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Digital transformation that leaves no one behind

29 November 2023

On November 7, 2023 in Sofia, ECAS held the event “Digital transformation that leaves no one behind” with the participation of experts on digitalisation from various fields – civil organisations, academia, and the private sector, who presented the main challenges for the digital transformation in Bulgaria. Guest speakers were Prof. Rumyana Stoilova, President of the Bulgarian Sociological Association and Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, and Dobroslav Dimitrov, Chairman of the Bulgarian Association of Software Companies, and Executive Director of Imperia Online EAD. The discussion was moderated by Desislava Ivanova, Program Director of ECAS for Central and Eastern Europe.

The event was the latest in a series of interactive events that ECAS is organizing in EU Member States, following its work in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe, in an effort to help local stakeholders contribute to the discussion and jointly develop guiding principles for digital transformation. In 2022, such interactive events were held in Ireland, Portugal, Latvia, Belgium and Luxembourg, and in 2023 in Croatia, Greece, Germany and Italy, and now in Bulgaria.

During the event, the audience, both in person and online, participated interactively through the Slido platform in the discussion, by answering questions and sharing opinions about the needs and interests of citizens, including those of vulnerable groups. Thus, participants prepared joint recommendations, which are of particular importance in the context of the ongoing work on the National Roadmap for Digital Transformation of Bulgaria by 2030, which the Ministry of e-Government is currently preparing.

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:

  • Digital Democracy

The panellists emphasized that free access to the Internet is conditio sine qua non for participation in modern life, just like electricity. The question is not whether there should be free access, but how to regulate and implement it.

Free access to the internet is key, and if it cannot be provided in every home, there should be more public places that provide such access, explained Prof. Stoilova. This must necessarily be the case in educational institutions, municipal centres, neighbourhoods with a poorer population – smart city projects must be expanded. The regional aspect is very important – the villages are in the most difficult situation, and there the need for support is greatest. The opportunities for more access to information, however, go hand in hand with increased risk that they bring. When preparing policies, this must be taken into account and acted upon.

“Information is the new oil of the world, and if we do not have access to it, we continue to move in the economy of the 19th century.” – Dobroslav Dimitrov

According to Dobroslav Dimitrov, the development of e- government in Bulgaria is not a technological, but a political problem. It is not related to the lack of funds either, because such funds have been allocated over the years. The problem is mostly the lack of understanding and political will.

An example that processes can be digitized very quickly where there is will and motivation, is Ukraine, which digitized its processes extremely quickly after the start of the war due to cyber-attacks from Russia. Estonia is also such an example. Technologies are available, the key is to find political will at the national level.

Nevertheless, there are also positive examples in our country – one such example is the quick reaction during the pandemic when, in 2 weeks’ time, students’ education was organised remotely, without any advance preparation. Not every country was able to do that.

However, the pandemic has also exposed a serious problem with disinformation as regards vaccination. This also happened in other Eastern European countries and is due to the lack of faith in the institutions.

E- voting, in the same way, is not a technical problem, he added. It is easily feasible. Here the question is what the consequences in the national context are, and whether we as a society are ready for them. Bulgaria is a country with a huge diaspora abroad. Are we prepared for a situation where people permanently living outside of Bulgaria decide remotely about the future of our country? What will happen if it is no longer necessary to appear in person at the polling station and millions of people vote online? How can we be sure that some of these Bulgarian citizens will not offer their vote to other interested parties? This would put the democratic principle under direct threat. When expanding rights, we must also protect ourselves against risks. Voting is an act of will and a manifestation of personal responsibility. If citizens want to cast their vote for the future of Bulgaria, they will go to the polling station in person. Distance won’t stop them.

The question of holding European elections online is different – it wouldn’t pose sucha. problem. Voting from outside the EU is forbidden anyway, so the situation is different. Since we have several hundred million EU citizens with the right to vote, the vote can hardly be manipulated. The larger the sample, the lower the risk of abuse.

When we talk about elections, the direction cannot be in limiting rights and introducing an educational qualifications for exercising the right to vote, as we sometimes hear people call for. The answer lies in raising the level of education, Prof. Stoilova added.

  • Digital Economy

Small and medium-sized businesses, as well as the self-employed need support to digitize, said Prof. Stoilova. New requirements are often introduced to this group, which create difficulties (for example, mandatory introduction of POS terminals). Tax breaks and financial incentives for companies that digitize their operations can help a lot.

