Martina Larkin, Head of Europe and Eurasia, World Economic Forum

Yes, The Western Balkans Can Leapfrog The Digital Divide

With an agenda focused on producing firm commitments towards common goals, there is considerable expectation that, by the next time the Western Balkan leaders meet in Davos in 2019, they will already take some important steps towards forging a new regional strategy for transformation that's in line with the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Martina Larkin, Head of Europe and Eurasia, World Economic Forum

Could the Western Balkans repeat the success of Estonia in taking bold, innovative and entrepreneurial steps toward building a society based on a digital revolution?

Obviously, this is a sort of billion-dollar question, and yet the countries of the region have pledged to try to leapfrog the current digital divide and to build their growth strategy on turning their labour intensive economies into knowledge-based ones. Such a task wouldn’t be an easy one even for a developed country, while it is much more challenging for developing countries, such as those in the region.

We spoke with the World Economic Forum‘s Martina Larkin, Head of Europe and Eurasia, about how this shift can be made viable.

DEDICATION

The aspirations of the Western Balkan leaders to join the European Union depend greatly on their ability to raise economic growth and competitiveness levels closer to the European norm.

OPPORTUNITY

It is exactly those regions that are not yet fully engaged in the Fourth Industrial Revolution which have a unique opportunity to leapfrog others

CHALLENGES

The youth of the region is most concerned about crime and employment rates, followed by concerns about the emigration of citizens working abroad and freedom of speech and free press.

“The over-riding objective of the World Economic Forum’s strategic dialogue on the Western Balkans is to assist the six economies in addressing challenges when it comes to economic growth, improvements in infrastructure and the functioning of markets, and in attracting and retaining the talent that they will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says Larkin.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), which has been leading the global dialogue on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is to become a new guardian of the region’s aspirations to change its destiny and shift to the fast lane of development efforts.

“We aim to re-energise efforts towards this goal and to foster greater cooperation in the Western Balkans”, says Larkin. According to her, when the next time leaders meet in Davos in 2019, they will be able to show some concrete steps taken towards a new regional strategy for transformation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“The idea of a Regional Southeast European Summit in 2019 is to bring together all relevant leaders from the region and Europe to discuss the future of the SEE region,” explains our interlocutor.

This summit will be an opportunity for a region that’s marred by past conflicts to turn the page and try hard to use the opportunity to bring enduring economic growth to this region and to make that growth broad-based and socially inclusive.

How would you explain the reasons that the Western Balkans have suddenly come under the spotlight (this October) after – at least in the eyes of lay observers – being a third-rate player at Davos in January 2018?

The presence of Western Balkan leaders at the Annual Meeting in Davos 2018 was an important first step to start a dialogue on the World Economic Forum’s platform on the future of the region, together with relevant business leaders and European political leaders interested in advancing the region’s development and integration. Since then we have continued this strategic dialogue, at a meeting on the occasion of the EU Summit in Sofia, co-hosted with the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, which then held the EU Presidency, and most recently in Geneva with political leaders from the region. The Forum’s aim is to host this strategic dialogue as an important ongoing process that complements other efforts regarding the region’s future.

Martina Larkin, Head of Europe and Eurasia, World Economic Forum

The future of the Western Balkans should be of great interest to Europe and the wider region, as the peaceful and prosperous future of the Western Balkans is essential to stabilising and advancing the region’s development.

What would you single out as the most important message emanating from the meeting at the World Economic Forum’s headquarters in Geneva?

An important message for us was, and is, the continued commitment of leaders from the Western Balkans to strengthen economic and social ties and prepare the region for the future.

Is this intrinsically more of a peace-building effort, to which the WEF isn’t a stranger, or more of a developmental effort?

The over-riding objective of the World Economic Forum’s strategic dialogue on the Western Balkans is to assist the six economies of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia – to address the shared challenges they face collectively: boosting economic growth, improving infrastructure and the functioning of markets, and attracting and retaining the talent they will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Strategically important, given their geographical position and history, the Western Balkans Six nevertheless lag behind many of their European peers in economic terms. According to our Global Competitiveness Index 2018, Albania is the most competitive among the group, ranking 75th, followed by Montenegro and Serbia, at 77th and 78th respectively. Their aspirations to join the European Union depend greatly on their ability to raise economic growth and competitiveness levels closer to the European norm.

