Foreseeing the digital future in Europe

The innovation agenda, the AI agenda and other themes on the future of research and development in Europe

On the February 21st 2024, the College of Europe in Natolin’s Digital and Transformation Nest  organised a discussion on the role of innovation in Europe in the future. The speaker, Krzysztof Kania, is a renowned alumnus of the College of Europe. At the moment, he is a policy officer at the Common Policy Centre of Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission.

Firstly, Mr Kania offered the students a broader view of the most important institutions, programmes, initiatives, think tanks and paper series focused on enhancing cooperation, policymaking and innovation within Europe. These tools are used by the Commission to have an overview of the sector. However, he encouraged the students to use them as well. Some of the cited resources comprise the European innovation scoreboard, the research done by the Expert group on the economic and societal impact of research and innovation and Futures4Europe, and the R&I papers. In the field of policy experimentation, the speaker mentioned that it is important to use science, and these tools are the starting point for informed research.

The second part of the discussion considered two important topics, the Innovation Agenda and the AI Agenda. The former refers to the strategic initiative adopted by the EU in the deep-tech and new technologies field. Mr Kaina presented the three pillars of this agenda: 1) the mobilisation of investment for deep-tech start-ups, especially through the Horizon Europe programme; 2) the importance of experimentation and, therefore, the need to research more on the field; and 3) an increase of support for inter-regional innovation projects, according to the recommendations made by the Mazzucato Report, in order to address societal issues.

In particular, the speaker highlighted the vital role of innovation for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Europe. As already mentioned, one of the pillars concerns the allocation of significant financial resources to sustain the SMEs. The same Horizon Europe programme is particularly designed with this aim. The channel of the European Innovation Council contributes to this funding with a significant part of its budget as well.

Mr Kaina also presented the Innovation Fund, established to foster technologies with low-carbon emissions and sustaining the SMEs in the process toward this green journey. As we can see, the speaker tried to highlight to the audience the challenges that the SMEs have ahead of them in the digital innovation sphere. Therefore, the EU has to step up its programmes and funds in order to prepare itself for this pivotal issue.

Another important topic of the discussion was the relation between Europe and artificial intelligence. Mr Kaina, as a policy officer with an immense interest in research, spent more than a few words on the matter of research publications generated by AI. Not only does this pose a threat in terms of data provided and used to generate such pieces of research, but there are also questions on the fair access to these digital tools. What is more, a concrete effort to regulate such matter must be undertaken as soon as possible, Kaina stressed. The AI Act is, indeed, a first step in this direction.

All this considered, however, for him the most pressing obstacle to a substantive response to AI in Europe is the lack of key and major AI players in Europe. Recalling the above-mentioned discussion on SMEs, Mr Kaina considered that, investment-wise, Europe lacks a strategy in the AI field which could give SMEs a possibility to innovate and enter the competition. For him, the phenomenon of the “Blue Banana” – a highly industrialized corridor stretching from Northwest England across parts of Belgium, the Netherlands, western Germany and northern Italy – is symptomatic of such deficiency.

Europe has a huge digital ecosystem but no major players. How to fix this problem in the future? Mr Kaina discussed with the students the possibility to create such players with the help of the Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG-CONNECT). In particular, the DG-CONNECT is responsible for enhancing digital skills in order to foster digital innovation and the digital economy in a fair way. To fill up the void of key players in the AI field, Europe has to invest more money on digital competencies in all of its territories, trying to expand the areas in which these topics are nuancedly treated. A precise roadmap in this sense is more than necessary.

The speaker also discussed with the students other future-oriented themes, such as the transatlantic relationship, the enlargement process and the EU’s dependencies towards key global actors such as Russia and China. The latter, in particular, must be considered a challenge for the EU, capable to motivate and stimulate Europe to step up its effort of digitalisation and innovation.

On a concluding note, Mr Kaina emphasised the criticality of finding a balance between regulation and innovation. Whereas the first is necessary in a globalised world like ours, it cannot impede or hinder innovation, especially in a critical juncture for AI technologies as the one we are witnessing right now. For Mr Kaina, the “innovation principle” is extremely important for our future actions. The regulation should achieve its objectives without hampering technological innovation.

Investing in research infrastructures is key in facilitating innovation. Funding resources and services directly linked to scientific communities and top-level research is pivotal if we want to build a future-oriented Europe which is capable to lead the digital economy in a fair and sustainable manner.

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