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The future of Belgium is digital

Thierry Geerts, Director Google Belgium
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Thierry Geerts

Two Antwerp taxi companies announce that they have equipped 40 of their vehicles with tablets. Passengers in these taxis can consult certain websites as well as the weather or the stock market price, and look for a hotel or a restaurant in the vicinity. So the tablet will improve the lives of the driver, the passenger and the taxi company. There is even talk of offering an app that will allow you to follow the route taken by the taxi. The headlines ran: “Taxi companies have found their way to the information highways".

This article could very well have been dated 2010, the year when Apple launched its iPad to the general public. Well, think again: the information was published on 11 August 2017. At a time when the digital innovations of Uber, Waze or even are already well established, including in Brussels. So a question comes to mind: why are Belgian companies evolving so slowly when it comes to exploiting the technological advantages of the digital revolution?

Access to more information than George W. Bush

Today, the Internet connects three billion people with one other. By 2020, this figure will reach five billion. This whole little world will be connected through at least 50 billion devices. Never before in the history of mankind have we been able to contact our fellow human beings so easily. This is a truly unprecedented global experience that has a tremendous impact on our society. Access to the web guarantees access to information, education, medical knowledge and culture. Anyone with a smartphone can access more information than the President of the United States could have had a decade ago.
All our social models were devised in the era of the previous industrial revolution. They are no longer adapted to today's society and have become inefficient, whereas the fourth industrial revolution, the digital revolution, is underway. It will affect the food industry, education, health care, culture, business models and political structures. 

How digital enthusiasm can lead to happiness and economic growth

A century ago, Belgium was one of the spearheads of the industrial revolution. Indeed, this was the basis of our prosperity. However, it is not in Europe that the digital revolution is expanding most. The United States and Asia are ahead of us. So it is time to take back the initiative. In the 1950s, we were still convinced that the world could be reinvented. At the Brussels World’s Fair (Expo 58), Belgium was even the centre of the world. This is also one of the reasons why our country experienced enormous growth in the 1960s. Flanders did the same thing in the 1980s with ‘Flanders Technology’, with the result that it produced high-performance and innovative industries and a few gems such as Telenet and IMEC. Today, we need such an ambitious approach once again.
Digitisation offers phenomenal opportunities for Belgium, its businesses and citizens. We are starting from a very strong position and can look at every digital opportunity with confidence and optimism: we have capital, a skilled workforce and a good knowledge of languages. What’s more, we have built up a huge amount of know-how. The time has come for action, because the train has already left the station. And if you think everything is going too fast, remember that today's pace is nothing compared with tomorrow's...

Typical Belgian syndrome

We face the greatest of challenges: we need to rethink the world on the basis of the new opportunities that technology offers us. We usually tend to focus on issues related to the digital revolution. It's a typically Belgian syndrome: How much will it cost? How will I explain all this? What about security? etc. We want to have answers to all our questions before we start. Unfortunately, we don't have time to look for all the answers. We live in a world of learning by experience. A world where if you fall, you have to get back up straight away: it's the world of launch and iterate; models that are those of successful American and Asian technology companies. If Belgium does not follow suit, we will end up being swept away whereas in fact we can still think and take charge of our own digital future, according to our own rules and values.
We must aspire to become a leader that embraces the opportunities offered by the digital revolution. Our future is digital and to stay ahead, we have to invest in digital skills quickly. What’s more, the conditions are there to achieve this: a huge skills pool, a highly developed internet and a lot of money in savings accounts.
In its 2016 report "Digitizing Belgium", the Boston Consulting Group estimated that 300,000 net jobs could be created in Belgium by 2020 if we were able to fully embrace digitisation. And we are not just talking about typical digital jobs in start-ups. Digitisation makes the entire economy more efficient and competitive. This can create jobs in a variety of sectors. So it is important to train workers in digital technology today. Our education system must be able to offer appropriate training urgently, from primary school to continuing education for adults.
But maybe it's too late? Have we missed this opportunity? Absolutely not, because we are still at the beginning of this revolution, which is also an evolution. This is only the dawn of the Internet: it's not too late to catch the train. Businesses can already take simple measures, such as being visible on line and on mobile phones, and be able to reach three billion consumers who are just a click away from Belgian businesses. Every Belgian SME can access, at little cost, an incredible capacity for calculation and backup, as well as artificial intelligence. So let's join the digital revolution, or better still: let's lead it. With foresight and enthusiasm.

Thierry Geerts, Country Director in Belgium for Google