The digitalisation process has brought dramatic change to the structure of Serbian exports, but also to the daily conducting of jobs among citizens, businesses and the public administration. The Government of Serbia is continuing to encourage these trends, both in the development of telecommunications and the innovative eco-system, but also in the area of e-government
Digitalisation and education have, at the initiative of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, been two key priorities of the Government of Serbia since 2017. This says plenty about the expectations of the state and the extent to which it recognises the digital age as an opportunity for us to position ourselves on the ICT market as a country of good opportunities, both for life and for doing business, says Serbian Information and Telecommunications Minister Mihailo Jovanović, speaking in this CorD interview.
Over the course of the past decade, We’ve made accelerated investments in infrastructure, reforms and the building of an environment for doing business, in the belief that investing in knowledge and creativity will lead us to the goals we’ve set for ourselves. That investment very quality started to yield returns, because the ICT sector became Serbia’s largest net export branch. In the last 10 years, The exports of our ICT sector, i.e., exports of our ideas, solutions and intelligence, have increased more than sevenfold over the last ten years. The export of ICT services reached a value of almost 2.7 billion euros in 2022, representing an increase of approximately 40% compared to the previous year, while the surplus exceeded 1.5 billion euros. The ICT sector thereby became the sector of our economy that has by far the largest export surplus. Its exports were almost four times less in 2016, for example, amounting to a value of 760 million euros.
“The most recent results in 2023 also indicate a tendency for further growth, such that exports of the ICT sector in January and February were up 44% compared to the same two months of 2022. Such a result is an indicator that exports of our ICT services are experiencing exponential growth, and we expect it to reach 10 billion euros by 2030,” says Minister Jovanović.
Despite foreign and domestic companies in Serbia having the same status when viewed from the legal aspect, what would be the primary source of such excellent export results? Is it primarily the result of the arrival of foreign investors or consolidation in the sector of Serbian-owned SMEs?
This result is a consequence of both factors – the decision of the world’s top ICT leaders (Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Rivian, Luxoft, Cisco) to establish their own development centres in Serbia and other foreign investors who base their development on IT technologies. (Continental), but also on the emergence and growth of a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises operating in the ICT sector.
The start-up scene in Serbia is considered as having grown significantly, but we have still yet to receive our own “unicorn”, unlike neighbouring Romania, for example. Do you see a shift towards such a scenario?
The Republic of Serbia is slowly but surely approaching its goal of becoming a regional leader of innovation, science and technology. Over the course of the previous five years, we have constructed, commissioned and fully utilised the capacities of four science and technology parks in Belgrade, Niš, Novi Sad and Čačak, and just a few days ago we also launched operations at the new building of the BioSense Institute in Novi Sad – in the form of the European Centre of Excellence for advanced technologies in the digitalisation of agriculture. The plan is to expand the science and technology parks in Belgrade, Niš and Čačak and to build another new one in Kruševac and an Innovation District in Kragujevac.
We are focused on connecting e-Government with businesses, so I expect e-citizens to be able to start accessing the services of banks and telecommunications operators very soon. Likewise, it is important that eGovernment infrastructure services be placed in the function of the services of the Open Balkan initiative, such as unrestricted access to the labour market
Alongside this, another 18 innovation centres are being supported by the Government of the Republic of Serbia and five more are currently under construction in Arilje, Novi Pazar, Kanjiža, Bajina Bašta and Loznica. As of recently, our county’s start-up ecosystem also became visible on global data platform DealRoom. Our young people have endlessly creative and profitable ideas. In the future we should work on better protecting intellectual property. There are also companies that are on the right track to becoming unicorns in Serbia, but that all requires time and continuous support, which the Government of the Republic of Serbia is providing.
I think it’s much more important that a growing number of successful start-ups exist that are making appearances on the international market and are fighting against fierce competition to carve out a place for themselves. Our next goal is 1,000 startups, which should be relatively easy to achieve at the current tempo.
The Serbian state recently launched an important investment project in a high-speed internet network covering underdeveloped and less populated parts of Serbia. How much can this help in the development of these parts of Serbia and in promoting the possible immigration of digital nomads who opted for areas that are preserved ecologically?
It was last December that we launched implementation of the Project to construct broadband communication infrastructure in rural areas of the Republic of Serbia, with the aim of bringing new generation network coverage to all households in Serbia.
The first stage of the programme encompasses the installing of approximately 4,700 km of fibre-optic cables and will cover approximately 700 rural settlements, close to 120,000 households and approximately 730 schools. High-speed internet connections installed to date cover 75% of the territory of the Republic of Serbia, while it is expected that the full implementation of this project will result in 99% of villages in Serbia having internet connection speeds exceeding 100Mbps by year’s end 2025. Bringing the internet to rural settlements is important due to the availability of e-government services, the launching of businesses and the possibility for digital nomads to work in any part of Serbia. We will thereby make living conditions in urban and rural areas of our country equal and provide all citizens with equal opportunities to work, access education and succeed!
