A big opportunity for small countries

Over the past couple of years, an enthusiastic story about the opportunities opened up by the Fourth Industrial Revolution to small countries like Serbia has become a part of the public discussion in our society. Although I have noticed that this is a topic that leads to inspiring conversations that often yield very little action, I must admit that I myself have been infected with the “IT virus” and the optimistic view of the historical opportunity Serbia is facing.

A few years earlier, my regular visits from Toronto (where I emigrated with a degree from the University of Belgrade’s School of Electrical Engineering in 1993) started to leave a different, much more optimistic impression on me. I started noticing more and more smart and capable people who see digital transformation as a historic opportunity for Serbia because it creates jobs with high added value – not only in the IT industry, but also in all other sectors.
Step by step, this enthusiasm led me to the decision to leave my 25-year life in Canada, a career in electronic payments and fintech, and to come back to Belgrade in October last year, this time for an indefinite period. The concrete occasion was the call to lead a private, non-profit organization with a gigantic mission and a name that speaks a lot for itself – Digital Serbia Initiative.

The IT sector can be even stronger
I really think that Serbia has a good chance to build a competitive digital economy on a global level, thanks to, above all, an extremely strong IT sector, which is already widely known to significantly improve the macro image of our economy.
It is estimated that the lion’s share of income and exports of IT sector in Serbia (over 80%) comes from the companies that provide services to clients abroad. Our goal is not only to support the growth of the entire IT sector, but also to achieve a better balance between the revenues coming from the IT services companies and those developing their own digital products.

Why is that important? Companies with their own digital products, in addition to developers, employ far more talent in other professions including management, marketing, design, as well as domain experts in medicine, law, linguistics or any other field in which digital technologies can make progress… The growth of the digital economy and the involvement of other professions and sectors in high value-added jobs is one of the key factors needed for the wider social impact we are aiming.

Why does Serbia need „Digital Serbia“?
Our organization’s domain is the digital economy ecosystem in the broad sense. At its core are companies of all sizes (from startups to corporations), whose core business is the development of digital products and services, whether it’s their own product or the clients’. There are other key categories of participants that can accelerate or slow down the growth of the digital economy, such as telecommunication companies that provide digital infrastructure (IoT, cloud), banks (capital and current transactions), educational and research institutions, startup support organizations (hubs, incubators), consulting firms for business strategy and tax advice, legal experts, media, and the Government that manages the legal and the regulatory framework.

Our role is to take a strategic view of the entire digital ecosystem in order to identify the areas of strength and those that need improvement, and to lead alignment of the private and public sectors on strategic priorities and programs for development of the ecosystem. Therefore, we bring together the leading players from all categories as our members, in order to have a complete picture and depth to deal with the complexities of this endeavor. The only exception is the Government. In order to accomplish our mission, we are structured as a non-governmental, non-profit organization funded through membership fees and projects and must remain completely independent of the Government – with which, of course, we work as with an important partner, because it controls the legal and regulatory framework.

Startups as a digital Serbia engine

In our work, we are focused on startup companies, because they bring over 50% of new jobs both in developed and developing countries.

In order not to “blindly” develop a program in isolation for strengthening the startup ecosystem, our first step was to select the best global methodology for its objective assessment. We chose Startup Genome as the leading research company that has been evaluating around 60 startup ecosystems in over 30 countries including New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Moscow for years. In partnership with UNICEF and the Office of the Serbian Minister for Innovation and Technological Development, we have enabled our country to also be on the list this year.
It was already quite clear from the preliminary results of the research that in our startup ecosystem we need to strengthen sources of financing early stage companies, as well as improve knowledge of our startups in areas such as business planning, product management, marketing and sales.

Education as a foundation
In education we see a key and connecting force to ensure that our society develops around advanced knowledge and skills.
We want to continue investing time and ideas in developing existing good practices – such as coding as a mandatory subject in primary schools, activities of the Loop Foundation, specialized IT classes in secondary schools. Furthermore, we want to extend the horizon to higher education by engaging all faculties in Serbia to join forces and develop curricula based on market needs and thus create conditions for the growth of all sectors related to the IT industry. We need educated people that are ready to do business on a global level.

The legal and regulatory framework around us
We see our role in the legal and regulatory framework primarily as advocates of the interest of digital ecosystem in public debate and direct relations with lawmakers. Guided exclusively by the interests of the entire ecosystem, not individual members of our organization or other players in the market, we have already embarked on development of concrete proposals for changes in the legal and regulatory framework that can facilitate the advancement of the digital economy.
Our program orientation is set quite widely, precisely because it is defined by taking into account the complexity of the digital ecosystem in which each of our activities is in correlation with a large number of players from all categories. In this complexity, our role is to lead the alignment of all actors on the priorities as it is the best way to drive the development of a strong digital economy in our country.

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