I had the pleasure to represent Italian Angels for Growth yesterday at a seminar held at the French Ministry for the Economy, Finance and Industry in order to advance the G8 Deauville agenda for the digital economy. It is a bit unusual for me to participate in a governmental event, but since the invitees were “Ministers for the digital economy, leading firms, start-ups, venture capitalists, bloggers and think tanks”, I thought at least it would be a place where interesting people gathered.
“New World 2.0: Concretizing the Internet of the Future”, or “Nouveau Monde 2.0”, was indeed packed with content and not too long on rhetorics. I had to miss the opening session on Thursday night, which dealt with Democracy 2.0 and saw Minister Eric Besson, the event host, engaged – quite empathically, I am told – with a number of Tunisian bloggers. (Here is a short interview he gave about Nouveau Monde 2.0).
Friday started with a discussion on network infrastructure that is by now familiar to me from working in a telco (I almost felt like crying out: “Those numbers on video traffic on cellular networks? They’re not tomorrow! They are practically today!”) and was framed by Cisco’s Robert Pepper, who showed projections from the Visual Networking Index leading us into the “Zettabyte Era” by 2015. Two key facts here: the volume of data transmitted around the world is increasingly driven by consumers, not businesses; and the biggest consumer demand is for video, in its many incarnations (short- and long-form, recorded and real-time, and so on). It is, also, a remarkably global demand: according to Google’s David Drummond, half of the views for videos uploaded from France this year were due to users ouside France. The question is, obviously, who’s going to pay for the networks we need to put in place. There was a full range of policy options represented on stage: the most laissez-faire was probably the U.S., whose Department of Commerce representative, Lawrence Strickland, maintained that regulators’ job is to “get out of the way”, but nevertheless admitted that there is at least one case, rural broadband, where the government should step in. The most interventionist? Not Sweden, not Finland, but Australia, where fruitless haggling with the incumbent, Minister Stephen Conroy told the audience, led the government to give up in frustration and launch a Newco tasked with building the National Broadband Network out of taxpayers’ money; one guesses that having Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea as “neighbors” and competitors tends to sharpen resolve. The proceedings were lent gravitas by European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who reminded us that not only do we have a financial crisis to solve, but we must also find the resources to invest in our digital future. She deplored the lack of a single digital market across the Union (think of the mess that national copyright systems have gotten us into), and shone the spotlight on the recent Commission recommendation to establish a €9.2bn “Connecting Europe Facility” (here’s how it should work). Kroes was the star of the session: in a way, at at time when almost all politicians seem to think desperately short-term, she seemed to show how politics should care for the long run. (I am, needless to say, a fan of her commitment to put more “girl power” into technology).
The second session was moderated by entrepreneur, angel investor and independent board member Sherry Coutu, and focused on privacy on the Internet: “as a mother, I worry about these things”, she said in introducing the panel. Barbs were exchanged, as expected, between Simon Davies of Transparency International and Elliot Schrage from Facebook. Schrage was also challenged by the audience, notably when Tunisian journalist Emna Ben Jemaa took Schrage to task about a number of decisions on Tunisian pages made, or rather not made, by Facebook administrators during the Arab spring: if you followed the hashtag #NMwww, you could almost hear the Twittershphere cheering her on.
The third session, introduced by Alcatel-Lucent CEO (and former BT CEO) Ben Verwaayen, took on the issue of the digital divide. In opening the panel discussion, Mr. Verwaayen admitted that even in the West we are absolutely nowhere with “Internet for all”, and asked whether spectrum is treated as a strategic scarce resource or a milk cow for finance ministers. Again, representatives from places such as Japan and Sweden shared the stage with politicians from Kenya and Morocco. Digital inclusion is a tough challenge, both in terms of infrastructure and in terms of awareness and culture: there are lots of inspiring experiments going on, from tools to get cashew nuts to market at the right time in Ghana to telecommuting after the quake in Japan, but no one has any easy answers.
After the “official” conference was over, there followed a start-up evening (“Innovation Night 2.0”) put together by the outstanding team from Le Camping: three nascent start-ups and three slightly more mature ones got to present one-minute pitches and be grilled by senior executives from Microsoft, Google, Facebook… Here, the star performer was Criteo, a business that barely existed three years ago and plans to book $200m in revenues in 2011. When research reports talk about the jobs and the share of GDP growth created by the digital economy, folks like those at Criteo are the reality behing the numbers. Well done, guys!
Overall, the day felt like one of those rare occasions where my generation (the 40-year-olds), the previous generation (Ms. Kroes’s), and the younger generation (the university students presenting their start-ups in the evening) almost spoke the same language. The Ministry (where Mr. Besson holds, in addition to Industry and Energy, a specific mandate for the Digital Economy) deserves credit for creating a common space where this could happen. It was a showcase for a very dynamic France, and perhaps an example to the many other countries where participants came from.