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Europe Must Become the Global Innovation Powerhouse

Digital research, innovation and a good ecosystem are the key to developing tomorrow’s digital economy and society. The Horizon 2020 Programme, Europe’s main research and innovation programme, is helping to realise the ambitions of both Europe and the Western Balkans in this new world, while striving to preserve distinct European values

The European Union wants to be a frontrunner in digital manufacturing, genomics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, whilst ensuring that its values – be they in terms of data protection or citizen prosperity – are taken into account in tomorrow’s world.

We spoke with Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, about efforts being exerted at the level of the EU and its member states to compete in this rapidly changing environment. Inevitably, we discussed the Horizon 2020 Programme and its achievements in boosting the EU’s capacity for innovation, efficiency and economic growth, the place of the Western Balkans within the EU’s digital agenda and various connected topics, including the ethical questions posed by the future ubiquity of AI.

The timing of our conversation couldn’t have been better, with the new Horizon Europe initiative, the EU research programme for 2020- 2027, having just been unveiled this summer as the most ambitious research and innovation programme ever.

Europe has sufficient scientific and research capacities to lead the next wave of breakthroughs in innovation? What are the new elements of the Horizon Europe proposal that will help to convert Europe’s global scientific leadership into innovation and entrepreneurial leadership?

Europe is a global leader in top-class research, but we can do better in terms of translating these results into innovation that boosts economic growth and job creation. The top priority, therefore, is to help Europe realise the potential it has to become the global innovation powerhouse. There is no doubt that research and innovation are crucial to Europe’s future prosperity.

The proposal for Horizon Europe, our research programme for 2020-2027, is built on that principle. Indeed, the proposed budget – totalling nearly €100 billion – clearly shows our commitment to European leadership in research and innovation. This increase equates to as much as 50% when an EU of 27 member states is taken into account.

The new programme builds on the achievements of Horizon 2020, our current programme, which is a European success story. So, we are retaining the same basic structure and very little will change in terms of rules and procedures for participation, but we are also introducing some important new elements that have the common aim of increasing the impact of EU research and innovation funding.

The European Union actively cooperates with industry, organisations and academic institutions in order to unleash the potential of new technologies across Europe, the Western Balkans and beyond

One of them is the establishment of a European Innovation Council, a flagship initiative in Europe to identify high-risk, fast-moving innovations that can create entirely new markets.

Another is launching EU-wide research and innovation missions with bold, ambitious goals and strong European added value.

We are thus delivering on this top priority for the EU, as well as equipping ourselves to thrive in the society of tomorrow. Horizon Europe will make a real difference in the lives of citizens individually and society as a whole.

How will the single digital market transform the world of business and the world of work in the EU?

[According to the Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, DG CNECT] The overall objective of our digital single market strategy is to exploit the potential of the digital revolution for the benefit of Europe’s economy and society. More specifically, we want to build on our strengths, for example in industrial production and artificial intelligence, while preserving distinct European values in the digital world, in particular as regards, for example, data protection.

Europe is strong in research, has a strong industrial base in sectors where digital is merging with manufacturing, such as automotive and robotics, and robotics, and is home to world-class researchers and labs. Europe also has thriving start-up ecosystems, fuelled by imagination, technical and scientific excellence.

As for the impact on professional life and the labour market, automation and the ever-increasing diffusion of digital technologies will increase productivity and create new job opportunities. However, there is also a challenge we have to address: the success of introducing these technologies requires skilled people to be able to use them in all sectors of the economy. We are therefore stepping up our efforts with training and education programmes, and with initiatives such as the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition, in cooperation with EU member states and social partners.

To what extent is the business sector ready to absorb innovations and put them into use in their daily operations? Which EU members faired best, and which were slow to adopt?

The European Commission’s recently published 2018 European Innovation Scoreboard shows that the EU’s innovation performance has increased by 5.8% since 2010. The greatest increases were in Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, while the biggest falls were recorded in Cyprus and Romania. Innovation performance has improved the most in the areas of broadband penetration, human resources and the attractiveness of research systems, especially through international co-publications.

In order to maintain and improve European competitiveness and our way of life, a joint effort is required by the public and private sectors

Overall, the EU is catching up with key competitors like Canada, Japan and the United States; Europe’s innovation performance is expected to improve by 6% over the next two years. But closing this innovation gap and maintaining the lead over China will require a concerted effort to deepen Europe’s innovation potential. This involves, on the one hand, increasing public R&D spending, which is currently below the 2010 level as a share of GDP. The European Commission is leading by example through Horizon 2020 and its proposal for Horizon Europe. But EU funding alone will not suffice. To maintain and improve European competitiveness and our way of life, a joint effort is required by the public and private sectors.

