I attended the Digital Assembly to get a broader perspective on what digital technology means for organisations across Europe.

It is fair to say I felt a little exotic at the Digital Assembly 2018 in Sofia this week. The conference was packed with academics, lobbyists, and EU policy wonks - business people were thin on the ground. Then again, this is exactly why I was there: to check the direction of travel for digital, and how digital innovation is perceived outside my profession.

It was worth it. We covered the (unexpected) success of GDPR and its upcoming sibling, the Free Flow of non-personal Data. There was lots of positive discussion on fostering innovation, the benefits of digital transformation, and AI. There were also warnings on the challenges of cybersecurity, as well as ensuring that social disruption is managed and does not exacerbate inequality.  

So, what is the direction of travel? What should organisations and digital professionals watch out for in the immediate future?

Now: Push through with the digital transformation

The impact of digital on sectors such as healthcare and financial services is undeniable, and these two sectors have taken the lead in digital innovation across the EU. However, the adoption of med- and fin-tech solutions is bottle-necked by slow adoption. Technology is no longer the obstacle; it is resistance to change at the human and organisational levels. 

This might be an issue for the EU, but an opportunity for organisations that push through with their digital transformation. As the Single Digital Market advances, organisations should take the lead by publishing digital-first; serving their customers digital-first; ensuring that their staff is trained to use new technology. As one commentator said, the digital divide is actually a spectrum, and organisations have tools at their disposal to progress rapidly.

6-12 months: Prepare for the Free Flow of Data Regulation

GDPR has received a lot of attention, but it is only one-half of the EU’s approach to data handling, the half that deals with personal data and privacy. There other half, the one that deals with non-personal data is the Free Flow of Data regulation. This regulation aims to boost the European Data Economy considerably, by lifting restrictions and enabling organisations to store and process data anywhere in the EU. 

Although less dramatic than GDPR, the FFD is significant: it allows organisations to streamline their data strategies and pick the most cost-effective supplier from any member state. It regulates in favour of open access and portability. However, the distinction between personal and non-personal data is dynamic. If technology emerges that turns the latter into the former, then that data falls under GDPR rules. 

1-2 years: Develop an AI strategy

The key factors that shape the environment for European organisations are cybersecurity; an aging population; and the emergence of Artificial Technology. AI is pivotal, with the ability to accelerate the effects of the other two - both negative and positive. Harnessing AI can boost cybersecurity defences and help manage soaring healthcare costs. 

Having completed their digital transformation journey, and armed with the complementing data regulations, organisations should have all the tools they need to develop and implement an AI strategy. Their priority might be security, intelligent content, or customer support. Regardless, by 2020 AI should be completely demystified, with AI-enabled systems in place or in development. For our part, we are skilling up on Intelligent CMS, ready to support our clients when ready.

The only way is the highway

The direction of travel is clear. The Digital Single Market will create a larger data economy, with appropriate controls for privacy and security. The European “data space” will provide the foundation for innovation across sectors and member states. One speaker even called for a “Digital Mttelstand”, organisations that achieve digital excellence without the expansionist approach of US tech giants.  

So things are moving - more slowly than those of us who work in tech would like, but maybe that’s the point. At the end of the conference, there was a ceremonial signing of an agreement between Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia to build a 5G corridor, where autonomous vehicles could be tested. I grew up in that part of the world, so I know what the driving conditions are like. We could try out driverless cars on the Autobahn, but that is hardly a stress test.