April 24, 2018
Guest blog post by Eva Maydell. Maydell is a Member of the European Parliament from Bulgaria.
When it comes to technology pioneers in Europe, Estonia often gets the plaudits, and deservedly so. Europe is not always good at talking up its efforts and successes in technology so any recognition is not just welcome – it’s overdue. But, in a sense, singling out one country as an exception shows a wider lack of understanding of what Europe has to offer. Other countries have serious ambitions when it comes to new technologies and long histories of innovation that stretch back decades.
Bulgaria is one such example. Not only is Bulgaria the only country with supercomputing power in the region, a legacy that stretches back to the 1960s, but we take first place in the EU in terms of proportion of women among ICT specialists (27.7%); and is first in the EU in terms of proportion of female ICT students (34.4%) – so can claim far greater diversity than so-called ‘advanced economies’.
Bulgaria also has a slightly different take on the technological revolution: if Estonia saw digitalisation as a valuable tool for improving quality of life and governance, we look beyond to the whole new kind of society it could make possible. The priorities of our Presidency are forward-thinking and ambitious. Take digital connectivity to the Western Balkans – the relationships, business and social, it could foster, the prosperity it could bring, the cultural alignment and exchange it could enable.
This raises an interesting question. Can technology be a positive tool for foreign policy? Our own experience suggests it can – in recent years Bulgaria itself has beaten the odds and become something of a regional centre for the IT industry, presiding over a wave of rapid development in the sector, with home-grown companies expanding in the region.
We may still have some way to go in topping every IT chart in the EU, but there is no denying that Bulgaria has become a lively centre of technological innovation. Its highly-skilled workforce, competitive prices, a long tradition in developing ICT technology and its good infrastructure all make it an attractive place for companies to do business or even set up shop.
Its highly-skilled workforce, competitive prices, a long tradition in developing ICT technology and its good infrastructure all make it an attractive place for companies to do business or even set up shop –, VMWare, IBM, SAP, HP, and Microsoft are all in Sofia. The resulting eco-system is yielding impressive results, a dynamic, fiercely competitive and constantly growing mixture of international market leaders and local start-ups
The impact of those developments is felt across the country, by citizens and companies alike. Profit growth in the sector over the last several years is hitting 250%, accounting for 2% of GDP in 2016. 2.6% of the Bulgarian population is employed in the tech sector. There is a huge appetite for IT specialists and secondary schools, universities, and various private initiatives are constantly developing new educational programs for both basic and advanced digital skills to meet it. A whole generation of young Bulgarians can smell the digital revolution in the air and are determined to make the most of it.
We have certainly learned some lessons and are eager to pass them forward. Technology is the one area of industry where countries can leapfrog historical disadvantages and catch up. It offers significant added value, a good income for its workforce and a wealth of learning and development opportunities for IT-literate young people and for society as a whole. The Western Balkans are in serious need of internal reform, that much is true, but they also need a framework for kick-starting and rejuvenating their economies, and the EU has a responsibility to support them in developing it. In that, as well as in many other things, Bulgaria is ready to lead.