The growing number of ICT specialists, plus the increasing foreign investment in the sector, as well as the number and innovativeness of tech start-ups make Romania’s ICT a upcoming sector, says Augustin Jianu, Romanian Minister of Communications and Information Society. He also spoke to Jerry Cameron about the challenges the industry faces.
The Romanian software and IT services industry is expected to generate more than three per cent of Romania’s GDP within three years. ICT exports already account for almost four per cent of total trade. Where does that potential come from?
Well, let me put it this way: according to Eurostat, Romania posted the biggest economic growth in the EU in 2016, with a more than six per cent increase. It is also expected to grow by another six per cent in 2017. As such, the country is a regional leader in multiple fields, among which ICT stands as a prime example.
There are several factors conducive to this favourable outcome. The high quality of ICT education — at high school and at university level — immediately comes to mind. Our geographic proximity to the West, in addition to the quality of the labour force, serves to favour us over competitor countries from Asia in the evaluations of international corporations. These are followed by our western-leaning culture, our general proficiency at learning foreign languages and our willingness to be mobile for work-related purposes.
Last, but most definitely not least, the early implementation of e-government services, the stable political climate and the investor-friendly approach to the management of our national economy have all led to an increase in confidence and to the creation and strengthening of numerous and varied trade ties across the EU, the wider EMEA region and beyond.
Over the next few years, in addition to the already significant achievements of the ICT sector, we hope to see further advancements in its share of the total number of employees, in the amount of foreign (especially American) investments and in the number and innovativeness of multi-layered tech start-ups.
That sounds very promising. When it comes to broadband internet, Romania prides itself on having one the highest speeds. At the same time the country ranks last in the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index, How do you explain that?
Romania’s access to the internet is indeed serviced, to a great extent, by next-generation networks (NGN), by virtue of us having ‘leap-frogged’ over some of the intermediary steps other countries took in the early days of the internet. The existence of such NGNs has made it possible for central and local administrations to provide a number of digital public services, such as online information about taxes, online payments of taxes and fines, an online medical dossier, medical digital card, e-procurement, e-jobs services, and online declarations for companies etc.
However, we still have a long way to go in terms of one particular facilitator that is indispensable for a wide-spread and efficacious use of these services. This facilitator is digital literacy. There can be no true and lasting penetration of ICT without dramatically increasing people’s knowledge of, and trust in, digital means of communication, payment and all-round public service delivery. In addition to further increasing the number of online public services, heightening digital literacy is our current biggest challenge.
In terms of the digital services themselves, we are in the process of moving to a new generation of technologies and approaches that are certain to bring us to the forefront of those countries with modern administrations. Currently in the works are: the creation of national online registers, the enforcement of interoperability between public authorities, the sharing of open data, the implementation of EIDAS or GDPR, as well as the conception of a hybrid governmental cloud, all of which are pivotal for the construction of an integrated public services’ infrastructure.
Romania has been an EU member for ten years now. How has the membership helped the country develop in such areas as eGovernment, innovation, research and development?
Over the last ten years, direct access to information, standards, finances, or expertise from the rest of the Member States have been, and still are, important development drivers for Romania. eGovernment, innovation, and R&D are among the areas that benefitted most. Gradually, we have seen an important increase in the quality of public services, in part due to EU-wide regulations, but also due to our fundamental interest in the efficient economic integration into the Single (Digital) Market.
In 2014, the government adopted the National Strategy “Digital Agenda for Romania 2020”. Its direct and indirect impact on the economy was estimated at a GDP growth of 13 per cent, thereby increasing the number of jobs by eleven per cent and reducing administration costs by twelve per cent, between 2014 and 2020. Which areas have been successfully completed and which ones still have room for improvement?
We believe all areas have room for further improvements. A modern information society should align people’s needs with their responsibilities and goals and, therefore, no stagnation is possible. This is true for Romania, but also for every other Member State. Our EU membership, and our participation in the Single Digital Market — they all come with benefits and responsibilities. We acknowledge our strong need for a continuous increase in performance and we are committed to achieving higher competitiveness.
Where do you see innovation potential in Romania, going forward?
The Government is investing in creativity, in innovation and in performance using all available means. For the duration of the current governance period, several national financing programs are dedicated to the stimulation of small enterprises, especially in areas such as production, ICT or creative industries, but not only there. “Romania — Start Up Nation” with an annual record budget of €438 million (2 billion lei) is an example of those programmes. The grant programme is intended to stimulate the creation of start-ups and the development of micro-enterprises by innovative entrepreneurs.
We have mentioned Romanian talent. Around 3.5 million Romanians are believed to be living and working in other EU countries. How sustainable is access to the pool of talent in the country?
Romania is giving ICT education an important role in the coming years, for at least two main reasons: the need for digital literacy, especially in rural areas, and the competitive position Romanian companies have in the global market. These reasons drive us equally, to invest more in ICT education and quality services for all areas related to ICT. The number of technical universities with specialisations in, or related, to ICT is increasing. More and more master or doctoral programmes are being set up each year, with an increasing number of young people starting their active life in ICT or other related domains.
Given these things, I can say that the size of the current pool of talent will not only be sustainable at current levels, but it will in fact dramatically increase over the next decade, for those potential foreign investors out there. Furthermore, we are confident that the quality of talent will go up even more than its current quantity, as more and more creative people will choose to pursue joint degrees with an ICT component, further broadening the overall scope of innovation.
We are going to discuss Romanian ICT and innovation at the ‘EBRD Emerging Europe Outlook on Romania’ conference, on 14 June. Where do you see the largest potential from foreign investors’ perspective?
As a highly skilled market, we are very open to investments in Artificial Intelligence, cyber security, IoT, mobile platforms, spatial computing, and virtual reality etc. We see most of these investments as going into multi-layered tech start-ups that leverage our unique educational system, our creative approach to circumventing problems and our national propensity for hard work and goal-driven single-mindedness.