Two days at the Digital Agenda Assembly 2012, Brussels

This time two weeks ago I was in the middle of a really interesting and exciting two days at the Digital Agenda Assembly, Brussels. I was invited to attend by the European Commission along with the other OpenIDEO web start-up challenge winners – what an experience! The commission had sponsored the OpenIDEO challenge and therefore invited us to Brussels to be part of the discussions and to have an opportunity to present our concepts to the group and other members of the EU Commission.

The main objectives of the Assembly were to:
– Assess progress to date on implementation towards the Digital Agenda’s goals and actions and seek ways to improve delivery;
– Identify challenges ahead for the implementation of the Digital Agenda and for the information society in general;
– Mobilise stakeholders’ actions to make further progress and address challenges.

Digital Agenda Assembly poster

And the days were broken up with 8 different workshops in the European Commission on day one, (followed by an OpenIDEO specific concept workshop in the afternoon, a dinner with the commission and speakers in the evening) and day two was a plenary session in the Hemicycle room at the European Parliament.

Here is a summary of my learnings…

Day 1: workshop 8 innovation and entrepreneurs, European Commission

The workshop was opened by MEP, Pablo Zabla who was very clear that Europe’s barriers to innovation and entrepreneurialism are caused by low funding, increased global competition from China and India and too high a level of youth unemployment. He felt we need to grow entrepreneurs, repeat events like the DAA and encourage institutes to listen and learn.

Zabla felt we should replicate the US model and in turn understand the importance of entrepreneurs in Europe. Amy Bonsall tweeted the following during his talk: “Why is Silicon Valley what it is? talent (stanford), failure acceptance, and funds” – Google via Pablo Zabla #da12innov #oi_startup. Zabla was the first (but not the last to mention the word failure). I loved the quote he used

“falling down is permitted but getting up is compulsory” – this is something we should all remember!

Workshop 8: innovation and entrepreneurs

The next person to talk was Laia Pujol moderator of the innovation and entrepreneur community of Digital Agenda for Europe. Pujol summarized research findings and stated that ‘start-ups don’t grow in the EU due to a lack of funding and support’. Unlike the US, there’s a lack of entrepreneurial culture and we need to stimulate hot spots or clusters for specific entrepreneurial areas to help them grow. The problems the EU face for these to be achieved are providing internships to encourage more people into the industry, highlighting sources of funding to help entrepreneurs grow and then retaining the talent it’s created!

Interestingly, 50,000 jobs were created due to the introduction of ‘Apps‘. This has clearly been a valuable new ‘hot spot’ – how can we learn from this to create another 50,000 jobs?

A really poignant point that came up during the discussions was the need to find ways to listen, learn and inspire others to spark ideas. We must ‘follow our curiosities and if something disturbs you, that’s a good thing’.

The first non-EU speaker was Derek Holt of StartUp America, a start-up for start-ups (who boast to have he world’s shortest URL!) who are there to help ‘inspire and celebrate entrepreneurs’. StartUp America are not there to create jobs, they are there to help others grow by taking the idea, ramping it up and speeding it up. With 1/2 million start-ups every year in the US, there’s clearly a need for an organisation like this one!

Holt rounded up by saying that we must ‘celebrate failure – visibility of mistakes means you will make your own mistakes and that’s when innovation happens’.

The other speakers, including Amy Bonsall and Haiyan Zhang from IDEO, Nico Perez from MixCloud, Jose Jimenez from Telefónica I+D, Spain and Gary Stewart from Wayra Spain broke off into smaller groups to talk about their initiatives, journeys and stories connected to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Workshop 8: innovation and entrepreneurs

Nico Perez gave an insightful talk about how to run a lean start-up without receive VC funding. Perez and his team spent 18 months living and working in a (not so glamorous) warehouse with no salary and no funding but the skills to get their business off the ground. Once MixCloud had built up enough traction and a good user base it was time to go looking for investment – even at this stage it was taking too long to negotiate a deal, by which point they had already started building revenue.

Interestingly, their lawyer turned out to be their most useful mentor; someone who had worked with similar companies in the past.  They realized early on that they were forced to work out a robust business model as cash flow was their life line. His advise for determining a budget and forecast for a start-up is to talk to others in a similar situation. ‘start collecting data points from your network to try and estimate your budget as best as possible’.

The other area of advise was to do with building your online community, a problem that many start-ups face. The ‘cold start’ problem of building up a user base can be a real challenge. Perez suggested immersing yourself into the community that you want to use the site. It is essential to know and understand the desired user group and build on the network you already know.

OpenIDEO Challenge winners enjoying lunch

After lunch we broke off to discuss our winning challenges concepts but I will write about these in a separate blog post.

Day 2: the plenary session, European Parliament
The hemicycle room in the European Parliament is an impressive room and I never imagined I’d ever get the opportunity to sit in it!

