Europe’s Digital Decade – What is the role of automation?

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By Cezara Panait

The European Commission set the way forward on digital transformation by unveiling its vision for Europe’s Digital Decade and its targets by 2030. Empowering the European Union (EU) to be not only a trend-setter on digitalization, but also having ambitious plans for establishing the European digital sovereignty, the Commission aims at advancing the potential of an interconnected world, where human rights are a top commitment, alongside with fostering innovation and enabling the scaling-up of the EU’s strategic capabilities regarding the digital economy and society through multi-country projects. Furthermore, the strategic plan (2021-2024) for the flagship EU research and innovation programme Horizon Europe has just been adopted on March 15th, with a budget of €95.5 billion that will also focus on emerging technologies, as part of the digital transition actions supporting the post-pandemic recovery.

Considering the EU’s digital targets set for the next decade, what is the role of automation in accomplishing these goals, and how can it contribute to accelerating post-pandemic digital recovery? What are the benefits of automation to work efficiency, skills building and societal well-being? Can we draw some best practices from the use cases that emerged during the pandemic and gain more insight into the advantages of promoting this wide range of technologies in the future?

Europe’s digital compass – priorities

The EU’s Digital Decade priorities revolve around four main essential pillars (Europe’s Digital Compass) with specific targets for 2030: skills, infrastructures, business and government.

  • The first principle puts an emphasis on increasing digital literacy and developing basic digital skills for at least 80% of the adults by 2030, and also reducing the gender gap in the ICT sector by empowering more women to be active in this sector
  • Furthermore, robust digital infrastructures are considered to be crucial in ensuring the European objectives on connectivity
  • Notable milestones are also set for the digital transformation of businesses: 75% of EU companies should use cloud computing services, big data and Artificial Intelligence; 90% of SMEs should reach a basic digital intensity; and doubling the number of European unicorns (currently the count already hit 122 European unicorns and this number is constantly growing)
  • The last point on the EU’s digital compass is related to the necessity of improving the digital public services, stating that all key digital public services should be available by 2030. However, this may seem a high-aiming standard, taking into account the results of the latest Digital Economy and Socie­­ty Index (DESI) Report from December 2020, which acknowledges the disparities between front runners on delivering digital public services such as Estonia, Spain or Denmark, and the countries that need to work the most on enhancing their digital public services, respectively Croatia, Greece and Romania.

How can automation leverage digital transformation?

When we hear the term automation, we usually tend to think about industrial robots. Robotic process automation (RPA), a new category of enterprise software, operates in the digital environment, replicating the way employees use a computer to conduct business operations. There are many advantages to adopting RPA, as illustrated by the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) Study on Exploring Digital Government transformation in the EU. According to its findings, RPA is sufficiently developed, scalable and resilient to be used by large governments, in a variety of fields, from funds administration, to policing, healthcare or education, as it can support tax calculations, anti-fraud checks, contracts management, crime reporting, healthcare diagnosis and the management of databases for students. The JRC study also states that RPA is able “to reduce human errors, cut operational costs, and allow the staff focus on more high-value tasks”.

Another way to leverage digital transformation through the use of automation technologies involves implementing Intelligent Process Automation (IPA), a set of innovative technologies that bring together RPA, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Workflow and Integration Platforms, to drive successful business outcomes, as indicated by International Data Corporation (IDC).

Despite several challenges to integrating cutting-edge technologies into traditional working practices, multiple international forums acknowledge the incremental potential of automation and its benefits to the future of work, both for creating new opportunities, and for bringing more added value to employees’ tasks. Thus, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization mentions in the Industrial Development Report 2020 that automation is “likely to create new industries and new job opportunities in more skilled and knowledge based sectors”, while the World Economic Forum predicts that “automation will result in a net increase of 58 million jobs by 2025”.

