It is no surprise that in times of crises, those most active try to prepare the ground for a stronger position in times of prosperity. This is definitely true for businesses, but is also becoming more so when we speak about countries or even whole regions.
On Sunday June 16th the Visegrad Group (V4) and Google hosted a half-day “Big Tent” forum in Warsaw designed to focus exactly on this problem: how to induce innovation in the Visegrad countries to boost their development, and thus catch up (both economically and socially) with the rest of the European continent more quickly. While it would be naive to expect that one single event – despite being organised by Google – can provide a recipe for solving such complex problems, the forum did provide some important ideas for analysing the situation in Central Europe.
On the whole, “innovation” has become a buzzword that is quite often misused (and also probably misunderstood). One of the key takeaways from the forum is that real innovation happens in people’s minds. It is something that cannot be forced on others, but something that can also spread and catch on if the timing and environment is right.
During the forum, representatives from the V4 countries were able to showcase examples of how innovation and information and communication technology are being used to address social issues, which are still very much present in the V4 countries. The forum’s host, and head of the Polish digitisation programme, Michał Boni, presented Poland’s strategy for integrating technology into the public administration and government in Poland.
We have become overwhelmed with the concept of “e-everything” (e-school, e-government, e-taxes etc.), and this was an impressive show of Poland’s digital strategy. However, it is important to remember that while these “innovations” are important at bringing Poland into the 21st century, we have to consider that at the macro-level, technology can be worthless if it does not lead to any changes in a way a society functions.
Despite the dynamic growth of the digital economy as well as internet-penetration across the region, the V4 countries still have much to do in this field. The government and administration needs to be more transparent and open, schools and universities have to continue to adapt to a dynamically changing reality of the “digital age” to prepare their students for life in a social and economic reality that we still don’t fully comprehend.
A simple “transplantation” of new technologies into old institutions won’t change their essence, something which was explicitly stressed by the “practitioner side” during the forum. In Europe, there is still a visible deficit of a new type of political culture; one that encourages risk-taking and celebrates those successes of European innovators.
Technology is nothing but a facilitator; it can be used for both good and bad, and Central European decision-makers should not forget about the challenges brought on by new information and communication technologies, which can empower the wider public among others. States have access to the same tools, but have much more capability to augment their policies. It poses a potential threat, especially in a region where democracy is still relatively young.
The biggest challenge of V4 countries in the “new digital age” is to ensure and improve freedom of the average citizen, and to set up policies guaranteeing an open and transparent democratic process when total surveillance is easier than ever before. The appropriate adaptation of information and communication technologies can potentially ensure continuity for the traditional geopolitical role of V4 countries on the European continent as the role of “transmitter” of democratic values to other regions, which are still a couple of steps behind us in terms of entering the “digital age” – both virtually and mentally.
Igor Lyubashenko is an academic teacher, new media enthusiast and international relations analyst. He has a PhD in Political Science from the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin.
Adam Reichardt is the editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.