Even more today, when drenched in financial doom and gloom, Europe has certainly seen better days. Yet, we could afford some optimism.
The idea of a European Silicon Valley is hip, but the conditions that led to the emergence of the American Silicon Valley in the 1960s cannot be artificially replicated in Europe. That is, a single geographical location that acts as a high-tech incubator is not feasible. Europe throughout, from the Silicon Docks of Dublin, to Grenoble, and from corners of Vienna, to the student-filled cafes of Trento, has pockets of highly-skilled and innovative brains. But it takes more than bits of modern architecture and the European headquarters of some multinational corporation to create fertile, crisis-proof entrepreneurial ecosystems competitive on a global scale. Europe needs to think outside the box. And while doing so, it also needs to deal with its own syndrome of inferiority.
A common fallacy is that Europe lags behind the US and Asia in the frequency of venture creation. In reality, start-up rates in the EU are comparable to the start-up rates in the US. The problem in Europe is the lack of growth-oriented entrepreneurship, the kind that creates and sustains new jobs. At this current stage, European startups are not competitive in the global sphere because they lack visibility and are faced with much more complex administrative obstacles than their non-European counterparts. This is a paradox, considering that the European Union has the biggest internal market in the world. With this in mind, a metonym for the European high-tech sector can only be a Silicon European continent. The greatest onus on European-born ventures is the absence of a powerful sense of solidarity gathering all of the continent's 'wonderkids', be it entrepreneurs, scientists, industrialists, or business angels.
Evidently, there is still a lot of work to be done and, albeit all pointing to the right direction, too many initiatives in the EU are blunted by lack of clarity. Europe as a whole - as opposed to Europe as an amalgam of 27 - needs to pool resources. Cohesion policy, and more urgently, a digital single market, is key to addressing macroeconomic and regional disparities at EU level and should be at the core of the internal market policy for enhancing competitiveness, productivity, growth, and job creation. They pay-offs will include increase in the attractiveness of investing in Europe. Moreover, more complementarities between EU economies will avail the reduction of regional imbalances in foreign direct investment, fostering thus, the European industrial base and promoting sustainable long-term financial development. More emphasis should be added to this point. Stakeholders should avoid at all costs the (accidental) creation of a two-speed Europe, at the expense of the stagnated European South. A Silicon Europe should be as inclusive to Greece as it is to the more technologically advanced Germany.
Furthermore, faced with the challenges of east-bound Enlargement, new member states should feel welcomed to contribute their best talent to the European Silicon Continent, without being discriminated against. A precondition for this will be bridging gaps in technological literacy and access to technology in general across the Union.
The danger of becoming redundant is always at stake since all these issues have already been discussed to exhaustion. Nevertheless, Europe needs the boost and this can only come as a wake-up call. This is not to suggest that fostering the private sector, venture capitalism, and entrepreneurship will produce a panacea for these times of turbulence. A European Silicon Continent will, undoubtedly, benefit all as long as it comes from within, but is open and inclusive to all. There has been a lot of talk about Europe having its own identity and as such, having the capacity to pursue a different path than other (American especially) paradigms. Yet, as long as this perpetuates a naive image of European exceptionalism it can only do harm. A typical symptom is the fact that nobody ever question the scarcity of non-European CEOs in Europe. A competitive Europe should be willing to admit and integrate skilled scientists, workers, and entrepreneurs from around the world, while allowing for the free movement of people internally. Ultimately, we cannot afford the risk of lost 'collisions' that could lead to the birth of new ideas and innovation.
Finally, it is imperative that leading research universities, pioneers in technology and innovation, must be at the heart of this process, as economic development engines, urban planners and political actors, providing entrepreneurs with the resources, the skills and the ideas, while partnerships between them allow for the best outcomes. Already, there are some 2000 high-tech clusters scattered around Europe. The potential of investing in the most promising ones is immense. Europe's strengths are in nano-electronics, micro-electronics and e-health. There are some fascinating developments happening in these sectors and having a secure provision of brains and skills, investment can be allocated accordingly and certainly, should not be limited to government sources. The private sector if allowed more flexibility can achieve miracles, especially in fields such as green energy and sustainability. Having said that, any initiative to empower European entrepreneurial ecosystems should be underlined by a commitment to ethnical investment and responsibility for the future generations.
Europe cannot afford another lost generation. It can no longer be timid and modest. Fascinating prospects are at stake but to fully exploit them will take a long process of self-rediscovery. Europe can become a cluster of knowledge, a place of scientific production, filled with high-tech industries - birthplaces of great technological innovation that transform the way we work, live, and think. It will take a little more than willpower, but to start with some self-belief would already be a big step towards the right direction.
* Elena Georgalla, Research Fellow at ThinkYoung, the first European Youth Lobby
Born on the island of Cyprus, Elena is currently studying international relations and social anthropology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Elena joined the ThinkYoung team in May 2012 after participating at the study trip in Kosovo as part of the Sustainable Kosovo project. Previously she interned for the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies based in Nicosia, Cyprus and she is very involved with student politics at her home university. Through these experiences she became committed to fostering young voices in the debate for building Europe.
To envision a European Silicon Valley, in the image and likeness of the original version in the San Francisco Bay, is more or less like seeing a mirage in the desert. Europe is a starry-eyed idealist, always taken aback by its own modesty.
Europe as a whole - as opposed to Europe as an amalgam of 27 - needs to pool resources. Cohesion policy, and more urgently, a digital single market, is key to addressing macroeconomic and regional disparities at EU level and should be at the core of the internal market policy for enhancing competitiveness, productivity, growth, and job creation.
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