Interview - Alexander De Croo
Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Development Cooperation, Digital Agenda, Telecom and Postal Services
In the context of my upcoming essay on the topic of women in tech in Belgium, I had the chance to interview Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
Among the topics we discussed on top of that are the Belgian telecom market, the inertia of the school system, politicians thinking as entrepreneurs and of course, AI.
Our exchange was entirely in English, and the whole interview is available as a podcast on Brussels’s #1 podcast platform: J’aime Bien Quand Tu Parles.
Guillaume Hachez: Alexander De Croo, welcome to the show!
Can you please introduce yourself for those who don’t know you?
Alexander De Croo: I’m Alexander De Croo, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister. I’m also Minister for what is called the “Digital Agenda”, so for the digital revolution and I’m also Minister for Development Cooperation, which is completely different topic. There is actually a strong junction between those two because if you look at development efforts throughout the world, Digital actually plays a very important role in that.
GH: You are Belgium’s first ever minister of Digital Agenda. You clearly care very passionately for topics like innovation, entrepreneurship, AI, Women in Tech, … and it might also be worth mentioning that you are rocking a Google Pixel 2 as your main smartphone.
Mister De Croo, let’s get this out of the way — are you a nerd?
De Croo: [laughs] Let’s call it geek, which is maybe more “middle of the road”. But yes, I remember when I was 12 years old and my parents, who had a law office, installed a small computer network… I was always watching over the shoulder of the technicians installing it, taking notes of what they were doing and then doing it myself afterwards. So I’ve always been involved with technology, fiddling and playing with PCs and so on.
And, though I’ve been for a long time a fan of BlackBerry and for a long time continued using one even when the smartphones were coming, at some point I understood I needed to move on. I stuck with using buttons for a long long time, and then made the switch to touch screens. I like the Android system and when a new Google phone comes out, in general I try to get it. To get the Pixel 2 I had to import it through the UK [laughs].
GH: Do you think it’s fair to say you are Belgium’s first ever geek minister?
De Croo: I don’t know. I guess it’s not the main characteristic. I have a strong interest in technology and I use it a lot… And I believe that there is a story that needs to be told more often, which is that in general technology improves our lives. Though there are side effects which we need to handle, in general, technology is a positive thing. The whole mindset in Europe which you have today, where there is some anxiety towards technology and there’s a lot of negative thinking around technology, I think is a big issue. We don’t have to be naïve, but I think we need to be quite clear on the positive impact that technology can have in our lives.
Thinking as an entrepreneur
GH: You were an entrepreneur yourself before you got into politics. How do you personally feel that your entrepreneurial mindset has affected your career as a politician?
De Croo: I think there are more analogies than people think between being an entrepreneur and being a politician. In the end, being an entrepreneur, at the start, the first people you’ll convince, the first people that you’ll sell… very often it is much more based on you as a person than it is on the service or the product you’ve developed. It’s very often putting yourself as a person on the line. That is something you do in politics all the time. We do have our programs and we do have our ideas and so on, but in the end it’s still a very personal people-based thing. And that’s something quite recognizable with the entrepreneurial world.
Now, there are some big differences as well. The big difference with politics, of course, is that (especially in Belgium) you have to find consensus around certain ideas and the pace is much slower. We [politicians] someday that people need to be more entrepreneurial, well maybe we need to be more entrepreneurial ourselves as well. Instead of having lengthy discussions about what might happen, we should maybe work in this sandbox-type of approach where we test out certain things, where we know that it’s ok to fail but at least we’ve tried something out instead of getting stuck in very long discussions.
GH: Given your entrepreneurial background, is there something very specific you can point to? Something you would not have done, had you not had this experience?
De Croo: There are a few things. First of all, I’ve spent 10 years outside of politics, and that gives me a lot of independence. I love what I do as a politician and I would love to continue doing it… but the day that I do not find the energy or the impact that I want to have, I know that there’s a lot of other things I can do. That gives me a lot of independence in this political world where I think it’s much easier to defend my ideas, knowing that I’m actually quite independent.
The second element is that I have a feel for opportunity. This is, I think, what distinguishes an entrepreneur from someone who’s not thinking as an entrepreneur. What entrepreneurs do is that they see the same things that people see, but their first reaction is “we can do this better”. That is something which politicians need to have, but too often lack here in Belgium: a sense of ambition, of doing things better — and not being happy with the status quo.
GH: A couple of months ago it made the news that of all the money that was raised by Belgian startups in 2017, only 8% of that money was raised by Walloon startups. It’s becoming more and more apparent that there is sort of an entrepreneurial divide. What does that say about Belgium?
