FutureLab Annual Forum: Day 1 – by Max Eklund

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“Why should I care about the EU, especially when they put so much time on regulating curved cucumbers?” a confused citizen asks a campaigner handing out flyers for the upcoming European elections in May 2014. The line of reasoning, to many of us strangely familiar, might be rarer than we think. Yet, it says much about the challenges of communicating EU-politics and decision-making in Brussels.

The first day of this year’s Futurelab, which focuses on political participation and the future of democracy, was initiated on Monday 14th of October. During the initial day, the third generation of FutureLabbers focused on a set of questions ranging from media coverage of European issues and what kind of tools we have at our disposal for communication to issues regarding the European Union’s institutional design.

Certainly – with the continent still recovering from a severe crisis that revealed some shortcomings in the EU’s institutional design – many of the remedies that are being presented are still taking form. Having this as a point of departure, the group got an overview and a reminder of how far we have come since the very beginning in Paris 1951 and how the follow-up treaties have altered the European project. Moreover, as a more recent development, we were provided with insight into how the European Council has acted in the aftermath of the Lisbon treaty and the economic turmoil in Europe.

The crisis has also required some decisions to be made in a very fast schedule, highlighting the importance of how the media is covering relevant issues. Consequently, a continuation of the day offered participants with increased awareness about how communicating about EU-politics is different from covering national politics. And as Futurelabbers came to acknowledge, media-coverage is a mixed blessing. Designed well, media can boost participation and awareness of common European affairs. Done badly, false myths – such as regulation on curved cucumbers – can be hard to kill.

However, one thing is for certain. To tackle amateurish journalism and to boost democratic debate, there are plenty of various technological solutions to make ones voice heard in contemporary Europe. Subsequently, the latter part of the day was spent learning the usability of blogs and social media for writing about the EU.

Nevertheless, the fate of political participation in the coming election depends to a high degree on the reply to the initial question. In sum, the initial day of Futurelab Europe offered not only much food for thought, but perhaps even an answer to the question presented: “- You should care about the EU because of three reasons; an idealistic, a pragmatic, and a selfish one”.

FutureLab Annual Forum: Day 2 – by Anna Karolin

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The first part of the second day of Futurelab sessions focused on the latest attempt to bring more direct democracy into the European governance. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) meant to improve policy setting agenda of the EU institutions, is still taking its first baby steps and faces many challenges. Among them is the question of getting signatures and having the best system to collect and verify them, while assuring citizens that their data is handled with enough sensitivity.

As a citizen of the tiny, but exemplary nation of Estonia in the field of e-participation and e-innovation, I find this issue not only critical to the successful dissemination of the ECI among the wide citizenry of EU, but also central to the future of the innovative business environment of the whole union.

What do I mean by this? I come from a country, where the e-paradise in many ways has become a reality. Just a few days ago I voted online for my favourite candidate in our local elections. When I go to the doctor’s, I do not have to bring any medical files, my doctor can look at all the relevant health data from my e-health file system. I file my taxes online, as do about 80% of Estonian population and use the online environment X-road to communicate with my state. I can sign documents digitally and send them via e-mail, without having to show up physically. Our government ministers also work online, not keeping several paper copies of every act of legislation they sign.

This might seem like a show-off, but e-solutions have helped to transfer Estonian public sector spending and business environment culture to a new level of simplicity and efficiency. Not having thousands of low level officials working on getting physical signatures or moving, keeping and archiving data or not having to spend weeks waiting for mail with one physical signature, has helped to speed along starting businesses, entering into contracts and other everyday affairs between citizens and the state. Many Estonians are known to write venomous social media updates on the slow and ineffective processes when trying to sign up for a doctor or even a bank card in almost every Western European country.

I do not think saying that Europe is in desperate need of more innovation and efficiency is at all controversial. Developing new ways to communicate with your citizens and breaking geographical and physical barriers to effective business-making is crucial in trying to secure our spot among nations with sustainable economic growth. We in Europe tend to advocate for more financial aid, help from the state and the EU level, forgetting that sometimes innovation in key areas might transform the whole market to a new and more competitive level. For example, one of the benefits of the European community has been the harmonisation and standardisation of technical standards, helping almost everyone to export their goods and services and boost the economy.

One could forget that e-solutions might also be useful for empowering political participation of citizens. I am tired of another e-campaign claiming I have the power in Europe. For at the same time I am not able to sign up for a citizens’ initiative or trying to break through the mystical network of European web bureaucracy.

All in all, I find that good innovations need to start from the grass-root level. By this I do not only mean member states themselves, but the rich and diverse machinery of the European Union. If we take days, weeks and years to have a meeting after a meeting about innovation, why not spend few days or a week becoming digitally more literate. If a large majority of European Commission officials understood how simple e-solutions, social media and apps really work, we’d already have a bigger probability of them also approaching the idea of digital innovation in all areas without fear and skepticism.

So in addition to taking a close look at some of the wonderful proposals submitted through the European Citizen’s initiative and considering adding our signatures (if one hasn’t done already), I, hopefully together with other Futurelabbers, stand for digital literacy and innovation to be added among the priorities of the EU.

I also recommend anyone wanting to improve their digital literacy start by selecting an app for that process and the Economist has good suggestions: http://www.economist.com/node/21587926?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bl/nothingtofear.

FutureLab Annual Forum: Day 3 – by Sanna Ojanperä

The third day of FutureLab kicked off with a lively session coordinated by Jennifer De Nijs from the League of Young Voters . This young organization was initiated in 2011 as a response to the two-fold problem regarding the ever-decreasing youth participation at the European parliament elections and electoral campaigns across Europe. While politicians often do not focus on the interests of the young people, the resulting lack of dialogue and information leads the youth to not trust politicians or enter the political debate.

The League addresses these issues by organizing debates between candidates and young people among other things. In order to better grasp the multidimensional issue of youth participation and appreciate the incentives and motivations of different stakeholder groups, the FutureLabbers simulated the positions of political parties, young candidates, young voters, and European youth. Each group developed a set of recommendations on how youth participation could be boosted given the different realities the groups face. The League of Young Voters collected the recommendations yielded by the animated discussion and may use them to inform a research effort by the League’s partner organization International Idea, which studies the dynamics of young people and elections.

Later in the afternoon Andrea Gerosa from Think Young, which lobbies for the presence of young people in European decision-making and John Higgins from Digital Europe, which supports European digital technology industries. The two speakers hosted an active session on pertinent youth issues such as education, vocational training, and entry into the labor market and how they relate to the larger topics of research, innovation, and competitiveness in Europe. The FutureLabbers were especially eager to debate the relationship between innovation and research. The group agreed that while there should be a continuing emphasis on funding and producing high quality research, the European Union member countries must take further measures to support innovation in the private and public sector in order to ensure effective and competitive goods and services. Another interesting proposal was the establishment of innovation officers, who would analyze completed scientific research and look into their potential market or social value for practical implementation or commercialization.

The day concluded with a visit to the buzzing Parlamentarium European Parliament’s Visitors’ Centre. Interactive multimedia displays guided the Futurelabbers through the path of European integration and illustrated the impact this journey has had on the everyday lives of European citizens. This virtual and visual trip through the history of the European Union was a fitting way to end an interactive day.