Digitization is going to transform the way we work and live. The Portuguese parliamentarian Ricardo Leite foresees major opportunities to transform European societies and create a common digital market for the benefit of all.
Many Europeans feel left behind when it comes to the digital transformation of our societies. Are people right to worry about these developments?
Ricardo Leite: Digitization is going to transform not only the way we work but also the way we live. In the eighties, for example, we had no idea how impactful the internet would be today. But I believe that artificial intelligence, robots, or any other form of automation will have a similar impact. So it’s understandable that people feel unsafe and worry about losing their jobs. Youth unemployment is on the rise, and our educational system is not keeping up with the present, much less the future. And because of demographic developments, our whole social system is on the verge of collapse. We have reasons for concern, but we can also foresee major opportunities to transform our societies.
Ricardo Baptista Leite
Ricardo Baptista Leite is a member of the Portuguese Parliament, a medical doctor trained in infectious diseases, and Head of Public Health at the Catholic University of Portugal. Ricardo is the founding president of UNITE – Parliamentarians Network to End HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis and Tuberculosis, a global platform of policy makers under the auspices of UNAIDS. Ricardo Baptista Leite is a member of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network.
You criticize that our education system is not ready for the massive changes to come. How must the system change to prepare people for digitization?
Ricardo Leite: We do not prepare people for civic responsibilities, nor for cross-sectoral thinking and doing. We should use the first basic years of schooling to teach the key disciplines, but people should learn a standard set of digital skills no later than high school. It’s important to develop people’s creativity and their ability to work in teams. And we have to realize that education is not something that ends at an early age.
Everybody is talking about lifelong learning…
Ricardo Leite: The big question is: What does that mean in concrete terms? We will need systems that are nimble. We do not know yet what skills we’ll need ten years from now, but we can train the workforce to be able to adapt. The government could play a more active role, especially with those that would be left unemployed. It is inevitable that a part of the population will be less prepared.
What can we do not to let those people fall behind?
Ricardo Leite: First of all, we have to find a safety net. At the European Table, we discussed the unconditional basic income. We need to wait to see the results of the current pilot projects, but something down that line has to appear. Studies have shown that people who feel safe in society are much more productive and creative. Secondly, vocational training and vocational options should be offered throughout a person’s life.
You still have not decided if the universal basic income is a good idea or not?
Ricardo Leite: I believe in data. Theoretical concepts are very interesting, but we also heard one of the arguments against it: If you give a universal basic income, the price of commodities like rent and food will go up. People will have a basic income but continue to be poor. The threshold of poverty will not be eliminated, which is one of the Sustainable Development Goals.
BMW Foundation European Table
The European Table offers a framework for leaders from EU member states and neighboring societies to reflect on concrete ways to strengthen the European Union. Ricardo Leite participated in the first European Table, which took place in Tallinn, Estonia. Participants discussed whether digitization can serve as a growth and job engine for Europe - for global digitization is leading to far-reaching changes in many areas of social life and work.
Do you see a solution?
Ricardo Leite : We have to look very carefully at the pilot projects in Finland and Scotland. If, for example, rising prices on basic needs is an issue, basic income possibly has to come with basic needs and services being available free of charge or at a lower cost. Perhaps we have to create a transparent fiscal system in which luxury products are more expensive to pay that off. There is a lot of controversy around unconditional basic income. The only way for us to overcome that is to have true evidence that it works and to know what kinds of solutions are needed to make it work.
What can the EU do to make that transformation process as widely accepted as possible?
Ricardo Leite: The EU can promote and implement pilot projects in different countries, regions, or cities. As soon as we have the evidence and know the direction we want to go, the European Union can create evidence-based and data-driven policy frameworks for the whole of the Union. And then we can implement these with a common strategy at the national level and adapt them to the local specificities of each region. Doing this might reinforce something we’ve lost over the last decade: the solidarity-based system we have within the union.
So digitization could help rejuvenate the European project?
Ricardo Leite: Absolutely. What we lack is a vision and a system we can believe in. Of course, the EU was born as a common economic zone, but the second pillar was the social and solidarity pillar. This is what distinguishes us from the rest of the world. Social inclusion is part of our European identity. We can do this together and create a society that is more open, with a common job market, with a common digital market, and in which we can all use the advantages of this modern world for the benefit of all.