Europe trends 2018: GDPR may hit businesses hard

A big-picture look at what awaits Europe next year in terms of enterprise technology

“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” So said Neils Bohr, the influential Danish theoretical physicist. Although his words are certainly true of mathematics and quantum physics, predicting European technology trends for 2018 is arguably a simpler affair. Two icebergs in particular loom large on the horizon.

The first of these is GDPR, for which many European firms are still woefully and perhaps dangerously unprepared and uninformed. At its heart this is not purely a technology directive, but because privacy (or lack thereof) is now inextricably tied in with technology, this new EU regulation will force wide-ranging change in the ways enterprises use IT.

Its effects will be felt not just in Europe – any organisation holding data on EU citizens must comply, wherever in the world they're based – but that's where the brunt of its impact will hit. When it comes into effect on 25th May, the EU will have more power than ever before to oversee the privacy-related practices of organisations and punish them effectively for transgressions. Expect muscle-flexing showcase prosecutions in the first six months, probably aimed at large companies perceived to be taking a laissez-faire attitude to EU citizens' personal data. One or two large, US-based, data-driven companies spring to mind as being juicy potential targets.

Then, of course, there's Brexit. Whichever side of that political schism you happen to identify with, the 'divorce' of Britain from the EU is already an eventful, chaotic and unpredictable process. It seems unlikely that much clarification or stability will emerge in 2018, leaving organisations to hedge their bets on many fronts, including IT. European organisations doing business in the UK, and UK companies doing business in Europe, will be dogged by a frustrating lack of clarity right up to the final separation date and probably for some years thereafter.

Since that accounts for pretty much every large business in the UK and Europe, no enterprise is entirely sheltered from the Brexit fallout. Contingency plans will be required, and IT will be a big part of that, both in its own strategic terms and in supporting the fast-changing business environment. The Chinese symbol for 'crisis' isn't actually a combination of 'danger' and 'opportunity' but other philosophies could be applied. For example, “Trouble is only an opportunity in work clothes,” according to Henry J. Kaiser. If so, Brexit offers technology opportunity in spades.

2018 could be the year that blockchain is thoroughly understood by people other than mathematics PhDs and really put to hard, practical use. Its revolutionary potential is undeniable, especially in fintech and IoT, but it suffers perceptually from its legacy connection to Bitcoin, which at the time of writing is worth $7,000… sorry, $6,000… make that $8,000… and is definitely not bubbly, not at all. Whether BTC values soar or plummet in 2018, expect to see many more blockchain-based startups emerging, and some of them succeeding.

Large-scale ransomware blipped at us somewhat unexpectedly in Europe in 2017, causing both disruption and consternation at the lax – or underfunded – IT practices that allowed it to spread so far so fast. Will we see more of that in 2018? Perhaps, but it's more likely that new and as-yet unknown malware exploits will occur. As various Wikileaks dumps have shown, it's not as though hackers – government-sponsored or otherwise – lack a choice of potential attack vectors.

European companies will continue to be at the forefront of the Internet of Things in 2018 (we'll have a feature about the French aspect of IoT in the near future) and cloud migrations will continue to form part of most organisations' business transformation strategies, albeit tempered by the pesky data storage restrictions of GDPR and the knowledge that cloud is only a tool, not a panacea.

Perhaps the most potentially disruptive technologies in 2018 are AI and machine learning. No longer a “coming soon” technology – more a “coming to your job soon” tech – machine learning will continue to remove the drudgery from routine tasks. In doing so it will inevitably remove employment from people further and further up the technology employment tree. Well-run and flexible European economies will find new work, or at least income, for those so dispossessed. So, try to ensure you're living in one of those places.

Continuing with that topic, it seems likely that European technology startup hubs will continue to flourish in 2018. Growth of tech cities such as Berlin, Stockholm, London, Amsterdam and – newest of the pack – Lisbon seems assured next year. They're exciting cities, making them ideal locations for startups wanting to attract exciting (or excited) young people, at least until the rapidly-increasing cost of living drives them out to the next up-and-coming location.

On a lighter note, marketing people will continue to target the elusive and semi-apocryphal 'millennial' digital personae in ever more desperate attempts to lure them away from their stereotypical smashed-avocado brunches and into the next big crowdsourced / gig economy / social sharing IT thing, whatever that happens to be; autonomous vehicles will continue to be ready for widespread use “probably next year”; and Apple phones will become even more expensive. Some things never change.