De Croo: I think we need to stop dividing our country in three. Honestly I don’t care that much, because I can imagine that you will have people who grew up in Wallonia, went to university in Brussels and maybe started a company in Antwerp. Now, what is that? In the statistics, we will say that it’s money being raised in Antwerp.
In my perspective we’re all Belgians and I’m not a big fan of the tribalism that some people are trying to establish here in Belgium.The good news, I think, is that a lof of money is being raised. We’re seeing hubs being created throughout Belgium and I think that finally being an entrepreneur is seen as something aspirational, and that has been different in the past here in Belgium, so we can be happy with that.
GH: Belgians have this reputation that they don’t like taking risks. According to Eurostat, our company creation rate is the lowest in Europe. Some might say that entrepreneurs are kind of a rare species around here. Do you think that is something that will change and how do we provoke this change?
De Croo: I think that first of all, you need some good role models. We start to have those. When I speak in front of an entrepreneurial crowd, I often say that you cannot let the discussion about our economy or about entrepreneurship to the politicians. You need to be part of that debate as well, and if you want entrepreneurship to be respected, don’t hesitate to go on stage yourself.
I have two young kids (6 and 9) who are very inspired by our national football team, which is great. Why are they? Because they see how good our national football team is. I would love that when they’re 16, they see how good our entrepreneurs are and that they get inspired by them as well.
A second element is that, as an employee in Belgium, you have situation that is quite good. Some people will call it the “Golden Cage” and it’s true that it is not so easy to say goodbye to the employee status, to start from zero and to take a lot of risks. I remember that when I did that, a lot of my friends said “You’re stupid, why have you done it this way? You could have had a much better life”. That’s what I often say to people who say that one day they’ll be an entrepreneur. Don’t wait too long. If you want to do it, you should do it right now, because the longer you wait, the harder it is going to be to leave the financial stability and security which you have as an employee.
GH: I have started to visit schools to talk about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. While it’s been a great experience so far, it’s also been tainted by the fact that you can feel that the school staff, in general, aren’t receptive at all. They don’t understand what we’re talking about.
The very first thing they reply is usually something like “Oh but we don’t have a computer class here”. You then have to explain that it’s about entrepreneurship, about tracing your own path… And then they tell you that maybe it would be ok for the economics class. The fact that they aren’t very receptive makes it hard to deliver the message to our teens.
What way would you suggest taking to reach those kids?
De Croo: I’m not so sure that classes about entrepreneurship have the biggest impact. I think you just need to show people what entrepreneurs are doing. Very often we will talk about the fact that we need to have internships for kids and so on, and I think that is a good thing. It can definitely help. What would also help is for our teachers to also do internships. Our teachers are very often quite far from the economic reality, which explains part of the answers which you’ve gotten.
Today there is too much of a gap between the educational world and the entrepreneurial world. You see it in your typical high school but you also see it in other domains. We will talk about AI in a bit — there is in Belgium today not one decent university degree on Artificial Intelligence. That is appalling. I don’t understand why there is not much reactivity from our universities. Even in Big Data, it’s quite hard to find a university specialization in Big Data, no one is providing that today. I think our universities are really lacking this kind of responsiveness in that domain.
GH: Let’s talk about AI for a bit. It’s pretty fair to say that our current economy is built around the idea of human labor. With the rise of AI technologies it’s becoming more and more apparent that this is something that’s about to change. We’re talking about a revolution that would affect our economy, our culture, our democracy, … And we’re still hearing fairly little about it from our politicians. How do you explain that?
De Croo: I think there is some talking about it, but often on the negative side (“this is going to destroy jobs”, “you have to worry about the ethical dimension”, …). I think we should have the opposite approach. Does AI mean that work is going to disappear? I don’t believe this at all. I hear those saying that there will be no more meaningful jobs left, and that the only solution is to give everyone Universal Basic Income. I don’t believe in Universal Basic Income at all. I’m happy that the experience in Finland has basically proven that it’s not a viable option. I’m not against the idea that you give people a certain allowance, but giving it without any sort of productive dimension to it, I think is wrong. That is why we’ve developed, together with the world economic forum, the “Universal right to learn”. It is a re-skilling program where you can give people a certain income, but in exchange for re-skilling. You need to have at least some productivity improvement elements to it, otherwise economically it does not make sense at all.
