EU4Digital ICT Innovation Forum highlights digital education for upskilling SMEs and start-ups

  • Date: 23/03/23
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The 2023 EU4Digital ICT Innovation Forum raised important questions about the future of education for businesses to better prepare them for our post-industrial, digital society. Stressing the importance of digital upskilling of start-ups and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) region, the online event on 9 March was the second in an annual Innovation Forum series and attracted more than 100 participants. They learned about diverse EU and EaP policy and support initiatives including the EU4Digital EdTech Hub platform activity, which was announced during the event.

Nicholas Cendrowicz of the European Commission, Deputy Head of Unit, DG NEAR C1, opened the event, highlighting that 2023 is the European Year of Skills. He emphasised how crucial it is for SMEs to have high quality digital skills as they produce up to 47% of added value in the economy. “We need to equip SMEs with the right set of tools to boost their productivity”, he said, noting the need to bridge investment gaps in digital skills, to mobilise 1.5 billion euros from the public and private sectors and call on international donors to mainstream digital transformation. He reminded participants to explore the EaP Startups ecosystem platform, which was launched during the first Innovation Forum, in January 2022.  

Anne Bajart of the European Commission, Deputy Head of Unit, DG CNECT G2, showcased several EU strategy and policy initiatives with the agenda to support SMEs’ digital skills. The 2030 Digital Compass sets ambitious goals for the level of digital skills among the population and SMEs and includes two pillars of activities, supporting short-term SME upskilling training courses, and supporting start-ups and SMEs dealing with innovative technological solutions in education. Various types of international and cross-sectoral community building and partnerships facilitate access to digital skills in the EU – for example the Digital Skills and Jobs Platform and the closely linked Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition; the very successful EU Code Week; the Pact for Skills that brings together public and private organisations; Talent PartnershipsDigital SkillUp; and the European Digital Education Hub for innovation collaboration. Policy tools include the Structured Dialogue on digital education and skills with EU Member States, which will soon release two important recommendations. Finally, she discussed ongoing work to create a European Digital Skills Certificate as well as DigComp 2.2 – the Digital Competence Framework for Citizens, which facilitates the design of digital skills assessment and training content.  

Education technology and the new EdTech Hub

“Technology adoption will certainly change jobs”, said keynote speaker Riaz Shah, Partner and Global Learning Leader, EY. Stepping back and seeing the wider context improves understanding of the importance of getting skills in digital technologies. Using examples like automated warehouses, cashier-less shops, autonomous vehicles and additive manufacturing, he considered how technologies have transformed workplaces. “Reskilling our people is absolutely crucial,” he said. “Most of our schools are preparing children for the industrial age; we need to rethink children’s education” to prepare them for our digital age.  This also applies to business executive education: he explained that EY has a goal to prepare its 400,000 people via the EY badges scheme – a global, dynamic learning and experience programme covering not only technology and business skillsets but also the leadership mindset, offering 235 different virtual badges using a framework of 5 levels to ‘gamify’ learning. More than 350,000 badges have been earned already, and more than 300,000 are in progress – leading to the opportunity for staff to take the EY Tech MBA free of charge. 

The EY ‘badges’ approach will be applied in the innovative EU4Digital EdTech hub platform for Eastern Partnership SMEs and start-ups. Arturas Piliponis, EU4Digital Facility Team Leader, EY, announced the launch of the activity to develop this platform, which will facilitate access of SMEs from both tech-driven and non-IT industries to high quality learning content related to digital technologies and innovation. He invited EaP stakeholders to join in discussions about the platform’s operational mode, governance and ownership model, and the selection of priority knowledge areas. He reminded participants that this educational solution comes in the context of the EU-EaP policy agenda to digitally empower 1 million EaP citizens. “We are looking for cost-efficient solutions and synergies with existing initiatives; sustainability of this activity is one of the key goals,” he said. 

