When it comes to disruptive technology, Europe appears to desire the technology but none of the disruption.
The Continent seems to have a love/hate relationship with Silicon Valley: while leaders from Great Britain and France recently visited the Bay Area, presumably to emulate the entrepreneurialism and innovation that defines the region, European regulators, unions and courts have clamped down on industry titans like Google, as well as newcomers including Uber and Airbnb.
In a step greatly complicating Google’s dream of indexing all of the information of the world, European legislators last month required Mountain View to honor users’ requests to remove personal information from search results.
In London, the regulator that oversees taxis asked a court this week to determine whether Uber is legal, two weeks before thousands of cab drivers plan to protest the tech firm. Meanwhile, hotel workers are protesting Airbnb’s operations in Barcelona, Spain, one of its largest markets.
“The current generation of tech startups (such as an Uber or an Airbnb) is disrupting traditional industries and long-established business models,” said Karan Girotra, a professor of technology and operations management at Insead business school in Paris. “This is creating winners and losers and handling these changes requires a culturally sensitive, country-specific strategy, which most tech companies have struggled with.”
Americans like to complain about bureaucrats and militant labor bosses crushing the hopes of entrepreneurs and innovation. But anyone who has spent time in France or Italy knows we got nothing on our European brethren. Strikes are as common as traffic jams. (In many cases, the strikes cause the traffic jams.) The powers that be take a harder line on privacy, antitrust cases, and worker and consumer rights.
“There is very tight government control in Europe,” said Claus Hetting, a telecom consultant in Denmark. “Europe admires the creative energy of Silicon Valley, but we don’t have a tradition for open entrepreneurialism like you do in America. It’s a cultural issue and it’s a real problem. I think the investment climate is very bad.”
That makes for a more difficult business climate, which is a major reason Europe has long lagged behind the United States in economic growth.
Despite Europe’s well-earned reputation for research and science and engineering talent, (think CERN, the quantum physics consortium that confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson), only London ranked in the top 10 global cities likely to produce the next Google, according to a survey last year by Ernst & Young.
Federico Ferramola, Associated Press
Milan’s taxis were idle for several days last month to protest the ride-hailing app Uber, which also faces problems in London.
But even if Europe produced the next Google, would the continent even know what to do with it? By definition, creating breakthrough technology means blowing up older industries. Yet when it comes to business, Europe’s natural instinct is to protect the status quo.
More than a third of the respondents to the Ernst & Young survey say that developing a culture of innovation and creativity is a main area of reform needed to make Europe a leader in technology.
“There is a double mentality,” said Hetting, who is chairing a conference on new Wi-Fi technologies in Palo Alto next week. “We want to emulate the innovation of Silicon Valley. But on the other hand, there is a dislike” for America’s freewheeling style of capitalism.
Not a bubble
Which brings us to an inherent truth about entrepreneurialism. Countries may like to visit Silicon Valley so they too can organize meetups and build incubators. But Silicon Valley does not operate in a bubble (although it sometimes may seem that way). Companies like Facebook, Google and Apple succeed because America’s values and institutions allow them to succeed.
Creativity requires freedom – which is why China, whose totalitarian government has spent billions of dollars building technology parks and developing engineers, hasn’t matched the innovative spirit of the United States.
As for Europe, the continent certainly values those concepts. But it lacks the political will to see technological advancement to its natural conclusion.
Perhaps step one is accepting America’s innovations, sans fear or anger.
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