Welcome Address – Frans Timmermans
Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the EU Commission, in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights
Define “disruption”: disruption is to break up or throw into disorder.
I think that’s your goal if you’re an innovator: to wake up in the morning and disrupt the world. To discover a new concept that changes everything.
On social media – you get millions of shares. On Euronext – shares worth millions.
And as the inventions conquer the world, we stand in awe.
Innovators are modern wizards. They enchant us with their magic.
The pace of change is bewildering.
Because of our connectivity once secluded realms of technology now team up and share concepts, principles and methods across disciplines, helping everyone progress even faster together.
I’m not telling you anything new by saying we’re in the middle of a fourth industrial revolution.
And it will upset the current economic order: the way we make things, the way we trade, the way we work, and also the way we live.
I’m an idealist without illusions [as JFK once said]. And I think history has proven me right.
Look at Europe.
We have built a continent open and free. Where democracy reigns. Where there is no death penalty. Where we couple the power of the free market with the responsibility of social governance. A truly unique accomplishment that I frankly believe we should be more proud of.
Over the ages, innovation has improved our lives. We live longer. Fewer people starve. Fewer people starve.
I marvel at what my children know and what they can do (though I don’t tell it to them as they’d become even more unbearably arrogant about what they can do).
I look to innovation and technology to continue to feed us all, to cure old and new diseases, to generate renewable energy to protect our planet, to educate new generations of citizens who have to navigate in choppier seas of information, to map the helixes of life, our earth, our universe, and of course to protect humankind from natural dangers, but also from itself.
So, I welcome disruption.
But there are side effects too, some small, some big.
It is great when robots do our laundry and other chores. But what does it mean for people whose jobs can be automated?
It is great when people all around the world can meet and talk through the internet.
But what when extremists and terrorists can preach, recruit and marshal their moronic minions to kill and maim in the streets of London, Brussels or Paris?
It is great when sometime soon artificial intelligence can help our cars steer safely through traffic, minimizing road mortality.
But what happens once we reach the pivotal point when AI becomes smarter than us?
Some say God created man, and then man rejected God. Today we create sophisticated algorithms… Can they one day reject us?
As technology surges forward, we need to take a step back and look in the mirror.
Are our ethics, our norms, our laws adapted to these new developments? Can we still be sure that we – we humans – will still control technology?
Going back to the basics. Who are we? What do we stand for? What kind of world do we want our children to live in?
Technology has no innate morality. Nuclear power can cure and it can kill.
Innovation above all is a moral and political challenge.
For innovation and technology to serve us, we – humanity– must endow innovation with true meaning.
The next generation internet must be more than the Internet of things.
It must be the Internet of values.
This means that, first, we must protect democracy and our way of life.
In Europe, we are perhaps too used to living in a free, peaceful and open society.
But nothing is irreversible, nothing unbreakable, nothing inevitable.
Our values are under threat. Not only from the outside, but alas, also from within.
And the 4th industrial revolution also carries the risk of “Our democracies being hacked”
Hacked, by inequality, by the ever-greater power and money in the hands of a few mighty Internet giants.
Hacked, in very literal terms, by hackers and trolls disrupting politics at home and abroad or waging a hybrid war.
Hacked by the Internet echo chambers, that stop us from listening to each other and seeing each other.
By the misinformation revolution.
By the new illiteracy: the inability to tell fact from fiction, the loss of critical thinking.
Hacked, most recently, most cowardly in London by fanatics, whose rejection of modernity does not stop them from spreading high-tech hatred and taking it to our streets.
I tell you here today, that we will not allow murderous extremists to use our freedoms against us, to highjack the information freeway and turn it into a digital highway of death.
We created the EU Internet Forum in 2015 for member states, stakeholders, industry to take action. Now four of the largest companies (Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft) have developed a database to help address this problem.
The fight goes on while together we develop new means to counter terrorist content online with the objective of faster detection of terrorist content on the platforms.
Secondly, democracy will only be viable if we ensure no one gets left behind.
Uber might put taxi drivers out of a job – but then driverless cars may put Uber drivers out of a job.
White collar jobs are no longer safe, either.
Sure, new jobs will be created. Most likely they will require more and better skills.
But as so often, those with the least education and lowest incomes stand to suffer the most.
We say to people: learning becomes a life-long duty. You must adapt. You must be flexible. Which is true.
But at the same time our mortgages, our rents, are not flexible. Nor is our insurance, our groceries, or the schooling of our kids. This poses a challenge.
Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ is a great concept, leading to great progress. But if you lose your job in the meantime you will wonder angrily: “Progress?” What progress?
So, if we want to become more flexible, it is inevitable to start thinking about things like universal basic income. To create enough stability to allow us to be more flexible.
So, to meet these challenges, what should we do?
Against this deep-set fear of losing control, populists offer protection by turning back the clock. Offering protection by raising walls. First on land, then online.
But walls are not a solution. Bridges are. Together Europe can build bridges and face these challenges.
Simple math shows that our global strength in Europe is in numbers, in our diversity, in our values, our openness and our unity in seizing the future.
Both my grandfathers were coal miners. I am proud of that coal mining tradition. But I would never dream of sending people down the pits today.
Renewables are becoming cheaper by the minute, are clearly the way of the future, are clearly the better deal.
We must reject a ‘YOLO’ (you only live once) society. We must instead embrace a ‘WOHOW’ (we only have one world) society.
President Trump did the climate no great favour last week, to put it mildly. But as America turns to coal, the Commission continues its work on implementing the Paris Agreement with the rest of the world, its work on eco-design making appliances more efficient, on the circular economy moving towards a waste-less economy, and in the future on plastics that great scourge of our seas and our health, taking the lead with a strong sustainability agenda, and calling out to scientists and innovators everywhere: join us in creating jobs and safeguarding our planet.
But it’s also about people.
To stop the social fabric from ripping to shreds, we must redraw the social contract, and re-affirm our promise that no one in Europe gets left behind.
This means empowering women and men. For instance, through our work-life balance proposal a few weeks ago, offering more flexibility for both women and men, ensuring they have a real choice in fulfilling their lives as parents, carers and professionals as they see fit, and marshalling the unused potential of women talents to the benefit of Europe.
We must make sure that everyone will share in the fruits of progress. That free trade turns into fair trade. That we uphold our high standards of health and safety globally.
That’s why we have presented a globalisation paper to start the debate on how we can harness globalisation, making it work for everyone, not just those at the top of society.
We do all this, and more, because we need to secure the future of our European open society and our citizens.
And we must do this, because if we don’t do this, the forces of illiberalism and xenophobia that prey on crises might be more successful next time around.
So, my conclusion is, I have great hope for the next generation internet. It’s the next generation of Europeans who will make the next generation internet.
Europe is their natural habitat. They travel from Brussels to Bucharest like my parents did from Maastricht to Amsterdam. More easily, and cheaper by the way. Those like my son, born in 1989, the year of miracles, have only know a Europe that is undivided, and at peace.
Those born in that year are also the first truly digital generation, who have never known the analogue world. Cassette players, rotary dial phones, faxes, it is all old school to them. Heck, it’s even old school to me now!
Our young generations are idealistic, but without being ideological. Inspired not by visions, but driven by values.
If they can harness their enthusiasm and organise themselves, I’m sure this new generation, true digital natives, true natives of Europe, will meet the challenges that face us.
So, let us move forward into the future with high hopes, let us embrace disruption, but let us also heed the words of one of the greatest minds of our time [Einstein], who said:
“Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.”
Thank you very much.