AI is just going to be like a lot of other technologies: a tool that we use. It’s probably going to be a quite powerful tool — but still, it remains a tool, and a tool is complementary to our skills. I think that the real question we should ask is that maybe we should learn what machines will not learn on the short term. While AI today, in well defined environments, has a lot of potential, we’re still far away from replacing our capabilities of complex problem solving, on innovation, creativity, emotions, empathy and so on. In an AI world, we will probably need to emphasize much more the human elements in our education system. Very often when we speak about how to change education in the fourth industrial revolution, people talk about smart boards, and tablets and so on. I’m not so convinced about that. I don’t think that’s the solution. I think that if you want everyone to have value added, as a person, in an AI world, is to focus much more on the human elements.
GH: The education sector has been notoriously slow to evolve. Sometimes, I look at schools and I kind of wonder if they’ve really changed compared to what they were like 30 years ago.
De Croo: No they haven’t! I see it every day. My kids go to the same school where I went. It can give you a warm feeling to go back to your old school, but it gives me less of a warm feeling to see that not much has changed, unfortunately. What I have noticed is that change in education is very slow — and there’s a number of good reasons why it is slow.
We can say that it’s a problem, or we could use another approach, which is to act outside of the educational system to at least prove that things are possible. This is what we did with the Digital Skills Fund, which we use to fund 40 projects every year. Six million euros that we invest every year in projects that are combining digital and education, but exist outside of the schools. A lot of them are quite successful. My feeling is that we will prove outside of the schools that they work, and once we’ve proven that, I hope that schools will take them back inside at some point. I think that while all those initiatives are great, the one big drawback is the social filter. We will send our kids there because we think it’s important, but people who have no interest in technology will not, and that’s a problem. The school system is one gigantic social equalizer, and that’s a good thing. The current system of doing it outside of schools… It’s better than nothing but it has some issues.
GH: Let’s get back to AI. It made the news that China and the US had been making a lot of progress in the field of AI, while fairly little is happening in Europe. Because of the very important place of AI in our future, some fear that this means we will become very dependent on China and on the United States as an economy, as a society, as a culture. Do you agree with this sentiment? How do we prevent this from happening?
De Croo: I think that if you look at the state of play today, yes, the United States, China and Israel are the places where things are happening in AI. It’s also different models; the US and the Chinese models are very different. One is state-driven the other is less so, and the Israeli system is driven by their military investments. Still, we see that public investments play a role everywhere. I think that in Europe, now is the moment (and I think that Macron talked about it) to create a common investment pool for AI.
Though we have some backlog on it, Europe has an interesting environment to experiment with AI and that is because AI is working on data. There is a lot of discussion about GDPR, but I consider that GDPR is a good thing because GDPR is coming to a balanced agreement between the public and economic actors on how to use the data. Finding this balanced way of handling this data is the basic condition for making AI work in an acceptable way. I think that Europe has better done its groundwork in what the environment is, but has some backlog in the technology itself. A lot of things that have been happening throughout the world in AI are interesting, but you could lose the buy-in of the public quite rapidly, which would be a problem. At least the groundwork, I think, is a better one.
GH: A lot of groundwork has been done in terms of legislation, in terms of preparing for this revolution… But let’s get back to what you were saying earlier about the education sector. According to the OECD, there’s only 1.1% of our students who are studying ICT. That is the lowest ratio in the entire list. It seems like studying computing isn’t exactly all the rage here in Belgium. As the minister of Digital Agenda, how do you explain that? Also, in a world driven by AI, isn’t this low production of computer scientists a massive problem?
De Croo: Yes, it’s a problem that we are that low on the list. Of course you have to look at it a bit broader. If you look at people who are active in ICT today, a lot of them actually did not study computer sciences. A lot of them studied civil engineering or other types of hard sciences, and then made the transition. So yes, it is worrying but if you look at it in a broader sense and look at all STEM educations, then the situation is not that dramatic.
Still, there is a lot to be done to convince more people that studying STEM topics is a good thing, especially for girls. It is, I think, the main hurdle we see in digitalisation today: access to people. I guess that a sensible way of organizing migration could be a solution. This is a discussion which is a very delicate one in Belgium. The talent migration is something for which we too often close our doors and we are wrong in doing that, I think.
Women In Tech
GH: You mentioned the main topic I want to talk about today, which is the topic of women in tech. Let’s talk about that.
We don’t produce a lot of computer scientists, and among those we also don’t see a lot of women. The percentage of women students in ICT for Belgium is around 7.2%, which is also the lowest percentage in the OECD. How do you explain the low participation of women in ICT?
De Croo: I think that what you explain about Belgium is a general phenomenon. Some countries do it better — for instance some Eastern European countries do it a lot better than we do — but it is a general issue. If you look at History, at the beginning of computer sciences the problem was not there. There were a lot of women active in computer science in the 60s and in the 70s. That changed at some point due to the personal computer. The PC brought it to the homes and gave this sort of geeky side to it, because you would have 12 year olds fiddling with PCs.