How successful was the EU in translating the Horizon 2020 framework into economic growth?

The interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 in 2017 confirmed that every euro invested under the programme has brought an estimated GDP increase of between €6 and €8.5 (€400 to €600 billion by 2030).

Horizon 2020 already generates large numbers of high quality, commercially valuable patents and other intellectual property rights, so far mainly from the SME Instrument and the ERC Proof-of-Concept: the interim evaluation mentioned 153 patent applications (39 awarded) and 24 trademarks awarded.

Moreover, Horizon 2020 projects already produce new knowledge, strengthen capabilities and generate a wide range of innovation outputs, including new technologies, products and services. In terms of numbers, this translates into 563 firms introducing new innovations to the market (56% SMEs), 70% of SMEs aiming at new to the market innovations; and more than half of SME Instrument Phase 2 beneficiaries having already reached the market.

The interim evaluation also highlights that Horizon 2020 projects have the potential to generate a large number of scientific breakthroughs; researchers have already contributed to major discoveries like exoplanets, the Higgs boson and gravitational waves. At least 17 Nobel Laureates received support from Horizon 2020 either prior to or after receiving their award.

Therefore, we can safely conclude that Horizon 2020 is an invaluable asset for Europe that fuels economic growth, creates the jobs of tomorrow and tackles the societal challenges of our times.

However, we can always do even better, and we will utilise the lessons learned to make Horizon 2020’s last three years even more effective and to make Horizon Europe a fit-for-purpose successor programme.

How is scientific cooperation between the EU and the Balkans, such as BioSense, creating a new room for cooperation? Which other success stories would you highlight?

Science, research and innovation play an important role in integrating the region of the Western Balkans and reinforcing the EU’s renewed strategy of ‘A credible enlargement perspective for, and enhanced EU engagement with, the Western Balkans’. In fact, the chapter on science and research (Chapter 25) has been provisionally closed with both Serbia and Montenegro.

Achieving excellence in research and innovation is a shared responsibility and needs to be addressed both at national and EU levels. The level of national investment in R&D is still well below one per cent of GDP in the region, which impedes the performance of the Western Balkans in Horizon 2020. The centres of excellence set up with the help of Horizon 2020 co-funding – such as ANTARES, a centre of excellence in ICT in agriculture, and the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) – are attractive to the scientific community and contribute to combating the brain drain in the region.

Although funding under Horizon 2020 is very competitive and the main evaluation criteria is scientific excellence, the programme also provides targeted support for EU member states and countries associated with Horizon 2020 whose R&I performance is below the EU average. This is done through the part of Horizon 2020 known as ‘Spreading Excellence and Widening Participation’, which has an overall budget of over €900 million until 2020. The Commission has proposed that this budget be doubled in Horizon Europe.

How are the capacities of the Western Balkans interconnected with the EU’s vision of digital manufacturing, genomics, artificial intelligence or the Internet of Things?

[According to the DG CNECT] The European Union has high ambitions in the fields of digital manufacturing, genomics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. The world is changing rapidly through these new developments and the European Union wants to be a frontrunner, to ensure that its values are taken into account in tomorrow’s world. A European approach to these developments will boost competitiveness and ensure trust that is based on European values.

It has to make certain that the European Union will lead to technological developments by encouraging uptake by public and private sectors. However, these developments should also happen in an appropriate ethical and legal framework, while societies must be prepared for the changes that will happen.

The European Union cooperates actively with industry, organisations and academic institutions to unleash the potential of these technologies across Europe, the Western Balkans and beyond.

Digital research, innovation and a good ecosystem are key for developing tomorrow’s digital economy and society. Together with EU member states, the Western Balkans are associated with ‘Horizon 2020’ – the main European research and innovation programme. By coupling research and innovation, Horizon 2020 is helping to achieve the ambitious agenda of both Europe and the Western Balkans in the fields of digital manufacturing, genomics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. The ‘Research Infrastructures and e-Infrastructures’ objective, under the Excellent Science pillar of Horizon 2020, supports the further integration of the Western Balkans by opening national research facilities and developing e-infrastructures as part of the effort underpinning a Digital European Research Area.

