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While the Austrian government announced 2019 as the Year of Digitalisation, the 5G broadband network expansion will be launched soon. Ideal conditions for the Vienna Region to turn into a digitalisation hot spot.
Interview. Peter Parycek, amongst other positions Head of the Department for E-Governance and Administration at the Danube University Krems, discusses the challenges of digitalisation with Andreas Tschas, Head of the Digitalisation Agency of the Federal Government.
- Where would you position Austria in terms of digital transformation compared to other countries?
Peter Parycek: A good starting point to better assess and compare digitalisation is the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). With the Scandinavian countries in the lead, Austria basically assumes a position in the middle of the field. We are in the top third in the field of e-Government but rather average in everything else. Although there are no negative outliers with severe weaknesses in any specific field, there is still ample room for improvement. We were once Europe’s digital leaders in electronic administration but have fallen back in recent years because countries like Estonia, Denmark, Sweden and Finland rigorously implemented their political strategies.
Andreas Tschas: We also have hidden champions in other fields influencing the industry. There is a lot of talent in Austria but our companies could definitely still work on their mindset and learn from the attitude of today’s digital leaders. Digitalisation is taken for granted to such an extent that they do not even use the term “digitalisation”. Moreover, we all have to keep in mind that digitalisation is a continuous process and not something to get done and then stop worrying about it for a few years.
- Is the federal government doing enough for Austria to digitally advance and get back on top against the global competition?
Andreas Tschas: Our government’s digitalisation initiatives are covered in the media almost every day. The newly founded Digitalisation Agency demonstrates that our government is taking action. We also just launched the platform “Digital Austria” to bring together and coordinate all digitalisation activities in Austria. One step at a time, though. In a first step, we will begin addressing activities in the public sector.
Peter Parycek: When it comes to modern services at the front end, other countries have been more active in recent years. Austria’s approach has been too traditional for a long time. This is changing now with the newly launched digital public administration application “Digitales Amt”. The mobile app makes it possible to manage administrative procedures, such as registering or notifying authorities of a change in address, on mobile devices. Lean services are based on a good data landscape in highest quality in order to ensure that individual data points are properly assigned to the right natural or legal persons and can be further processed in subsequent administrative processes. In this regard, Austria already has a well-developed system of registers, ranging from the land register to driver’s licences and the civil registry. Initiatives of particular value include new procedures without application, such as for family allowances or employee tax assessments. In my opinion, this is a clear sign of a development towards a paradigm shift. If we wish to catch up with the digital leaders, these services have to undergo a mobile transformation.
- Are there any other shortcomings we need to remedy to compete at the highest level?
Peter Parycek: We need to step up our digitalisation game in those fields where Austria’s economy is particularly strong in order to rank among Europe’s leading countries.
Andreas Tschas: Especially our small and medium-sized enterprises suffer from digitalisation shortcomings. Only very few SMEs have a CIO or innovation manager at all. For this reason, the Digitalisation Agency has begun focusing on this problem and is currently preparing an overview for all businesses to identify available tools as well as necessary steps via Digital Austria. Another point of orientation is our programme “Team SME” in cooperation with established companies. Furthermore, our accelerator programme will help users to acquire the strategic and branch-specific know-how they need in a short period of time.
- Does our education system take our digital needs sufficiently into account?
Peter Parycek: Digitalisation is determined by our minds, not by our technology. We already have the technology. All we need are decision-makers and implementers to appropriately apply it. The various fields of education and training need to enable people to develop strategies on the one hand, while also producing experts to implement these strategies on the other. Those are two major challenges all countries have to master. Now we just need to be as fast or even faster than the others. In the business sector, we should not follow the example of the United States but primarily focus on Asia. China, for example, has grown from copy/paste to a successful innovator in recent years.
Andreas Tschas: Do we all need to be experts in programming? I think we will have a few masterminds to establish the structure as well as assistants to keep further developing this structure. It is rather difficult to estimate which skills we will need in the future. When it comes to training the next generation, we will have to promote curiosity, critical thinking and self-determined actions to make sure they are able to adjust to future changes.
- What is the status of digitalisation initiatives in the Vienna Region and what do we need to do to become a digital nation?
Peter Parycek: Vienna is already doing a lot. Just think of the City of Vienna’s very successful innovations, such as the popular chatbot. Those are the initiatives the region needs to advance. Although the Vienna Region is certainly the economic centre, Austria also has extensive collective clusters. Depending on the cluster we are talking about, other regions are involved as well. In every field we are already successful, we need to think about how to further develop and expand the cluster. Our leading businesses need to outline their vision of the future to make sure we are able to identify new value chain models. We essentially need to transform products into intelligent and networked objects (IoT) with service contracts. This process bears great potential particularly for SMEs and industrial enterprises.
Andreas Tschas: Vienna is currently a frontrunner in the middle of the field but fulfils all the conditions to catch up to the leading regions. The current 5G broadband network expansion is just one of many reasons. In the research field, a new blockchain institute and a centre for artificial intelligence demonstrate this development. If we want to become digital leaders, though, we need to focus on getting our SMEs into shape.
- Where will digitalisation take us in the future?
Peter Parycek: We have the great opportunity to establish new work methods. For this purpose, we need to concentrate our questions into smaller packages and transform our assumptions, which we have always processed in costly and time-consuming waterfall projects in the past, into assumptions that can be processed in shorter cycles. This is a fundamental step for the fields of both economy and administration. Such changes are difficult to realise in administration because they start out from a completely different work system.
Andreas Tschas: Considering the developments in computing power, we already have the technology to build a better future. Nevertheless, digitalisation also goes hand in hand with great uncertainty. This is why we need to define a vision of the future to know where we are going. We urgently need a discussion on values with regard to such issues as artificial intelligence. We need to make sure to develop technology for and around human beings. Otherwise it should come as no surprise, if we are overrun by AI and human beings are reduced to the role of ants. We do not intentionally step on ants but we still remove anthills, if they are in the way. The time has come to think about and discuss these topics. After all, we need to ask ourselves which values will provide the basis for developing such technologies.
Interview by medienkomplizen / Christian Scherl
Photos: Peter Parycek © W. Skokanitsch, Donau-Universität Krems 2019; Andreas Tschas © pioneers