Focus within EaP countries

While many of the existing EU initiatives and platforms highlighted by previous speakers are available to SMEs in EaP countries, the panel discussion revealed several common challenges – insufficient awareness of available technologies or their benefits, lack of training or advisory support, and insufficient digital or business literacy. Also, there is still a need for country-specific solutions to improve access and uptake of upskilling. ·       

  • Haykuhi Gevorgyan of the Ministry of Economy of the Republic of Armenia said that SMEs account for 98% of the country’s businesses. The Government of Armenia launched several joint initiatives and collaborates with private sector and non-governmental organisations to support the upskilling of SMEs in the digital area, for example, the DigiTec Summit, which promotes digital transformation. A successful project is ‘Platform 5’, for escalating women’s digital marketing skills, implemented together with the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and UNDP Armenia. Private sector and non-governmental initiatives also address the growing demand of digital skills, for example the ‘Impact Hub Yerevan’ co-working space and incubator for start-ups and SMEs, and the Microsoft Innovation Centre, which provides training and support on topics such as cloud computing, big data and artificial intelligence. The Enterprise Incubator Foundation in Armenia, established with World Bank support, provides technical assistance to SMEs. Furthermore, the Ministry of Economy has developed an action plan setting priorities for the digitalisation of the manufacturing and service sector via 24 projects that aim at ecosystem building, educating and upskilling, empowering beneficiaries and introducing digital tools, to be implemented by 2026.
  • Shahin Aliyev of Azerbaijan’s Innovation and Digital Development Agency emphasised that digital skills are especially important for the retail and agricultural sectors. Training is important, but there’s a need to identify use cases and help SMEs to find the right tools needed to improve their businesses. CRMs (customer relationship management tools) and a digital library of relevant tools are among the focus areas. The agency also supports ICT SMEs to provide technical and CTO services to non-ICT SMEs that struggle with their in-house ICT needs. And, to reduce the risks of digitalisation, a project with Technion – Israel Institute of Technology – will train around 1000 cybersecurity experts within three years. 
  • Irakli Gabriadze, Deputy Director of Enterprise Georgia, announced new activities starting in the second half of 2023 to support the digitalisation of SMEs. Support activities include awareness raising on digitalisation benefits as well as co-financing of efforts to increase digital skills and introduce digitalisation solutions. To implement this support, it is planned to centrally hire Digital Transformation Experts to deliver technology-led programmes and elaborate digitalisation plans tailored for SMEs, including digital skills components. Co-financing of implementation of digital solutions and trainings could be worth up to 10,000 euro per company or 90% of the cost.
  • Rodica Crudu of the Moldovan Organisation for Development of Entrepreneurship (ODA) said SMEs represent up to 99% of the Moldovan economy and the government is very mindful of supporting their competitiveness. Several laws and strategies have been adopted and simplifying the regulatory framework is a priority. ODA has three programmes that include training for upskilling SMEs so they can meet their market needs. New curricula were recently developed including courses on e-commerce, digital marketing and sales, and digital solutions to improve processes such as imports and exports. Training providers will be selected by the end of this month, with donors being sought to help finance the activity, as shortage of expertise makes this a competitive market. The organisation is also exploring ways to increase the sustainability of its programmes and projects through other partnerships.
  • Denys Blinda of the Entrepreneurship and Export Promotion Office of Ukraine presented the large-scale national project for entrepreneurship and export promotion, Diia Business. Implemented in 2021 in the official digital government ‘Diia’ brand and ecosystem, the portal is a ‘one-stop-shop’ for entrepreneurs looking to set up their own business. An offline network of support centres complements the portal. Templates, business ideas, legal documents and examples are offered along with services and consulting, a marketplace and educational programmes. Business acceleration programmes were launched in 2023 and other initiatives include the Visionary Women’s Accelerator and the ‘Brave’ programme for women entrepreneurs. The number of women using the platform and services has been increasing and already accounts for 50% of users. 
  • Ihor Markevych of the Ukrainian Startup Fund (USF) and advisor to Ukraine’s Minister of Science and Education said the country’s IT sector was the only growth industry during the past year and 70% of all Ukrainian tech entrepreneurs are still there. An ‘IT army’ based on NGO and government cooperation is focusing on cybersecurity and cyber tech projects. Cooperation is also needed with mentors, coaches, corporates etc. to ensure digital upskilling will be available to support industry and renovate the Ukrainian economy.  