In addition, Prof. Stoilova emphasized that not only the poorest groups in society, but also the lower middle class needs support. The low levels of digital knowledge and skills in the lower middle class become not only an economic but also a political problem, because this causes  the dangerous polarization of society. Some compare digitization to a tide in the ocean – when it comes, all boats are lifted. This is a rather naive view. A more accurate comparison is that digitization is like a narrow ocean current – it lifts only the boats in its path, but everyone else in the vast ocean remains untouched.

Mentorship, connection between generations and resource security are necessary conditions for the digitalization of small and medium-sized businesses – Prof. Rumyana Stoilova

Cybersecurity in Bulgaria is generally at a low level, but this is not the main problem for the digitalization of the Bulgarian economy – the problem is the lack of affordable digital services for businesses, due to shortage in qualified personnel, explained Dobroslav Dimitrov.

One of the legacies of communism is the ultimate strive towards excellence. Bulgaria is systematically in the top 3 places in the world in mathematics and informatics. Bulgarian students regularly win medals at world championships. It is well known that we have both talent and traditions in the field, but the problem is that there is no policy or even a vision to sustainably promote the development of this type of knowledge and skills in all children. Very few students reach this level of competency, often not with the help of the state, but despite its absence. It’s the same in sports. The vast majority of students are not trained in this area and their level of knowledge and skills are low. There are two or three schools in all of Bulgaria that emphasize math and informatics skills, but the situation is different in the remaining 2,300 schools. Therefore, in general, the population in our country does not have the necessary level of digital literacy, except for a small group who are super qualified. Software companies in Bulgaria digitize foreign economies – 85% of our services are for export, as we are few in number in Bulgaria, services are expensive and Bulgarian businesses cannot afford them, Dimitrov explained.

The key is in education – it must necessarily include proper training in digital skills. And here we are not saying how everyone must necessarily become a programmer, but that they need to develop basic digital skills. Digital skills are nowadays needed to exercise any profession.

On the European level, European technological solutions are needed. Not to exercise protectionism, but to offer new European technology business models – Europe needs its Google, Amazon, etc. We do not however currently have this level of entrepreneurship. On the other hand, regulation in Europe is quite strong and the European Commission pursues the big global companies to fulfil the EU requirements very successfully.

According to Dobroslav Dimitrov, many young people today choose to work remotely, with the desire to be free of a pre-established working hours and location, without realizing that they themselves agree to waive the rights and protections that an employment contract can give them. Paradoxically, there is an impression that if a company does not offer this type of work, it is not up to date with the newest trends, even though this is harmful for employees.

  • Digital Rights

Digital inequalities in Bulgaria are most often based on the level of education, age and place of residence. They are thought to be largely a generational problem. Here we are not only referring to pensioners, but also to people 55+.

This matters because an employer will typically prefer to simply hire a younger employee than  pay for digital training for an older person.

Among pensioners, the main reason for the lack in digital skills is that they do not see the benefits of gaining them. But if these are demonstrated to them, pensioneers can very successfully learn to participate in a digital environment. One such example is with elderly refugees from Ukraine who freely use online banking to receive their pensions and make payments. The people living in villages are in the worst position, as there are no public places with Internet access there.

The higher the degree of digitization of a society, the higher the risk assessment in a digital environment. Bulgaria has very low levels of assessment of the risk of disinformation and misuse of personal data. Even highly educated people in Bulgaria have a lower risk assessment compared to the same groups in the Czech Republic and Hungary, for example. The development of critical thinking should be embedded in education. Digital infrastructure must be developed, but without assistance and training for vulnerable groups, access remains only on paper.

Education, mentoring and services are absolutely necessary for effective access to digital rights by all groups in society.

According to Dobroslav Dimitrov, we can hardly imagine the level at which we are monitored and analysed on the web; people need to develop a very strong sense of paranoia about their personal data. In Bulgaria, the level of protection is very low and the dangers will become more and more serious. The solution is not even in school education, although it should be taught there. Being careful in an online environment should be developed as a reflex, as part of the culture and upbringing at home. Just as we teach our children not to talk to strangers, we should teach them how to be safe online.

The younger generations also need to support the older ones in this process.

There is a serious threat to democracy as people meet online and communicate in echo chambers where different points of view do not exist, or if they do, they are not tolerated. In face-to-face communication, this is not the case – we find a way to work with, or even just tolerate, people who are different from us. The online environment, however, is radically different.

