Cisco Invests in New Innovation Model in Greece

The U.S. tech major’s Digital Transformation Center in Thessaloniki is a place where co-innovation meets digital skills training – currently top of mind as Greece accelerates its digital transformation – says Antonis Tsiboukis, Managing Director of Cisco for Greece, Cyprus, Portugal and Malta. Having been present in Greece since 1998, Cisco’s vote of confidence is leveraging a rich talent pool available in the country’s second largest city, in addition to its strategic location, providing Cisco with a springboard into Balkan markets to attract know-how and business. “We now see a real opportunity and we are ready to support Greece to move forward.”

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GIG: Cisco and the Greek government recently unveiled a collaborative framework under the company’s Country Digital Acceleration Program. What are the objectives of this initiative?

Tsiboukis: The main objectives of partnerships under Cisco’s CDA Programme, with both governments and enterprises, are to accelerate a country’s adoption of digital technologies as well as the rollout of digital strategies. We have 44 countries on board the CDA programme so far, and what we do is we align the country’s digital strategy with the environment’s technological needs, producing pragmatic and real-life solutions that can be implemented to accelerate a market’s digital transformation. The programme goes through pilots, new models, innovative solutions, and we showcase them to interested organisations – either public or private – for them to be able to implement these technologies in real life situations.

GIG: Why is this so important for Greece?

Tsiboukis: Digitisation isn’t only important for Greece, it’s crucial on a global scale. It’s been proven that investing in digital technologies can contribute massively to increase productivity, cut costs, create new jobs and, in effect, contribute to a country’s GDP growth. We’ve witnessed this. Some statistics suggest that investments in digital technologies can contribute about two percent to GDP growth. So when it comes to Greece, and following a 10-year recession, I think it’s in great need of transforming into a modern country – which we hope to achieve through digital investments.

GIG: You also inaugurated Cisco’s Digital Transformation and Skills Center in Thessaloniki that fosters co-innovation through a partner ecosystem. can you tell us more about the centre?

Tsiboukis: The Digital Transformation Center is an evolution of what we traditionally have at Cisco, which are innovation centres. We have these in 15 countries across the globe.

In Greece, however, we created a new model. That’s why we call it a Digital Transformation Center, as it combines the production of innovative solutions through our CDA Programme – with partnerships with academia, start-ups, and our traditional partners – with digital up-skilling, which we run at the centre.

It’s an open environment where everyone is welcome to perform a variety of activities using the technology available, which can extend the reach of these activities beyond the centre, and even give them a potential global scope. And this is something that we have managed to create uniquely here in Greece.

At the same time, we display many tangible solutions at the centre, with the main purpose of raising public awareness about new and innovative technologies. We offer presentations, events, and big shows about technology – like our smart city solution for smart parking, for example. We were able to create an environment where you could charge your car in the same place you parked it, which was fuelled by a solar panel.

GIG: How exactly does co-innovation work?

Tsiboukis: In this day and age, one company cannot do it all. You need partnerships. You need a brainstorming of ideas from outside your own closed environment. And this is how we perceive co-innovation. We have signed 20 memoranda of understanding with different chambers of commerce, universities, and enterprises. With some we work in collaboration, while we work for others.

For example, universities, academia, and start-ups have great ideas. We help them materialise these concepts by implementing our technology and other third-party innovations to create solutions that can address large-scale challenges. For instance, we’re currently working on a project at the centre – between a municipality, a start-up, and the University of Thessaloniki – that aims to develop an application to alert users of upcoming disasters in a timely manner. One party brought in the idea, someone else brought in the demand, while we put the technology together and, jointly, we’re creating a solution.

Digital Transformation Center in Thessaloniki

GIG: In what way will this centre contribute to the upskilling of Greece’s human capital? Which other companies have joined Cisco so far?

