Portuguese push towards digital transition can serve as bloc blueprint

Portugal is making a concerted push towards the digital sphere. The recent Portugal Digital Forum – which took place from the 3rd to the 6th of May – highlighted the country’s growing start-up tech scene and confirmed the commitment of Portuguese politicians to support companies through their digital transition. As a marker of the progress the country has made and the potential with which it is now associated in the sector, an Anglo-American firm has chosen Portugal as the site of its new high-tech, sustainable data centre—a multibillion euro project which will be one of the largest data centre campuses in Europe.

Lisbon now has a golden opportunity to parlay this keen sense into a leadership role at the forefront of a Europe-wide digital renaissance. Portugal currently holds the EU presidency and was the first country to submit its comprehensive pandemic recovery plan – which carries a clear emphasis on vital projects aimed at helping companies boost their digital tools and skills, expanding e-health services, digital education, digital public services and more. If Portugal can now harness the available European pandemic recovery funds to turbocharge development in these key areas, it can use its progress and its presidency as a means of driving digital advancement throughout the bloc.

A greener tomorrow

Despite a trying 2020, Portugal’s business sector continued to perform strongly last year. The country was the recipient of a record €149.6 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) over the last 12 months, with the government clearly aware that digital capabilities are key to encouraging sustained growth going forwards. For that reason, Lisbon has launched its Digital Transition Action Plan, which aims to help at least 90% of domestic firms attain a minimum level of digital competency in the coming years. As a sign of the changing times, a collaboration between the UK and the USA will oversee the construction of a net-zero carbon, €3.5 billion data centre in Portugal by 2025, creating 1,200 jobs in the process.

The government also became the first EU member state to submit its pandemic recovery plans, which foreground the digital sector heavily. As part of the plan, Lisbon has earmarked €5 billion for investment into Portuguese companies over the next five years, with €1.36 billion to be spent on innovation and a further €650 million set aside for enhancing digital tools and skills. That latter focus may prove to be especially important, especially as Portugal’s human capital score is its weakest attribute in the 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), falling well below the European average. Educating the Portuguese public on how to use the internet and familiarize themselves with essential digital skills will be key, alongside strong and extensive 5G network coverage, to catapulting the Iberian country into the 21st century.

Making strides

While Portugal is lagging behind its continental counterparts in terms of digital skills and needs to do more to support sustainable 5G network deployment, it’s a regional leader in other areas. For example, the country is one of the most impressive performers in terms of its digital public services and is aiming to align the skills of its populace with the capabilities of its infrastructure via the ‘Citizen Spots’ scheme. Overseen by the Administrative Modernization Agency (AMA), the scheme encompasses 631 locations across the country where Portuguese citizens can gain assistance and education on using digital services to file taxes, process social security matters and access or amend the civil registry. Transitioning those public services online is expected to save significant resources for both local and national authorities, which is why Portugal has poured €5.8 million into the initiative (with €4.6 million of that figure coming from the EU).

Elsewhere, Portugal is one of the global pioneers in telehealth services. Last year, the country became the first in the world to introduce its National Strategic Telehealth Plan (PENTS). Incorporating the input of 50 institutional stakeholders – including the views of Portuguese citizens, as represented by a platform of 52 different patient associations – the Plan aims to improve the regulatory framework surrounding telehealth, train medical professionals on its applications and educate the common people on its benefits. The program has already shown impressive results, with emergency episodes down 50% and unplanned hospitalizations down 70% among those using the technology. Uptake has also been encouraging, with 1.87 million website users and 460,000 downloads of the app by January 2020, while more than 80% of the population have switched to e-prescriptions over paper-based alternatives. The 5G rollout should boost Portuguese telehealth still further, playing a crucial role as an enabler of innovation in the Portuguese health system and boosting citizens’ wellbeing.

Perfectly placed to drive progress

Another area in which Portugal outperforms the European average is connectivity. It has very good VHCN broadband coverage in 83% of the country (compared to the EU average of just 44%), while the 56% take-up of fixed broadband networks with a minimum speed of 100Mbps is second among EU nations behind Sweden alone. That means that it’s perfectly placed to offer its insights into the best practices surrounding the rollout of fast networks and the deployment of 5G and fibre infrastructure in an efficient and sustainable way, which were agreed upon through the Connectivity Toolbox by all member states earlier this year.

Indeed, Portugal’s role as EU President gives it a unique platform to facilitate the implementation of important frameworks such as the Connectivity Toolbox. By outlining its plans for navigating its way out of the coronavirus crisis clearly and comprehensively, while promoting investment in innovative and comprehensive infrastructure such as 5G and fibre networks, Portugal can demonstrate that it has the expertise, foresight and initiative to help digitalize its own business landscape and serve as a strong example for others to follow in the process.

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