  • Digital Protections

According to Prof. Stoilova, disinformation is not considered a serious problem in Bulgaria. The risk of disinformation grows with the increase of digitalization of society. I.e. we must consider the risk now, while we are not yet so advanced in this regard, and take precautions. The risk is highest among low-educated groups, where critical thinking is less developed. That is why critical thinking should be developed in school. There should be special training programs for the elderly about the risks in the digital environment – there are very successful examples of this in Germany. The language barrier is also a big factor when it comes to accessing information on the Internet. Again, education, mentoring and resource provision are needed here.

Regarding artificial intelligence (AI), Dobroslav Dimitrov explained that no one in the world is aware quite what to do, so in Bulgaria we start on an equal footing with others. Global regulation is needed – just as there are rules for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, because it is extremely dangerous to leave the decision to take lethal action in the hands of an algorithm. If we in Europe decide to ban this, but for example China and other countries use it, then we have achieved nothing – regulation on a global level is needed.

In terms of ethical standards, it’s nice to have them, but whose standards are we talking about? Technology is never neutral; it is created by people with certain views. A serious global conversation on these ethical issues is needed. Artificial intelligence is a multiplier, it has no desires and motives of its own, it multiplies the desires of the people who control it. Algorithms in the applications we use clearly showed us how quickly a person can be radicalised just by showing them things that are scandalizing- without this even having been the purpose of the algorithm.

Nowadays, the problem is not the lack of information, but having too much information. Our education system was created in a time when information was scarce. We live in a radically different situation now, and the entire education system must be reformed so that it develops children’s critical thinking; how to navigate the flow of information we are surrounded by, instead of simply learning facts, Dimitrov said.

Artificial intelligence is guaranteed to create new inequalities in society. It’s a kind of industrial revolution, and revolutions don’t integrate, they sweep everything in their path, whether we want it or whether we are ready for it, he added.

  • Digital Education

Artificial intelligence gives a great advantage in education. Trials are already taking place – a kind of flipped classroom – where artificial intelligence teaches the lesson at home, and the children discuss it the next day at school – there are such examples in Bulgaria.

Children do not have equally good access to education and this is where artificial intelligence can help immensely. The Ministry of Education and Science (MES) has an idea to prepare Guidelines for the correct use of artificial intelligence in the educational process. This will put Bulgaria in the forefront of the world in this respect. This is a new field and the private sector can help a lot here. The huge advantage is that the use of artificial intelligence is not related to money – it is generally available technology.

Regarding adult education in Bulgaria, Prof. Stoilova explained that the desire to study is related to desire for higher income. This is the main motivation. Otherwise, Bulgarians are reluctant to engage in learning after completing their education. In general, only about 5-6% of people in Bulgaria say that they use the Internet for education. Only the use of social networks such as Facebook and others is above the average level for the EU. For all other interactive platforms, the level is below average according to the Digital Society and Economy Index.

The higher the digital economy and society index, the more the positive effects for the participation in online learning of the more vulnerable groups are manifested. As an example, we can take women, who are generally less likely to use the Internet for education. However, with a higher degree of digitalization, women raise their level significantly and overtake men in using the Internet for education. This positive example is already visible in some EU countries, but unfortunately not yet for Bulgaria.

According to Prof. Stoilova, educational institutions should have more opportunities for online modules for the so-called non-traditional students – e.g. mothers with small children, employees, etc. A lot of horizontal collaboration is also needed between organizations, the private sector, academia, the state, etc.

  • Basic guidelines for the preparation of the National Roadmap for Digital Transformation of Bulgaria by 2030

According to Prof. Stoilova, the National Road Map must narrowly define the target groups and address their specific needs. Special consideration must be given to the needs of vulnerable groups, such as people performing routine mental work, small and medium-sized businesses (comprising 70% of companies in Bulgaria), the self-employed, etc.

Resource security must also be guaranteed, otherwise everything remains a wishful thinking. Regional and sectoral links should be developed. Dobroslav Dimitrov emphasized that what we need the most is setting up specific goals with specific short deadlines. Otherwise, strategic documents will lead to nothing. The idea of an e- government that will take 20 years to prepare and then go live with the push of a button is illusory. The right way to do it is to gradually introduce new processes little by little. There should be specific parameters to measure the actions that are needed.