We aim to re-energise efforts towards this goal and to foster greater cooperation in the Western Balkans. With an agenda focused on producing firm commitments towards common goals, there is a considerable expectation that by the next time leaders meet in Davos in 2019, concrete steps will have been made towards a new regional strategy for transformation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

What was the rationale behind inviting countries to the meeting that aren’t from the Western Balkans, with the obvious exception of Switzerland? For example, what roles could Croatia, Slovenia or Slovakia play in the envisaged activities?

Countries like Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria are important partners of the Western Balkans, as they don’t just share geographic links, but also historic, cultural and economic ties. Furthermore, the future of the Western Balkans should be of great interest to Europe and the wider region, as the peaceful and prosperous future of the Western Balkans is essential to stabilising and advancing the region’s development.

One of the activities envisaged in the Forum Communiqué on the Western Balkans is the organisation of the Regional Southeast European Summit in 2019. Is this a new version of the Berlin Initiative? If not, how does it differ?

The idea of a Regional Southeast European Summit in 2019 is to bring together all relevant leaders from the region and Europe to discuss the future of the Southeast European region, and seize a unique opportunity to ensure that economic growth is enduring, broad-based and socially inclusive. At the same time, we are aiming to engage leaders from the public and private sectors, as well as youth and civil society and media in a dialogue on mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution and ensuring its benefits are spread across the region.

Which challenges do you expect in the transforming of a region that is still in limbo between the second and third industrial revolutions into an advanced region at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

It is exactly those regions that are not yet fully engaged in the Fourth Industrial Revolution which have a unique opportunity to leapfrog others and make the mastering of the Fourth Industrial Revolution a strategic objective. Just look at how Estonia has evolved into a global poster child for the digital revolution – Could the Western Balkan countries take a similar strategic decision and propel themselves into the future by thinking and acting in very bold, innovative and entrepreneurial manner? Could they stop the brain drain by developing strategies and action plans that boost economic growth and innovation, improve infrastructure and the functioning of markets and attract and retain the talent they will need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Martina Larkin, Head of Europe and Eurasia, World Economic Forum

Establishing an affiliate Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution as part of the Forum’s network of Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution will help prepare the region for fundamental economic and societal shifts

What precise role would the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution play in preparing the region for the fundamental economic and societal shifts heralded by emerging technologies like artificial intelligence?

The World Economic Forum has been leading the global dialogue on the Forth Industrial Revolution. One of the central questions is how can we maximise the benefits of science and technology for society? That’s our mission. To achieve it, we’ve created a global hub of expertise, knowledge-sharing and collaboration, based in San Francisco. We partner governments, leading companies, civil society and experts from around the world in co-designing and piloting innovative new approaches to policy and governance in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As such, establishing an affiliated Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution as part of the Forum’s network of Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution will help prepare the region for the fundamental economic and societal shifts presaged by emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, IOT, blockchain etc.

Who would occupy places in the Western Balkans Competitiveness Council, and what kind of power and financial backing will the Council have available in its effort to improve the region’s fundamental productivity drivers?

The Western Balkans Competitiveness Council would bring together representatives from the private sector, government, academia and civil society, on issues related to productivity and economic development in the Western Balkans. This group would develop recommendations and seek to promote initiatives and strategies to improve the region’s competitiveness, productivity and inclusive growth. The aim is to have this Council run and managed by the most appropriate institution in the region, to ensure countries share research and good practices, helping them to learn, connect and implement.

How should the new leaders of the Western Balkans shape themselves and what would be the role of Global Shaper hubs in promoting them? Will there be new politicians, business leaders or civil rights defenders?

We believe in a world where young people are central to solution building, policymaking and lasting change. The Global Shapers Community is a network of inspiring young people under the age of 30 who are working together to address local, regional and global challenges. With more than 7,000 members, the Global Shapers Community spans 369 city-based hubs in 171 countries. The Western Balkans face a big challenge of countering the brain drain, and there is an unprecedented opportunity for young people to take an active role in shaping the future of the region. This generation has inherited enormous global challenges but has the ability to confront the status quo and offer youth-led solutions for change.

We have asked the Shapers from the Western Balkans to share their hopes and fears for the region. When asked about their hopes for their country, 29% stated “strong and citizen-oriented national governance”, 22% hope for an effective fight against corruption and 22% wish for lower unemployment rates. Youth represented by the Shapers of the region, in general, don’t trust or have little trust, in political parties (80%), parliament (58%) or the judiciary (58%), but they share trust with NGOs to some extent (48%). They are most concerned about crime and employment rates, followed by concerns about the emigration of citizens working abroad and freedom of speech and free press.