During the pandemic, we have been struck by one of the few upsides of this new way of working—the ability to bring together experts and thinkers virtually in ways that contribute to a more global conversation. This was the case recently when DAI spoke at the Three Seas Initiative with leaders and experts from across Europe and beyond about the concept of ‘Smart Connectivity.’
The Three Seas Initiative
The Three Seas Initiative (3SI) is a forum that brings together 12 European Union (EU) countries that lie along the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas (hence ‘three seas’). These countries include Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. 3SI is connected to the EU platform and aligns itself with broader EU priorities.
In October, Estonia—a true pacesetter in digital transformation at the national level—organized and hosted the 3SI annual summit. We were grateful to have a chance to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the office of the President of Estonia to assess opportunities for Smart Connectivity in a vision paper on the topic. We presented this paper at the summit, which included speakers from Google, senior United States (U.S.) Administration officials, various heads of state, and the President of Estonia.
A Vision for Smart Connectivity
The overall vision of Smart Connectivity is to expand digital components across key infrastructure investments in transportation and energy. Smart Connectivity is not just about being smart in connecting today’s infrastructure, but it’s about building a foundation for tomorrow’s green, digital-driven industries that can create jobs, build economic competitiveness, and accelerate innovation across the region. This vision is linked to the shared political vision of the EU, especially in its push to expand business opportunities and achieve its climate-related ambitions.
As we outline in the paper, we believe that meeting this bold vision will require three key components: political will, investment into a smart layer, and regional coordination.
Three Keys to Smart Connectivity
First, the vision requires political will at the highest levels, promoting collaboration on an EU level, but also for cross-border projects in the Three Seas region. The EU platform and priorities are critical in this regard, providing investments and building blocks, such as European Community-funded innovation pilots, cloud service regulations and guidance, and important investments in data centers for federated cloud services.
Second, the vision requires investment into a ‘smart’ digital layer. For example, fully digitalized and automated cross-border procedures are among the most promising leading ideas for smart services. The region could start collaborating on this in the transport sector, for example, along the transport corridors, from south to north. These are investments that can be made now.
Third, and most importantly, the vision requires coordination between member countries, pushing forward the uptake of digital enablers such as interoperability layers, digital ID, and standards. The 3SI serves as a critical forum for collaboration in this regard, creating working groups to tackle specific technical issues or sharing lessons learned between members. The 3SI also needs to align its efforts with the private sector, especially in a region where political ties are often weaker than business ties.
Smart Connectivity and the Green Economy
The paper directly addresses the environmental impacts of the energy and transport sectors, but it also shows how Smart Connectivity creates opportunities for the economy, especially by creating circular and green jobs. The smart energy system of the future will be consumer-centric, allowing citizens to take on the role of proactive decision-makers and market-influencers in a digitalized and decentralized system by becoming prosumers—consumers and producers at the same time. Smart metrics can enable this prosumer concept, and we need to encourage and find business models that support these metrics now. Ultimately, if governed consistently and sustainably, this coordination can create a virtuous cycle of investment and innovation, positioning the 3SI members as leaders in the global green economy.
The good news is that this vision and the ongoing work of the 3SI is receiving attention and support. Since the event, the board of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) approved a $300 million investment into the 3SI Investment Fund. As we like to say, plan it smart, and you are halfway to success.
The key message of the Smart Connectivity paper is that any infrastructure investment needs to be made with a view to the future, considering imminent change, especially in the digital and environmental sectors.