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Digital Europe: Meet the Female Politicians Shaping the Future

Part 1: Austria

Margarete Schramböck, Federal Minister for Digital and Economic Affairs talks about the most important projects: digital bootcamps, 5G and how to close the gender gap in STEM education

Where does Austria stand in terms of digitalization compared to the other European nations?

In the current ranking of the DESI (Digital Economy and Society Index), Austria is ranked 11th in the EU with regard to digital development. In the area of availability and accessibility of digital public services, Austria is also in the good mid-range.

Austria needs to catch up when it comes to the use of internet services. Our current fit4internet initiative aims to counteract this trend. We want to impart digital skills in a targeted manner so that every Austrian can also participate in digitalization.

In the area of internet connectivity, we are taking the necessary steps to provide ultra-fast broadband in the future by implementing the federal government’s 5G strategy.

Austria has what it takes to establish itself as a leading European hub for digital innovation. Our clear goal is to join the Digital 10 – the ten most innovative nations.

 

Austria already has a conducive environment for digitalization, but what are the main challenges you face when it comes to implementation?

Like every technological change, digitalization will lead to changes in the work environment. Jobs will change, new ones will emerge, and others will disappear. This has always been the case. However, it is up to us to make the most of the opportunities offered by digitalization through education and training programs.

At the moment, one of our main goals is to tackle the insecurities and fears of Austrian citizens when it comes to the term “digitalization”. It is important that people understand the chances and possibilities digitalization has to offer for everyone. Therefore, we are trying to promote initiatives like fit4internet that point out the advantages of digitalization for different age groups. With the program KMU Digital, we are also offering tailor-made support so that business can benefit as much as possible from digitisation as well.

The administration is a key factor to spread digital transformation in society as a whole. The main objective is to involve all stakeholders in the process, ensure knowhow transfer between the administrative units, and develop a common strategy at all levels of public administration. The Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs bundles all initiatives and acts as instigator and stimulator.

 

How have you integrated digitalization starting with Austria’s educational system?

We want to make people in Austria fit for the digital world. Digital skills are the key to the future. Therefore, the Pact for Digital Competence – an alliance of the economy, educational institutions, and public administration – will enable the way into a digital world and make the population fit for modernization. In this context, the already mentioned fit4internet initiative was established to build digital competencies for citizens. Three focus groups – senior citizens, working middle-aged people with a low affinity for IT, and young people – will be offered digital training tailored to their needs.

Master plan for digitalization in education

Digital applications open up new opportunities for teaching and learning in education, and the Digitalization in Education master plan secures the necessary strategic foundations this requires. These include a digital school service portal, 3,000 new IT training places, mobile devices for secondary level I, basic digital education as a teaching subject, and digitalization as a focus of teacher training.

 

What kind of strategies have you formulated in order to place Austria in the forefront for digital business investments?

I want our country to play a leading role when it comes to digitalization. My goal is to develop new digital business models and value chains and enable companies to position their products and services successfully on the international market. This leads to high levels of employment and high-quality jobs that guarantee purchasing power.

Digital infrastructure is one of the key cornerstones of Austria’s future. We are therefore expanding the 5G network in close cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Transport, Innovation, and Technology. The aim is to bring ultra-fast Internet to the furthest corners of the country.

With Digital Austria, we created an umbrella brand under which combines all strategies and flagship projects for digitalization. Digital Austria is a dynamic, open platform, not only filled with content by the government, it will also be a meeting point for experts to discuss and exchange ideas. In terms of content, the administration – in addition to the expansion of broadband and 5G coverage – is focusing above all on user-friendly, digital applications for citizens and the economy. We want to make existing services visible and highlight best practice models. We want to promote Austria as a digital location to investors and future employees abroad and create a network of expertise in Austria. For me, the aim is to make life easier for citizens through digitalization. At the same time, companies should become more competitive, which is not an end in itself. This way we secure the quality of life and create new jobs in Austria. We can only achieve this because the Federal Government, the provinces, and the municipalities work together.

 

SMEs are the backbone of your economy, comprising 99.7% of the country’s businesses. How do you intend to demystify technology for SMEs?

Many Austrian businesses want to make the most of the opportunities which digitalization brings, but don’t yet know how to go about it. The initiative Digital SME helps Austria’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) directly, allowing them to make the best use of their digital opportunities. Businesses benefit from funding for consulting, qualification, knowledge transfer, and further training, thus strengthening the digitalization expertise of Austria as a business location. The program is being restructured and rolled out in 2019.

