comparison with previous years according to a McKinsey Report. It’s worth mentioning that 3 out of 4 people in CEE are now digitally engaged, and CEE enjoys a high level of digital infrastructure (more than 90% of the territory is covered by 4G). The stimuli however do not cover up for the under-investment from the periods before 2019. This gap offers a lot of room for improvement in the region. Closing this gap is the common interest of the CEE countries.

Thirdly, as the most important principle, or characteristic for governments to embrace on the way to future success, our participants deemed important leadership, resources, international cooperation and political consensus and continuity, as almost equally crucial. The interconnection of all these characteristics is inevitable for higher resilience in the future.

What do we collectively need to keep talking about?

The digital gap is still very visible in the CEE countries. In order to overcome this divide, it is necessary to keep on working and talking about the cooperation between the governments and private sector, to ensure the development and implementation of digital innovations. Moreover, when speaking about the acceleration of digitalisation, we also need to talk about the correct progress, which would ensure a humancentric approach, that would aim to empowering people, while also protecting their privacy and human rights.

Reflecting back on the event, what key insights or conclusions can be shared about what should be “left behind” beyond the crisis? (ex. What has proven to no longer fit in the current context?)

  • Technology that is not used in accordance with data privacy and human rights.
  • Offline data bases in healthcare system, which are not transferred in the European Union.
  • Do not go back to traditional education, where offline presence is a must.

Reflecting back on the event, what key insights or conclusions can be shared about what should be “kept” beyond the crisis? (ex. What has proven to be important, what were things introduced in crisis response that should be kept after?)

  • Leadership and strong decision-making, which is determined to make difficult decisions and build
    bridges across different actors. For the governments to embrace future success, the most important principle is leadership (60%), political consensus and continuity (48%), international cooperation (48%) and resources (32%) according to the participants of the webinar.
  • Evidence-based policymaking, built on the crucial role of science and data, along with the policymaking that is inherently outcome and mission driven, as opposed to process driven.
  • The emphasis in policymaking shall be put on the Public Private Partnership, especially in large scale projects in the areas such as climate change, industrialization policy and digital transition.
  • New approaches: “Just do it approach”, “bottom up approach”, and “red tape cuts” in e-commerce, elaw, or e-government, proved to be the resilient and flexible approaches when the world faced the need to adapt, and the digitalisation was forced on the government in times of the COVID-19 pandemics.
  • E-education which allows for more personal learning and a development of different skills, for both children and adults.
  • Collective responsibility for global challenges and commitment to the UN agenda 2030, and Intergeneration responsibility which is a key to success for a better future of our planet.

Reflecting back on the event, what key insights or conclusions can be shared about what collectively we should “do differently” beyond the crisis?

  • Use the potential of technology to better fight the pandemics and other future challenges.
  • We should establish a COV IT “co-efficient evidence”, to avoid silos in the public administrations and to build back better.
  • Allow people to work online in different places in the world, and simplify the home office work, to slow down/eliminate brain drain which is a major challenge for CEE since the EU accession.
  • Boost two-legs financing of digital sector which would combine government funds and venture capitals.
  • Technology should have a human-centric approach that aims to support and empower people.
  • Keep improving digital services as CEE is a laggard.
  • Invest in digital skills to improve digital learning in the region (lack of digital skills was identified as a challenge by 71% of our participants, followed by lack of IT infrastructure (52%) and a lack of high speed infrastructure (52%).
  • Invest in life-long education – learning at all levels.
  • Allow for ‘mix and match’ policy that allows enrolling in one or more institutions, hence to learn
    different things simultaneously.