In March, Krzysztof Szubert was appointed Secretary of State, responsible for international affairs at the Ministry of Digital Affairs in Poland. With 20 years experience in tech entrepreneurship and ICT, Minister Szubert has been instrumental in driving the digital agenda not only in Poland but at a EU level. Here, in part one of our conversation with the Minister, he talks to us about digital skills and the role inclusion plays in advancing Europe’s digital economy.

You recently attended the G20 summit in Duesseldorf and took part in a discussion about the future of digital skills and entrepreneurship. What strengths do you think European governments can build on to support digital skills?

I believe that people are the most important ingredient of the digital transformation process. Governments should improve people’s ability to cope with change and succeed in a digital world. The digital economy needs to work for everyone. We need to improve well-being for all in increasingly digitalised economies, and define a more people-centred approach to policymaking.

Faced with increased inequalities for individuals and businesses, the government should provide more equal opportunities in digital economies. Expenditures in vital areas like education have to be seen not as operating costs, but as investment in people, helping them to live meaningful lives. We need to help equip people with the skills to use the technology, invest in organisational change and process innovation.

What Polish-led policy initiative or programme is successfully developing digital skills?

At the moment the Ministry of Digital Affairs is dynamically working on a legal solution that will create the so-called Poland-wide Education Network. The aim of the project is to connect all Polish schools to fast broadband [minimum 100 Mb/s] by the end of 2018. The Minister of Digital Affairs has recently signed agreements with telecom operators to get the project started. This is a perfect – and tangible – example of how business and public administration can cooperate to foster the development of digital skills.

It is also worth mentioning that the Poland-wide Education Network corresponds with the already implemented compulsory coding lessons for all pupils starting in the first year of primary education. The new core curriculum will come into force on 1 September 2017.

What is happening to equip people already in the workforce with digital skills, rather than just young people in school?

We are committing over €170 million to developing and promoting digital skills until 2020. It is crucial to enable all age groups – ranging from pupils to elderly people – to reap the benefits of digital progress. We have a special operational programme called ‘Digital Poland’ which is prioritising digital activation of society such as developing digital literacy and competency of all Poles. Digital Poland has also been designed to meet the needs of various social groups. For example, some measures are dedicated to provide solutions for people yat risk of digital exclusion [people of 50+ age, from rural areas or with disabilities], while others support gifted ICT students/programmers, who can take part in competitions aiming to present innovative solutions [products or services], that will be beneficial for society, business or public administration.

To accelerate the entire process we are launching a campaign to raise awareness about the benefits of using digital technologies such a public e-services. Our ambition is to not only strengthen ICT capacity throughout Poland but also to develop necessary skills and change negative attitudes and opposition to using new technology.

What is the role of businesses in developing the digital skills of Europe’s workforce?

Businesses are an inherent partner in advancing the development of better digital skills across society, especially in the workforce. Companies and entrepreneurs benefit from highly educated professionals and are likewise able to offer more and more technologically sophisticated services to customers. Therefore it is in their vital interest to co-create appropriate conditions for development of digital literacy across society.

Besides investing in machines and new technologies themselves, businesses must invest in people too. Only then we will be able to create a sustainable digital economy. Luckily, many contemporary businesses in Poland are aware that their success depends to much extent on digitally skilled employees and are taking steps to promote better digital literacy across them. Of course, public administration – by creating fair, transparent, up to date and possibly simple legislation framework for doing business – has its own significant role to play here.

Readie’s recent research found that while many Europeans are excited about the opportunities of digital transformation, many are apprehensive or ill-equipped to embrace new technologies. Particularly, adults over 55 years of age, those living in rural areas and women appear the least confident. What do you think should be done to make Europe’s digital economy a more inclusive one?

There is no doubt for me that the Digital Single Market will only be successful when all are capable of benefiting equally from it. And only then will a fully successful DSM enable Europe to compete globally and to keep pace with other digitally advanced world economies. We must therefore ensure that no one is excluded from the process of digital transformation. To achieve this, the efforts must be first of all people-oriented. The coming mid-term review of the DSM strategy is a very good opportunity to remind all states and EU institutions that we should act towards a more integrated – and inclusive – DSM, rather than a fragmented one.

Poland is dedicated to being an active and constructive partner in the European digital debate. We are engaged with a group of like-minded ‘digital countries’ and only recently I signed a letter to VP Andrus Ansip, together with 14 other member states, advocating for a more integrated, ambitious, consumer and business-oriented DSM.

Poland has a reputation for being a hub for technology innovation and a great place to start digital businesses. What is the key to this innovation?

Highly qualified, resourceful and motivated ICT professionals are key to Poland’s success in innovation. Poland ranks 6th in Europe with regards to the ICT workforce potential. There were over 300,000 ICT jobs in 2014, a 5 per cent share of total EU ICT jobs.

Poland also has a growing number of university majors [kierunki zamawiane] that are introduced upon special request and support businesses to fill the gap in the supply of ICT specialists. To this end, cities like Wrocław or Cracow have attracted big international tech companies such as Google and Motorola. Such organisations create possibilities for development of start-ups and innovation. Our role, as policymakers, is to create better and better conditions for businesses – big and small – to thrive.