Before summer break, Commissioner Neelie Kroes in charge of the Digital Agenda challenged industry and more generally all stakeholders to let her know what their BIG IDEA was to further the European Digital Agenda. Basically, it was up to industry, citizens, NGOs to tell her how they could deliver on such goals as high speed broadband for all or eInclusion.
So there we all went, blurbing something that was supposed to be a big idea in 800 characters are less (seems Commission standards for big ideas is that “great thoughts take few words”). Depending on who you ask, it seems the Commission ended up receiving between 200 and 300 blurbs and selected 180 (or was it 120?).
The reward for being a BIP (Big Idea Promoter)? Spending an entire day in the ugliest building in Brussels (good old Borschette) in over-heated muff rooms, pretending to brainstorm as “teams” on how to make the Digital Agenda happen by selecting the 6 BIG IDEAS that happened to be deemed bigger than the 114 others (or was it 174?).
And guess how the Digital Agenda gets its share of Creativity Boost? By making people huddle in corners and write up stuff on flip charts (see the methodology explained here, with beautiful drawings on page 2). But even odder was the process of having people vote for the best ideas by creating a “pair per group” that was then allowed to put “+” signs next to the ideas on the other flip charts than their own that they consider to be best. The result in practice: a fluttering of random people putting “+” signs next to anything that they could see, and preferably by marking ten times their own idea as best, whilst cynical tired people like me just sat down and looked at the mess.
I must admit that I did not stay for the entire afternoon when the big ideas where being discussed in plenary, under the chairmanship of Commissioner Kroes and Director-General Madelin. I did not stay for two reasons: (1) as a freelancer, I can’t afford to spend too much time on such wonderful creativity exercises ’cause I kind of have a real job to do that allows me to pay the bills (2) I don’t think you get BIG IDEAS out of an exercise like that one.
Let’s be honest: I am not sure the Digital Agenda needs Big Ideas. I rather think it needs serious work and “Blood, sweat and tears” to quote good old Winston. I also don’t think putting in the same room a lot of diverging industry interest creates or distills BIG IDEAS. Industry is more used – when in public with other stakeholders – to a BLT approach. No, not Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato, but rather Beg-Lament-Threaten. Especially when the people in the room are the usual EU Bubble crowd of lobbyists and activists, that have been exchanging views for so long on the same things that it is extremely hard to get them out of their “Tit-for-Tat” routine. You want us to be bold and creative: take us 1:1 and off the record. Don’t put us in a room full of either known competitors or slightly off beat strangers. Or even better: get engineers to talk to you, not lawyers and economists.
So was I disappointed at the outcome? No: I had absolutely no expectation. But I was puzzled at a format that seemed to ignore every tool or catalyst that could be offered by the digital world and opted so strongly for a “paper” only approach. I would at least have expected that symbolically, identifying BIG IDEAS for the Digital Agenda would be done in a slightly more…digital way.