The Horizon 2020 objectives of ‘Future and Emerging Technologies’ and the ‘Leadership in Enabling and Industrial Technologies’ both aim to support research in future technology areas that are able to renew the basis for European competitiveness and growth, and that can make a difference for society in the decades to come.

The potential and capabilities of modern ICT systems are still growing and are fuelled exponentially by the progress achieved in electronics, microsystems, networking, the ability to master increasingly complex cyber-physical systems and robots, and progress in data processing and human-machine interfaces.

These developments provide major opportunities for cooperation between the European Union and the Western Balkans, whilst they are also strongly supported under Horizon 2020.

Where is the place of the Western Balkans, and Serbia in particular, on the ‘Stairway to Excellence’ or in smart specialisation?

The smart specialisation is a relatively new development strategy that maps the specific knowledge or expertise of a given country or region in order to concentrate on research and innovation investments in these areas. The process builds on previous work to design and implement regional innovation strategies supported by the Commission in the context of cohesion policy.

The Commission adopted a Communication on ‘Strengthening Innovation in Europe’s Regions: Towards resilient, inclusive and sustainable growth at territorial level’ in July 2017, which outlines the future direction of smart specialisation strategies. It stresses the need to work jointly at all levels, from local to European, in order to fully exploit Europe’s potential for innovation, competitiveness and growth.

The interim evaluation of Horizon 2020 in 2017 confirmed that every euro invested under the programme brings an estimated GDP increase of €6 to €8.5, which equates to €400 to €600 billion by 2030

The Western Balkans Steering Platform on Research and Innovation has been successful in generating interest in smart specialisation in the region. The Steering Platform has organised information sessions and exchanges of best practise on this subject, while it has also encouraged an engaged approach among stakeholders.

Most Balkan countries plan to develop a smart specialisation strategy by 2020. Serbia and Montenegro have already advanced on this and plan to complete their strategies by the end of 2018.

How can the countries of the CEE and Western Balkan regions best benefit from the digitisation of their economies and societies?

[According to the DG CNECT] There is no single answer to this question, but policy measures and investments are needed in several areas to optimally benefit from the digital transformation, and to bring faster economic growth, more jobs and better services. Instant global communication and digitisation connect everybody.

The power of yesterday’s supercomputers is in today’s smartphones. Children grow up with any piece of information just a click away on a touchscreen. The digital transformation will bring changes not just to our jobs and businesses, but also to our daily lives, our security and our democracies.

This will also happen in the CEE and Western Balkan regions. The European Union sees opportunities for both regions and wants to support the digital transformation of the Western Balkan region. The European Union recently launched a Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, together with Ministers from Western Balkans partners and the European Commission.

The Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans sets out several working areas that can help speed up digitisation of the region. Ensuring that the Western Balkans can optimally benefit from the digital transformation will require commitment and encompassing policy measures in the following areas: Lowering the cost of roaming tariffs based on a roadmap to facilitate such a goal; deploying digital broadband infrastructure; developing eGovernment, eProcurement, eHealth, & digital skills; capacity building in trust and security, and the digitalisation of industries, to ensure that all sectors benefit from digital innovations; and the adoption, implementation and enforcement of the European regulatory framework in the area of the Digital Single Market.

It is often believed that the rise of digital and the AI economy will imperil the promise of the welfare state. How can the burst of innovation be used to better address social needs?

Advances in artificial intelligence present many opportunities, but they have also raised a range of complex moral questions. Through the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE), an independent advisory body of the President of the European Commission, the Commission is contributing to current efforts to find answers to the ethical, societal and legal challenges that some of the new technologies pose.

Earlier this year, the group published a statement that calls for the launch of a process that would pave the way towards a common, internationally recognised ethical and legal framework for the design, production, use and governance of artificial intelligence, robotics, and ‘autonomous’ systems.

The statement also proposes a set of fundamental ethical principles, based on the values laid down in the EU Treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, that can guide its development. And, later this year, the group will publish its opinion on the future of work.


Closing the innovation gap and maintaining the lead over China will require a concerted effort to deepen Europe’s innovation potential


Horizon Europe will make a real difference in the lives of citizens and society as a whole. It will equip us to thrive in the society of tomorrow


Ensuring that the Western Balkans can benefit optimally from the digital transformation will require commitment and encompassing policy measures in many areas