European Parliament, Plenary session, Hemicycle Room

The morning was full of innovation, start-up, funding, technology and entrepreneur experts – to save a very long explanation of my leanings, here are a number of quotes which I felt really stood out from the opening speakers:

‘80% of European citizens are connected to the Internet, the Internet has created a 25% increase in jobs in the last year and ICT grows by 3.8% every year’
‘we need to improve our innovation culture without being scared of failing’
‘it is easier to steal a movie on the Internet than it is to buy one – how can we better protect our copyright?’ Alexander Alvaro, VP of the European Commission.

Neelie Kroes speaking at the, Plenary session, European Parliament

‘we can achieve when we act together. We must listen to the outside world’
‘the Internet matters for citizens, it is a platform for astonishing crape activity and we haven’t found it’s limit yet!’
‘there are too many barriers to the internet. 1 in 3 Europeans have no internet access at home and 1 in 4 adults haven’t been online’
‘it’s important to unlock finance to support the entrepreneurs who can provide jobs in the future’
‘what will future generations say about us? Did we adapt to disruptive change? Did we create a better connected continent? Did we make easy tools for elders to join the digital world? We need to act now – the future is in our hands’ Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Commission

The next sessions were panels sharing their views on the topics already discussed to do with eliminating barriers:

‘don’t over tax entrepreneurs’
‘the younger generation are most familiar with the digital world but universities are too slow and because of that there is a skill gap’ Guiseppe Zocco, Index Ventures

‘don’t forget the elderly or disabled. They must be art of the digital community’ Adriana Ticau, Member of the European Parliment.

‘never compromise on research and development’ Ben Verwaayen, CEO Alcatel-Lucent

‘there is a (perceived) lack of access to early stage capital and growth capital.
There is a lack of entrepreneurial culture.
There is a lack of acceptance to failure.
Why are Europeans more risk adverse than the US?’ Stefano Parisi, President of Confindustria Digitale, BUSINESSEUROPE

‘we need to change mindsets and improve the culture’ Robin Wauters, European Editor – The Next Web

‘we must foster a community that supports entreprenures’
‘the Israeli culture learn from role models and encourages school leavers to start their own company straight away. In Europe it’s seen as safe to go and work for a big company when you graduate’
‘society is driven by numbers. Let’s create an incentive culture’
‘education is good but we need practical experience’
‘you can’t copy Silicon Valley by copying the buildings – you need the people’ Eze Vidra, Head of Google Campus

‘there’s a perceived fear of looking stupid. That is our reason for not wanting to fail’
‘Steve jobs was an innovator, not an inventor – he delivered other peoples ideas better… We don’t need to make the next billion dollar idea but make what’s out there, better’ Yossi Vardi, Early Stage internet investor

The last presentation I saw was given by Juliana Rotich, executive director of Ushahidi, ‘a non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping’.

Rotich’s talk was very powerful. She based it on the theme of cognitive surplus ‘learning how to use more constructively the free time afforded to people since the 1940s for creative acts rather than consumptive ones, particularly with the advent of online tools that allow new forms of collaboration’

Rotich’s work which is mainly based in Africa but used globally, crowd sources data via an online platform. She stated that only 13% of Africans have Internet access yet they make use of all the resources that they have – Ushahidi’s work helps turn these  resources into invaluable tools.

The organisation she heads up is an incredible platform for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories. ‘Technology gives us the opportunity to magnify power – it’s taken 15 years for the Internet to make as much change as the industrial revolution did in 50 years!’ She went on to explain that we need to view the world from the ground, not just from main stream media and luckily, the Internet allows this. Now there are global voices and people online blogging about their experiences. Open systems are providing people with a skeleton to flesh out their ideas and co-working spaces and incubators in Kenya like IHub are allowing stimulation instead of regulation. ‘We need to remember how important feedback loops are for changing behaviors; they are like a dashboard to our social lives.’

Should we be supporting leaderless networks?
Should we stimulate or regulate?
What we need are gate keepers or trail blazers to empower and open doors.

A fantastic final presentation providing a heart felt message to a very insightful, information filled couple of days.

I captured all these quotes, lessons and insights but what did I learn?

  • Europe has the right people to help nuture and grow digital entreprenurial start-ups but access to funding and support needs to be easier and more approachable.
  • There are ways to support entrepreners better (tax relief, policy changes etc) and we need to drive awareness for a likely hood of these happening in the near future.
  • We need to drive innovation forward making sure we use the talent of the younger generation.
  • Failure is a known problem for start-ups – we should embrace it, change our culture and not shy away from it.
  • The internet has so much potential, we have only scratched the surface and we need to seek out the opportunities lying ahead of us.

And the last thing I want to point out is the lanyard we were all given with our name tags. I had forgotten that the clip for the lanyard doubled up as a memory stick! A nice touch.

DAA Lanyard

All I need to do now is put it into my computer to see what’s on it…

(the hashtag for the workshop was #DA12innov and the whole event hashtag was #DA12 for those wanting to read up more via twitter)

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