The playbook for the digital era has not yet been written, but Europe needs a plan

EESC discusses digitalisation and inequalities at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, held in Bonn from 11 to 13 June

The thematic focus of the 11th Global Media Forum (GMF), organised by Deutsche Welle and partnered by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), was Global Inequalities. On the first day of the GMF, the EESC organised a panel which looked at how digitalisation and the fourth industrial revolution could reduce or increase poverty and inequalities in the global world.

The panel, held before a packed audience, brought together panellists who were experts in various fields – EESC Member and full-time trade unionist Peter Schmidt; associate researcher at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Professor Dr Dr Ayad-Al-Ani; postdoctoral research at the Cambridge University’s Geography Department Dr Judith Schleicher; and journalist Alexander Damiano Ricci, publisher of Cafebabel. Further input was provided by two front row speakers – EESC Members Brendan Burns and Baiba Miltoviča.

The panellists debated, among other things, the profound and vast changes brought by the rise of the platform economy and its consequences for democracy and welfare around the world. The role of trade unions in the business world which increasingly favours more flexible – and more precarious – forms of employment was challenged, together with the connection between poverty, inequalities and the natural environment and the need to reform education systems to better respond to the challenges of the new digital era.

For Professor Al-Ani, the playbook of the platform economy has not been fully written yet.  “But one thing is sure -- the platforms ‘strive for size’. What we see now is the rise of monopolies, especially in the tech area. The question is how to reconcile monopolies and democratic societies.  That seems to be a big problem. The current structure of the world economy is being translated into these platforms,” said Dr Al-Ani.

Although the West is in a better situation than developing countries, thanks to its advanced social security systems, a political discussion is still needed on how to provide income for everybody. “What is important is to have a plan, and Europe – unlike China – does not have a plan yet,” Ayad Al-Ani concluded and proposed to experiment on cooperation and participation at community level and to build society on the experience gained at that level. 

Mr Schmidt said that trade unions found it increasingly difficult to reach out to employees with non-standard and limited contracts. “The platform economy is a model of exploitation and platforms exploit people as almost everybody has a limited contract,” he said, calling for more regulation and arguing that the constant GDP growth had only led to more inequality, since the 1% rich now possessed 50% of the world's wealth, while poverty was on the rise. He referred to the situation in Africa where 20 million jobs would be needed every year. "The West cannot close its eyes to this development," Mr Schmidt said. "We need a better distribution of our welfare and we need to revive the "old concept" of reducing working hours. The eternal dream of human beings to work less can come true with digitalisation, but exactly here it will be more important than ever to have it clearly regulated." He described the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as “a gift” and called for their implementation in all policy areas.

Dr Schleicher said that digitalisation was likely to increase the marginalisation of certain communities. “If we don’t set standards of what matters in a society, the same indicators of what we want our society to look like, things will become complicated,” she warned, underlining the importance of integrating environmental issues into the socio-economic debate. She also stressed the significance of access to data and its use: digitalisation had great potential for good, but also for bad, especially for vulnerable communities.

On the question of how the media can contribute, Mr Ricci said that an honest and wide discussion was needed. "As journalists we need to be able to communicate to our audience what the digital economy is about – not only in terms of good and bad but comprehensively, including the many shades of grey".

Mr Burns brought in the educational perspective by highlighting the importance of knowing which tasks were needed in the economy. The dual vocational system of Germany and Austria could be a role model for other countries.

Ms Miltoviča highlighted the rise of e-commerce and the increased need to have digital skills which have become almost a prerequisite for any kind of purchase. “We have to help consumers who are lagging behind.” Civil society can have an important role in this area, educating citizens and making them aware of the skills needed to cope with the demands of the new era.