Tsiboukis: We have an amazing programme for digital skills at Cisco called NetAcad, which used to be called the Networking Academy. It provides very sought-after Cisco technology certifications on networking, communications and cyber security. These are skills that are required for our employees and our partners’ employees to be on par with Cisco standards in terms of the delivery of advanced technologies and innovative solutions.

There’s a lack of digital skills worldwide. And while this is something we’ve identified across the board, it’s particularly true in Greece following a 10-year recession.

Our certifications are playing a pivotal role, not only through the creation of new job opportunities, but through reskilling.

We are providing people with the opportunity to enter an entirely new sector. The programme starts from a zero-knowledge basis – meaning participants don’t need to have any previous knowhow about networking or communications – yet by successfully completely one of our courses they attain a Cisco certification.

GIG: What is your assessment of the success of this programme?

Tsiboukis: I actually used to run this programme myself. It was launched in 1998 – with great failure – because there was a lack of understanding with regards to the contribution of technology to society and the economy. Now, however, this has changed. The role of digital technologies is acknowledged as a lever for Greece’s transition from a traditional country to a digital one. And digital skills are, of course, top of mind.

We are running the NetAcad programme within our Digital Transformation Center in Thessaloniki. We have created a special classroom for practical purposes, and we are providing the collaborative platform, the course content, the equipment – and its maintenance – for free. This is a platform that costs about €7-8 million.

However, Cisco doesn’t generate any revenues from the courses because we hand them over to what we call networking academies – either private sector or government organisations. For example, we recently collaborated with Greece’s National Employment Agency to provide 1,000 students with a free course on the platform, that was an introduction to cybersecurity. We had 3,500 applications in one day.

The NetAcad programme’s growth is currently exponential. We started with 1,800 graduates a year and we have now reached 4,000, with plenty of space for progress. The Recovery and Resilience Fund has earmarked €1.2 billion for investments in digital skills and the government is interested in providing proper schemes.

GIG: Why did Cisco chose Greece – and Thessaloniki in particular – for this investment?

Tsiboukis: We chose Thessaloniki for many reasons, one of them being the fact that Thessaloniki has great talent, in terms of academia and innovation. There are many universities that are breeding grounds for spin-offs and start-ups, creating a wealth of co-innovation needs.

Then there’s the fact that Thessaloniki is strategically located– in the North of Greece – and there’s a great relationship between this area and the Balkan region. We’re trying to attract people and business from outside of Greece, and Thessaloniki provides us with a springboard into Balkan markets. In fact, we’re trying to make Greece a technology hub for southeastern Europe.

GIG: But does Greece have what it takes to become a technology hub for the wider region?

Tsiboukis: Greece absolutely has what it takes to become a technology hub, and what it lacks we’re creating together with other leading companies that are making important investments. These are all good indicators, and it’s not by chance that these investments are rolling in.

Cisco has been in Greece since 1998. We know the market and the needs of the country very well, and we have always tried to contribute to overcome challenges.

We now see a real opportunity and we are ready to support Greece to move forward.

GIG: Co-innovation will focus on multiple areas, one of them being smart cities. Why is there so much focus on smart cities right now? And what is Cisco’s contribution to their development in Greece?

Tsiboukis: In an effort to make cities more approachable and liveable for citizens, and for cities to become more efficient, the application of technology is essential. In this respect, a smart city is an environment where technology has been implemented to make a city more organised, more environmentally friendly, and more accessible for mobility.

A prime example of a smart city starts with smart parking and smart lighting. These are the core and the easiest to implement, in my opinion. By implementing technology, we are able to address a certain challenge like, for instance, making sure people can find free parking spaces, that there’s parking spaces for the disabled, or that people park correctly – avoiding blocking other cars.

Smart lighting. Copyright: THINK A/ Shutterstock

When it comes to smart lighting, the main purpose is energy savings – many areas only need to be lit when you’re passing through them. Then there’s waste management. By tagging rubbish bins with technology, we can dynamically produce new routes for waste collection to be carried out in a more effective manner.