GH: Oh, so it is your fault.
De Croo: It is maybe. Well, I was a part of it! You would have 12 year olds fiddling with PCs, and at that point, for girls, that was not an attractive thing to do. It’s also because of a gender bias.
GH: The so called “Hollywood” depiction of hackers and geeks.
De Croo: Exactly. That image is not an attractive one to girls and girls get conditioned through bias in a very different way. This means that when you would have girls going to university at the age of 18, they have a backlog compared to boys who have been playing with these things, which leads to a strong rejection.
Now there have been techniques used to attract other profiles into IT studies, for example at MIT today — which is quite a hard one to get into — in the beginning the first steps of programming is using Scratch, which is something made for kids. Using Scratch makes it a bit less geeky at the start and easier to grasp the general concepts that are being used. I would think that in Belgium this is what we need to do. We need to make it more practical, more fun, less of a geeky thing.
When I visit the CoderDojos, we see gigantic progress. There are a lot of girls there, which is a good thing. Today they are between 6 and 12, but that will flow through in the years to come.
GH: The entry way to this computing world is indeed a boy’s gateway. Some have argued, like you do, that adding programming classes to the education sector would add a new gateway that would be universal.
De Croo: I think so. I remember when I was in high school in the beginning of the 90s, I learned how to code. I think it was Turbo Pascal. That gave us good basis of what coding is. I remember that the exam was on paper [laughs] so you basically wrote programming code on paper and then handed it out, which is a bit of a strange thing. I loved it! And I think I was quite good at it. If I look at the same school today, and I asked it to the director recently… They don’t teach coding anymore! They don’t teach coding. So in the 90s we did it, and today we don’t.
GH: How do you explain this regression?
De Croo: It’s impossible for me to explain that! Now one of the things which I’ve often said is that, if you look at our school system in Belgium, the way we basically test kids on what they call “capability of abstract thinking”, very often today that is done through Latin and through maths. I did that too, I did four years of Latin and I thought it was horrendous. Obviously, yes, it helps you because it gives a basis of the language which determines our culture but in the end, why do so many people force their kids into Latin? It’s because they know that this is how you get them to be stimulated in a certain way. Latin also rejects a lot of kids who consider it useless, and very often you will see parents who have not been exposed to Latin who will say “It’s a dead language, why would you even bother?”. I would think that you can achieve exactly the same testing of abstraction capabilities with programming languages. It’s exactly the same. In the end it’s an abstract structure that you use for certain things, and it’s also much more useful.
Now, I’ve said that on some occasions and then got some angry reaction from some Latin teachers. I’m not saying that Latin should disappear. I’m just saying that coding could be another way of testing that and could be a way that appeals to much more kids, including girls.
GH: On the French speaking side, they are working on this massive reform, the so called “Pacte d’excellence”. One of the first things they announced was that Latin will become mandatory until the age of 15. In terms of Digital, they want to include a digital aspect and to teach digital culture… But as soon as you start to ask about algorithmic and programming, there’s still a debate on that front. A lot of lobbying is being done, a lot of pro and anti-programming classes are debating it. How do you explain that not everyone is on board?
De Croo: I think there are a few elements. In Flanders we have a reform like that as well, and it takes a gigantic amount of time because there’s lobbying in all directions. It’s a hard thing to do and I think it’s actually the wrong approach. We are trying to define what we think that kids should learn and it should be a stable environment for the next 15 years. I’m not sure we can actually define that, because we live in such a rapidly changing world. I’m much more in favor of giving the schools much more autonomy in that ; letting the schools fill it in themselves and giving the teachers much more autonomy.
Today, teachers are basically being transformed into some teaching robots who are good when they fulfill the administration. That’s not why they became teachers. They became teachers because they have a passion to teach something to kids. Giving them more freedom, I think, is actually something that will lead to quality education.
On coding and so on… There is a lot of conservatism in this. I think there’s also a total lack of knowledge in what the possibilities are. A lot of thinking like “Well you know, coding is only going to be for a certain part of the population” but computational thinking is the element that we should have to at least give people a sense of the structure of these things. If I compare it to my kids, I was, at school, at their age, closer to computers than they have been until now, which is really really strange I think.
GH : Our political system works in such a layered and modular way that, here you are, Deputy Prime Minister, and you don’t really have a say over what goes on in schools.
You were talking just now about giving more freedom to schools and earlier you were talking about the fact that you have chosen to act outside of the school system with your Digital Skills Fund. You don’t really have a choice, though.
