Belgium is known for its highly skilled and multilingual workforce, geographical location and innovation clusters. But where does the country stand in comparison to other economies? In this feature of our Belgium in the Ranks series, we take a look at Belgium’s digital economy through the lens of the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Report 2015-2016 (WEF) and the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI).
Belgium has great potential to become a leader in the digital world. In rankings, the country’s competitive advantage lies in new technologies. For example, Belgium is positioned 5th out of the 28 EU Member States and 14th out of 140 economies in the WEF on the availability and use of digital tools. The country excels in connectivity, where it ranks second in the DESI. Internet coverage is complete, and 78% of the population now has a fixed broadband subscription. Belgium only lags behind in terms of mobile broadband subscriptions. Half of Belgian businesses are now using new digital tools to share information electronically, the second highest proportion in the EU.
Although Belgium ranks above the EU average in many aspects of the digital economy, its progress is slower compared to other Member States and the country risks falling behind. Belgium’s lowest position in the DESI, 24 of 28, comes from the relatively few students pursuing STEM studies (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which is already leading to a talent shortage in certain fields such as ICT. To avoid workforce shortages, all levels of education and training should focus on providing the tools necessary to excel in a fast-changing digital era. Offering basic support – Belgium ranks 25 out of 140 in access to internet in schools – and inspiring young people to further develop STEM skills would be a good start. Echoing AmCham Belgium’s position, the European Commission recommends Belgium to bridge graduates to labor market needs by developing a stronger dialogue between education and business.
Government support for technological advances is crucial. Public procurement of advanced tech products in Belgium is low compared to other countries, according to the WEF rankings. The government has an important role to play in creating the conditions for the digital economy to flourish. Among others, the government can encourage investment in state-of-the-art infrastructure, including so-called ‘ultrafast’ broadband, with a clear and stable regulatory framework in line with EU requirements; spur the development of ecommerce by increasing labor market flexibility; ease administrative burdens with the introduction of e-government services; and promote consumer trust in new technologies and ‘big data’ with robust cybersecurity and data protection standards.
The Federal Government’s Digital Belgium strategy touches on many of these points. The aim of this plan is to enhance Belgium’s competitiveness in the digital arena by 2020 and create up to 50,000 new jobs. As a first step, legislation allowing for the legal recognition of digital documents was recently adopted, and the business community now looks forward to the full implementation of the Digital Belgium strategy.