It is customary to characterise Greece as one of the weakest links of the EU Digital Single Market, which is an important component for achieving the EU goals of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. In the EU Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) for 2020, the country made some progress compared to the previous year, especially in connectivity, human capital, and the digital public services indicators. But it is rather obvious that the so-called “post-crisis Greece” has a long distance to cover compared to other countries. For 2020, the country, in overall, ranks again 27th out of the 28 EU Member States and still belongs to the low-performing group of countries along with Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Cyprus, and Slovakia. Greece also ranks bottom among 100 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Readiness for the Future of Production Report, still classified as “emerging” by the WEF in terms of readiness to participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
And although Greece’s gap from the European average in broadband penetration has been almost bridged, the digital transformation in general entails more risks than benefits for the country, relative to other OECD countries. For instance, the level of inequality of internet use is among the highest of OECD countries, the information industries do not add significantly to employment, and many jobs are at risk of automation relative to OECD countries, while the exposure to disinformation online is comparatively high.
Intriguingly, Greece’s dismal record on digitalisation has received a remarkable boost from an unlikely quarter, that is, the coronavirus. The COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s first digital pandemic, and the ensuing lockdowns arguably act as a catalyst for a long-overdue technological upgrade in Greece, prompting a rush to adopt massive digital solutions for everything from Cabinet meetings to prescriptions, though there are pockets of resistance. The country has indeed achieved significant improvements in the digital maturity of the public sector, as the governmental portal gov.gr provides more than 500 e-services and the Ministry of Digital Governance helps teleworking of critical public services to more than 10,000 employees. Notably, processes of teleworking and teleconferencing are here to stay, since they are more economically and environmentally sustainable.
Most interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted further the country’s long-standing problems in digital connectivity, digital skills and digital literacy. These problems are demonstrated in the latest survey of the interdisciplinary World Internet Project – Greece (WIP-GR), a part of the international World Internet Project, founded by the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future (formerly the UCLA Center for Communication Policy) in the United States in 1999, with more than 20 partners in countries and regions all over the world. The most recent WIP-GR survey (2019) depicts Greece as a laggard in internet penetration and the use of e-services (digital economy), with low diversity of online activities (i.e. the internet is mostly used for communication and entertainment purposes) and weak demand for internet services, low level of digital social and political trust, and high scepticism towards privacy and safety issues, citizen’s rights and online information reliability (see the graph below).
Another worrying issue pertains to the existing digital divides and inequalities among individuals, generations, geographical regions (urban versus rural areas, with Attica having the highest percentage of long-term internet users scoring 56.2 per cent) and socio-economic groups: The internet is mostly used by the younger, employed and better-educated population, of higher income, while 29 per cent are non-users, who refrain from internet use mainly because they are not interested, or not convinced, about internet’s usefulness; or they are afraid of (or confused by) technology; or they lack technical skills.
WIP-GR also explains Greece’s persistent difficulties to respond to international developments in the digital economy in recent years, which primarily result from its particular productivity model. Importantly, the essential characteristics of its productivity base, combined with strong idiosyncratic cultural factors (such as phobic and defensive attitudes toward innovation and anti-reformist values), abstract from the capacity of the Greek e-economy to catch up the train of competitive growth and transition to future states, involving the new, digital phase of globalisation, or Globalisation 4.0, driven by major shifts in technology, geopolitics, and social and environmental needs.
This calls for an optimisation of fiscal instruments and competition-enhancing policies, R&D subsidies to support small innovative firms and startup companies, as well as labour market and education policies (including changes in the school curriculum) for rapid transversal skills development (reskilling and upskilling, using stakeholdered approaches) and reducing skills gap, preparing for the future of jobs and professions. It is also expedient to prioritise foresight policies and jobs market forecasts over the traditional occupational orientation and vocational (re)training of low-skilled labour. Furthermore, it requires more interoperability amongst all administrative platforms, more digital innovation hubs covering all e-economy sectors (only 9 hubs are fully operational so far), and more research on blockchain and cryptocurrency.
In this crisis-driven condition of turbulence and bifurcation, Greece has a unique historic opportunity to set new, strategic and evidence-based priorities to do better in the future, especially to enhance its economic and societal resilience and anti-fragility. Urgent future-oriented policies must build digital human, social and institutional capital at the same time, and mobilise both public and private sector to play a key role in upgrading further digitalisation, fully exploiting the Next Generation EU recovery package to actively contribute to this strategic objective.
According to the most recent JRC Science for Policy report (2020), the open economy of the European information space now allows economies of scale for the storage of data, effectively curbing energy costs. Greece must exploit this development, as well as the fast dynamics of the emergent, collaborative platform economy, which provides for a wide range of jobs and roles, while ensuring the principle of human dignity, justice, inclusiveness, security, equal opportunity, and the potential of “decent digiwork”. What is eventually needed is an entirely different mindset in society, that is, a mindset which energetically embraces the complexity and uncertainty of the connected and accelerated digital environment, translating speed into adaptiveness, and risks into opportunities for all.
The big stake here is to stimulate an adaptive resilient recovery through investments (especially in the Industry 4.0 sector) and the twining of digital transformation and green economy development, as the first annual EU Strategic Foresight Report strongly suggests. Last but not least, the implementation of better regulation, normative frameworks and best practices will arguably facilitate the flow of responsible innovation and prevent a closed, concentrated and polarised e-economy. Overall, aforementioned policy reforms and advances would possibly contribute to the effective creative exploitation of the evolving digital dynamics in the networked spheres of society, culture, economy and politics in contemporary Greece.
Charalambos Tsekeris (PhD) is Research Fellow (Assistant Professor rank) in Digital Sociology, National Centre for Social Research (Athens, Greece); Professor Extraordinary, School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University; Principal Investigator and Coordinator, World Internet Project-Greece.