De Croo: That’s true. In the end we’re not the only country where’s it’s organized that way. It’s the same in Germany and, in a lot of countries that are federal countries, education is decentralized. It would be easier if everything was federal but then it would also create some other issues.
I think what is crucial is that we work together and that ministers of education have the same ideas. That’s also part of the effort that I should do. I see a lot of good developments taking place — at least in Flanders we have more view on it. As I said before, change in education is slow because it’s a people business and it’s about our kids’ future. It’s not an environment where it’s easy to experiment because no one wants to experiment with their kids, so very often it becomes a very conservative world.
GH: So the key to having more women in computing is to have programming in schools but schools are very conservative, very slow to change and they have a lot of inertia. So from what you’re saying, it’s not gonna happen very quickly.
De Croo: I mean… it depends. In the end, it will happen when you have motivated teachers and motivated school directors. Giving them more freedom will help. Some schools are doing some very interesting things that are in parallel to the official curriculum that they have to follow. My feeling is that if you give the schools more autonomy, a lot of things will happen. This is one of the debates that we have today: how much autonomy can you give schools, especially in this domain.
GH: During your first mandate as the Minister of Digital Agenda, you introduced among other things, new legislation around Open Data, a tax shelter for startups, fiscal measures for the circular economy and your Digital Skills Fund.
If your party fares well in the upcoming elections, which are the challenges that you would like to take up next?
De Croo: I’m not sure I will be Minister of Digital Agenda again. I would love to, but it’s not clear today. I think one of the main elements is our taxation system in a digital world. Our taxation system has been made in an industrial world and the technical way we tax and the basis which we tax, I think are becoming more and more obsolete. Today we tax corporate profits, but that is something quite hard to define in a digital world and it’s a very volatile thing in this global economy. We are also not using technology enough to simply taxes and to make it much more fair.
You mentioned the taxation system for the circular economy, what we used is a very easy system: instead of asking you to fill out all types of forms, we just ask the platforms every 3 months to give us a report of all the transactions that happened and we’ll just tax 5% on it. This is a very efficient way of taxing: there’s no way to avoid it, it’s a broad base and a small percentage… and it doesn’t cost us anything, because it’s all being done by the platforms.
Changing our taxation much more in such a way, by using the technology that we have, and doing it much more transaction-based than the way it’s being done today, I think, is one of the main challenges and could make Belgium an interesting testing ground for all types of innovation. In the end, in the world of today, being big or small doesn’t make that much of a difference. It’s being fast that makes the difference. If as a country you are quick to create legislation —
GH: This goes back to what you were saying about the entrepreneurial mindset for politics.
De Croo: Exactly. That is the role that a country like Belgium can play. We can try to be fast and to be the place where testing out things can happen because we were first in having a regulation.
GH: I have to mention this: a thousand pages long report came out saying that Telenet, Proximus and VOO had a significant place on the market and needed to be more open to competition. The decision now lies in the hands of the European Commission.
Using the Internet here in Belgium is much, much more expensive than it is in neighboring countries like France. What are you hoping will come out of this? How do we change this situation?
De Croo: A few elements. First of all, the quality of our Internet infrastructure is outstanding. Any comparison that you will see, Belgium will be Top 3 in Europe on the quality and on the availability of very high Internet speeds.
That aside, yes, we are not the cheapest country in Europe. But if you compare it to France and others, you have to look at the total cost of telecoms and not just the promotional tariffs that you see very often. It’s a different dynamic. Still, I consider that we need more competition in Belgium and this report makes it quite clear.
There are three elements which I think are important in the report. First of all, the third party access — so this is others using the network to provide commercial services. The regulator ensures there’s a way of having a lower cost of access, which is calculated in a better way. This is a good thing and will provide more space for innovation by Orange.
A second element is that now, it will also force to give third party access for Internet only. This is a very important element because today if Orange is using the network of Telenet it has to take the Triple Play product. Whereas today, a lot of people are not interested in Triple Play. A lot of people just want Internet, so they can stream anything they want (and they definitely don’t want a landline). This is giving the possibility for other players to provide what they call “cord-cutting” packages.
And then the third element is fiber. We have to make it clear that when there’s fiber investments, some type of access is required. I think that these are good measures but we will see how the commission is looking at it. This together with the auctioning of new spectrum for 4G and 5G which is going to happen soon, could bring a new competitive boost in the Belgian telecom market.
GH: The celebrity you’d love to meet, favorite band, favorite concert you’ve ever been to?
De Croo: [Laughs]
Elon Musk. The Pixies. Rock Werchter/Pukkelpop.