Expanded business service portal (USP)

The Federal Government is continuing to expand its successful business service portal (USP) in order to significantly reduce the load on business. Mobile eGovernment and end-to-end electronic services for important business situations, including relocations, help businesses by allowing them to focus solely on the entrepreneurial challenges.

‘Once only’ project

In its role as a partner, the state holds – and uses – considerable quantities of information which businesses are legally obliged to provide, often repeatedly. By introducing its ‘once only’ principle, in which time-consuming, multiple disclosures to government authorities are dispensed with, the Federal Government is explicitly and permanently reducing red tape for businesses. In the future, information will need to be provided only once, and government authorities will then exchange necessary information between themselves without any further action being required from the company.

Strong digitalization partners for our SMEs

Many companies are asking how their business can benefit from digitalization. Implementation is often difficult due to a lack of expertise and useful contacts, and pure IT consultancy is often not enough. That’s why competence networks – so-called ‘digital innovation hubs’ – are being established, designed to support SMEs by providing the know-how they need to carry out their own successful digitalization projects. Existing research and innovation establishments with a focus on digitalization join forces to create such networks. The digital innovation hubs will be the first port of call for small and medium-sized enterprises, offering direct access to digital transformation expertise from high caliber partners in research and industry. These national digital innovation hubs are also an important step in successfully linking up with European networks.

Digital boot camps bring IT expertise to businesses

There is a significant skills shortage in the IT sector. The introduction of digital boot camps places a focus on training and development in this vital field. These camps offer intensive training for Austrian employees, giving them the chance to quickly gain hands-on IT skills which they can then apply in their workplace to put digital projects into practice. Training will initially focus on artificial intelligence, big data, data engineering, and blockchain technology, all topics which are critical to the success of Austria’s economy and its future.

The Federal Ministry for Digital and Economic Affairs sees itself as an innovation driver in Austria. In addition to its own offerings and solutions, optimal conditions must be created for innovation in the sense of a digital ecosystem.

Businesspeople, and especially small and medium-sized enterprises, need to catch up when it comes to implementing digitalization. According to the OECD, Austria is more advanced than Germany, but still below the EU28 and OECD average.

According to a survey carried out by the Austrian Federal Chamber of Commerce, about half of the 1,700 SMEs surveyed want targeted advice on how to implement the digital transformation. Through joint action with the Chamber of Commerce, such as the SME Digital Package (in German), it will be possible to increase the degree of digitalization of small businesses and also to make better use of the opportunities offered by digitalization.

A free online status check gives you the opportunity to check the digital starting position of your own company within a few minutes.

Startups also comprise a substantial part of the digital transformation. With their innovative solutions, they are forming the ecosystem to give creative minds the space for growth. It is important to support them in their early phase by appropriate means. This does not necessarily have to happen through funding, but rather requires a network so that founders can establish partnerships. In this phase is has been especially taken care of keeping hurdles for startups as low as possible.

To this end, the Federal Government launched a de-bureaucratization offensive. An essential principle thereby is the “once only” principle: companies in Austria have to comply with 230 million information obligations, in other words make reports in various forms, filling in an average of 55 fields, which costs the economy a total of €4.3 billion. This should be changed through establishing the “once only” principle. Information that already exists in the system is accessible by authorities and do not need to be re-submitted by the entrepreneurs at every contact.

 

What drives you and excites you about digitalization? Do you think digitalization also affects women and create a paradigm shift in gender equality?   

Digitalization is the key factor for growth and competitiveness. There is no industry that is not affected by it. Products, services and business models are changing, new markets are developing – there are enormous opportunities here. At the same time, the economy benefits from the skills and knowledge of women more than ever. Particularly in view of the progressing digitalization, it is important that women face current and future challenges confidently and seize their opportunities. It is very important to me to increase the number of women in the business community so that they become key players. There is no shortage of suitable women for key positions, but they often lack the necessary network. The European Institute of Gender Equality’s (EIGE’s) research shows that narrowing the existing gender gap in STEM education would lead to economic growth, with more jobs (up to 1.2 million by 2050) and increased GDP over the long-term – up to €820 billion by 2050. The share of women among ICT and engineering graduates in 2017 in the EU was 17%. Between 2004 and 2015, it declined in 20 member states. It is anticipated that the new STEM jobs will produce a great deal of work and be well-paid, resulting in improved EU competitiveness and a gradual closure of the gender pay gap.