Initiatives by international organisations

The final session, a tour de table, explored diverse initiatives within the EaP region to address digital skills gaps, supported by international donors at the regional and country levels: 

  • Kristien Van den Eynde of the European Training Foundation (ETF) drew attention to projects implemented by ETF in Armenia and Ukraine that identified specific needs for digital skills in industries of construction, wood processing and furniture manufacturing, and contributed to regional strategies development. Another relevant example for the EaP region is an ETF project in the Western Balkans in the agrifood sector, which brought together agrifood companies, training providers and intermediaries for addressing digital skills gaps. She emphasised the key role that intermediary bodies such as Chambers of Commerce, Regional Development Agencies and Innovation Hubs can play in skills development and the importance of access to training resources such as the upcoming EU4Digital EdTech Hub platform. 
  • Niclas Rüffer of the German Development Agency (GIZ) described the German-funded project ‘Digital Transformation of SMEs in Countries of the Eastern Partnership’, which will be implemented from March 2023. The project will work on national level digitalisation strategies, deliver better statistics and solutions to support SMEs, and work with clusters, associations and other intermediaries to build up knowledge networks. The project will also support existing and new digital innovation hubs, delivering direct grants, study tours and consultancy.
  • Salomé Will, Policy Analyst with OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development),said SME digitalisation and skills has become a greater focus in recent years. OECD offers policy advice to countries based on analysis, monitoring and benchmarking using OECD best practices, a platform for regional dialogue, and capacity building, working with government ministries, the private sector and academia and international organisations. This framework considers both tech adoption and digital culture as necessary components of digital transformation, with skills as a cross-cutting element. The 2021 regional report revealed that use of digital devices in Eastern Partner countries is below OECD levels, there is a need for public-private partnerships, and the role of local ecosystems and communities to facilitate access of SMEs to digital skills. Ongoing projects provide a comparative assessment of digital skills policies in the EaP region within the SME Policy Index 2024, as well as country-tailored support to Armenia and Ukraine. 
  • Francisco Moraes Leitao Campos, Senior Economist with the World Bank discussed the importance of diagnostics to understand the actual problems for each sector, regarding the digitalisation of SMEs. World Bank surveys of firm-level adoption of technology throughout the world have given insights into the EaP region and how countries can progress; for example, in Georgia the accommodation sector has more firms using CRMs, while SMEs in wholesale and retail don’t usually use these. It is important to test interventions and get proofs of concept in order to promote the correct, efficient interventions. He cited the GeNIE (Georgia National Innovation Ecosystem) project training programme and the Digi Trans project to design and test digitalisation supportive policies, as positive examples.
  • Livia Turcanu of Moldova Future Technologies Activity shared her experience in enhancing the competitiveness of Moldovan companies in various sectors. In order to advance the digitalisation of SMEs and start-ups, not only technologies, but also other ecosystem aspects must be considered, including improving digital skills among entrepreneurs, access to finance and investments, as well as supportive legal frameworks for e-commerce payments and e-services. She highlighted the need for digital skills education and declared, “something that we are proud of is introducing new master’s degrees and new curricula in the universities, focused on emerging technologies, and now students are getting updated skills that are going to be used by them in the future.”  

See the speakers’ presentations:

See full event agenda.

Further information

Organisations interested in collaborating with EU4Digital during the establishment of the EdTech Hub can contact the ICT Innovation team at  

The first Innovation Forum ‘Innovative solutions for the development of startup ecosystems in the Eastern Partnership’ was held on 27 January 2022.  

The Innovation Forum is a series of self-standing annual opportunities to focus on topics related to innovation and start-ups, with the initiative to harmonise digital markets of Eastern Partnership and EU countries.