According to the latest United Nations report, Serbia ranks among the world’s top 10 countries when it comes to progress achieved in the field of electronic administration over the last two years, while the World Bank’s latest global report monitoring progress in the field of digital transformation ranks us 4th in Europe. What are the further strategic steps that the government should take in order to preserve and improve upon this position?
E-governance has been introduced in the right way in the Republic of Serbia and that has been recognised by citizens, businesses and international institutions as a great success of the Serbian Government. It is today impossible to imagine the life of citizens without services such as ‘Baby, welcome to the world’, e-NurserySchool, e-Enrolment of children in primary and secondary schools, e-Prescription, e-Scheduling for ID cards and passports, automatic verification of health cards or communication with local government via the Portal of the local tax administrations. We already have 1.9 million citizens who’ve registered their personal accounts on the e-government portal ‘eGrađana’ [e-Citizen], while as many as 600,000 of them use the mobile application ConsentID, with which they are able to log in to state portals in the most secure way and use an electronic Cloud signature.
We are focused on connecting e-Government with businesses, so I expect e-citizens to be able to start accessing the services of banks and telecommunications operators very soon. Likewise, it is important that eGovernment infrastructure services be placed in the function of the services of the Open Balkan initiative, such as unrestricted access to the labour market.
Artificial intelligence has started being introduced in the work of public services in Serbia and has met with divided opinions. How involved is your ministry in that process, which is attracting the care and attention of governments worldwide.
Considering that the Ministry of Information and Telecommunications deals, among other things, with the development and application of information and communications technology, but also with information security and data protection, the implementation of AI in the public administration is something that we are involved in and that I believe will contribute to improving the work of the public administration, to the benefit of all citizens.
We have good practice examples from the world’s most developed countries of ways in which the implementation of AI in the public sector resolves pressing issues in various sectors, such as healthcare and energy.
We expect 99% of villages in Serbia having internet connection speeds exceeding 100Mbps by year’s end 2025. Bringing the internet to rural settlements is important due to the availability of e-government services, the launching of businesses and the possibility for digital nomads to work in any part of Serbia
In our country, we have the example of the Electric Power Industry of Serbia (EPS), which utilised machine learning to successfully predict electricity production and procurement needs with the minimal possibility of error, which results in huge savings in its operations.
Along with the use of AIbased solutions comes the question of the impact of its use on the rights of citizens, which is the main reason opinions are divided on this topic.
One of the steps the Government has taken in that direction is the adoption of ethical guidelines on the use of reliable and responsible artificial intelligence. My ministry participated in the drafting of this document, the purpose of which is to provide a framework and direct the work of all elements of the AI ecosystem in Serbia for the benefit of people, with strong reference to the importance of protecting freedoms and rights, like the right to privacy and the right to protect personal data.
New and advanced technologies often carry risks, but the Government of the Republic of Serbia leads a responsible policy that enables the further development of AI, which is – according to the predictions of all the world’s most relevant expert and scientific groups – the technology of the fourth industrial revolution that will contribute the most to economic growth, with the respecting of all ethical principles.
The Government of Serbia adopted the Draft Law on Electronic Communications. What are its most important innovations when it comes to citizens and companies?
The Draft Law on Electronic Communications introduces significant innovations t
the Republic of Serbia’s telecommunications market. Some of the novelties brought by this law include the mandatory introduction of invoices for services provided in electronic form and the enabling of conditions under which operators can more fairly and efficiently share existing infrastructure – all with the aim of providing end users with even better and more diverse services. With the application of this law, our country will introduce electronic invoices that will, by definition, be sent by the telecommunications operator, while citizens who want to receive invoices in paper form will be able to request them from their operators. With the introduction of electronic invoices, we save time and speed up the work of the operator, but we also save on paper and trees that are felled for invoices each year. This law also stipulates the obligation for prepaid mobile phone users to register, which will contribute to improving security for citizens. Citizens will have the possibility to complete this registration online in an extremely simple way and avoid queuing. Operators have 12 months to introduce the registration of prepaid users.
We heard at last year’s Telfor telecommunications forum in Belgrade that an independent commercial 5G network in Serbia is not expected to be up and running before 2025. What is the reason we are lagging so far behind the countries of the region and the EU?
If we take into consideration the fact that over 99% of our households are covered by the mobile signal of at least one operator, and that over 95% are covered by the signals of two or even three operators, we can’t speak of us lagging behind the neighbourhood when it comes to the availability of mobile services to citizens and businesses. On the contrary, Serbia currently has better mobile signal coverage than some EU member states. We are expecting the Law on Electronic Communications to be adopted, after which 12 months will be required to organise the 5G auction, with respect to all the new instruments that this new Law introduces.
New and advanced technologies often carry risks, but the Government of the Republic of Serbia leads a responsible policy that enables the further development of AI, with the respecting of all ethical principles
Our young people have endlessly creative and profitable ideas. What we should work on in the future is better protecting intellectual property
The exports of our ICT sector have increased more than sevenfold over the last ten years… We expect them to reach a value of 10 billion euros by 2030