And Cisco provides all the technology that enables a smart city – from connectivity and security to Wi-Fi and sensors – in addition to the infrastructure that is required to develop and create a smart city. This is where Cisco comes in.

In the case of cloud services, for example, you need somebody to connect to the cloud in a secure and safe manner. Or take the city of Trikala; the mayor’s office has a dashboard through which the entire city can be controlled from one room. These are the solutions we provide. But we work with many partners because these new technologies cannot be implemented by only one company.

GIG: Cisco is collaborating with ONEX to create an International Centre for Marine Technology & Innovation on the island Syros. What challenges does this centre plan do address? What is the status of the project?

Tsiboukis: This is a private engagement that is being done between Cisco, ONEX, and its partners focused on addressing several challenges. The first is within the scope of maritime technologies, particularly with respect to ships, through the application of Internet of Things technologies, sensors, and applications.

Greece ranks first in the world in terms of number of vessels, and third in terms of tonnage. Having a shipyard in Syros allows us to be next to the customer, providing us with the opportunity to introduce technologies that will, for example, upgrade the status and performance of their ship. This constitutes a vital part of the green transition in the sense that green technologies cannot exist nowadays without digital technologies – everything needs to be connected.

And this is a prime engagement for us. Providing monitoring, predictive maintenance, and complete control of all the vital parts of a ship – because you can control an entire ship now from a company’s headquarters onshore. So, while some of these solutions have already been developed by us, this will be our focus and what we will be showcasing at the centre.

The second aspect of our collaboration relates to the government. We have signed an MoU between ONEX, the centre, and the regional government of the South Aegean islands focused on the development of technological solutions for Greece’s islands. This includes technologies for everything from smart cities, ports, and marinas to infrastructure that will contribute to make life easier for residents and tourists alike. We’re even examining how to develop environments that are conducive to the attraction of digital nomads.

GIG: You have been at the helm of Cisco’s presence in Greece for the past decade. What sort of change have you seen in Greece’s digitisation efforts during this time? What’s the next big challenge?

Tsiboukis: Digital technology was not in the government’s agenda in the past. There was no planning, and a lot of money was wasted, particularly by the public sector. But this has changed as we now have the political will and the right mindset in place to move forward.

During the pandemic, there was an acceleration of Greece’s digital transformation, and as the Minister of Digital Governance, Kyriakos Pierrakakis, has said, they did in one year what hadn’t been done in the past 23 years.

The government has produced a plan – a digital bible – that aims to lay the foundations to push investments forward. And that says a lot, which is why I think it’s a good time to invest in Greece’s digital landscape.

The signs are good.

Our next big challenge, however, is going to be achieving sustainability, which is the real driver behind our investment. We want society to progress, and for the whole environment to move forward. And this is our challenge – making sure everybody is aware of the benefits of technology and creating an environment that will flourish through digital transformation.

GIG: What are your thoughts on the hybrid working model? Will we go back to working at the office?

Tsiboukis: The pandemic has taught us that the hybrid working environment is here to stay. Why? Because it worked. My team continues to work from home, and anybody can work from anywhere at this point. The company has given me the right to implement a hybrid model and the mandate is that you can organise your time in whichever manner you prefer, as long as your work and meetings are as productive – or more – as they used to be. Not coming into the office means our team has more time available for their own personal needs. They don’t need to spend time stuck in traffic or waste fuel, which is more sustainable environmentally as well.

That said, I do believe that physical meetings cannot be fully replaced because what you pick-up in a five-minute meeting at the office cannot be picked up in a WebEx conference. But running your business in a hybrid model is possible, and we have seen great improvements in terms of productivity. So striking a balance is everything, which, I admit, has been a challenge for me as well.

But over the years and by working for Cisco we have been taught the importance of change. The company is always striving to improve, which brings about constant change, and has made us adaptable. However, I wouldn’t call it business as usual. Home is for home and work is for work, which may sound contradictory. The challenge is finding a work-life balance.

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