The role of automation in ensuring a sustainable and accelerated digital transition for the post-pandemic recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic had significant effects on adopting digital solutions in our daily lives, from teleworking to optimizing work processes and increasing efficiency, even reducing bureaucracy. While automation played a pivotal role in business operations even before the pandemic, its role has grown exponentially, becoming a strategic technology for helping businesses ensure resiliency, adapt to remote work, and respond to consumers’ requests. Many companies have re-evaluated operations and used automation to reduce backlogs and improve teams’ performance by allowing employees to engage in more critical tasks. To ensure that employees can benefit from technological development, investing in upskilling and reskilling and lifelong learning programs becomes vital for the digital transition. In this regard, a PwC survey already notes that the pandemic has accelerated digital upskilling.

Furthermore, Europe’s Digital Compass urges governments to consolidate their digital channels and redesign public services delivery to “provide a holistic and easy access to public services with a seamless interplay of advanced capabilities, such as data processing, AI and virtual reality. As a next step, increasing digital infrastructure capacities will be paramount to helping achieve vast data processing securely and at speed, creating an optimal space for scalable automation operations. 

The EU has already endorsed the role of RPA in improving public processes in its comprehensive European industrial policy on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Although the private sector might be better equipped to convert to the new digitally enabled reality, there are already notable examples of AI-powered automation projects in the public sector that help improve resiliency, reduce inaccuracy, improve employee and citizen experience, service delivery, and internal productivity. At the same time, automation can help reduce the administrative burden, as processes and operations take less time and require less paperwork, which enables the public sector to deliver faster, error-free, and more customer-centric public services to citizens.

What are some notable examples of recent automation-based solutions?

  • The European Commission set up an inventory for concrete projects using emerging technologies in public procurement, including RPA solutions such as procurement modernization, automated processing of purchase invoices and maintaining the supplier register or automation of the responsibility determination process before awarding contracts, to ensure that vendor is compliant with the legal requirements
  • In Ireland, the Health Business Services established a Centre of Excellence for RPA, enhancing the capacity across the public health sector
  • Automation was deployed to limit and prevent the spread of the pandemic due to the human physical proximity within “warehouses, grocery stores, call centers, and manufacturing plants”, as noted by McKinsey

Thus, SAP emphasizes three milestones that can lead to achieving economic growth and post-pandemic recovery through automation: standardization of processes, as part of the operational continuity, increasing efficiency through centralizing data and productivity boost, enabled by process automation. A recent McKinsey report also shows that the post-pandemic recovery will propel a fast adoption of automation to redesign work processes and cope with an increased demand of delivering services or performing tasks, as automation proved its efficiency during the pandemic in solving cost control and reducing interpersonal interactions, to allow operations to continue without exposing the employees to the virus.

Funding opportunities that can deliver on the ambitions laid down in the Digital Decade Communication

At the core of the recovery plan of the EU, we rely on the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), that will enable the EU to become more resilient, overcoming the consequences of the pandemic and financing solutions to help Member States boost their digital ecosystems. This will be made possible via a specific allocation of at least 20% of the RRF funds into projects fostering digital transition (by the end of April, Member States should present their national plans, which the Commission will assess within two months after receiving them).

Furthermore, Europe’s Digital Decade plan also includes cohesion funds and other EU funding dedicated to digital reforms, as well as investments that will facilitate the launching of pan-European projects. Such joint initiatives should strengthen transnational cooperation on digital matters and the exchange of best practices, further achieving a solid framework and critical infrastructure.

Europe is facing yet another challenge in its long history, where it needs to prove its resilience to overcome the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and provide opportunities for renewal and future growth. To pursue the ambitious goals laid down in its digital vision for 2030, the EU should exploit the true potential of emerging technologies as a driver for innovation and capacity building. Acknowledging the tremendous benefits of automation in business practices and public services delivery will be an essential step in achieving economic growth and improving societal well-being.

About the Author

Cezara Panait

Cezara Panait

Cezara Panait is the Head of Digital Policy at the think-tank Europuls – Centre of European Expertise, where she is leading the research and policy activity on emerging technologies, including automation, artificial intelligence and digital platforms. She frequently publishes articles and moderates high-level debates with policy-makers on these topics.

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