Discussing innovation in the space sector with the European Commission

The Innovation Platform met with the Director General of the European Commission’s DG CONNECT in Brussels to discuss innovation in the space sector.

The 12th edition of the European Space Conference was held in Brussels, Belgium, at the beginning of 2020. The conference saw an impressive number of high level actors coming together under one roof, from EU-level policy- and decision makers to large European organisations and significant industry players.

While attending this important event, The Innovation Platform met with the Director General of the European Commission’s DG CONNECT, Roberto Viola, to discuss not only innovation in the space sector but also Europe’s progress in a number of areas related to digital development – from the European Innovation Council (EIC) to the Connecting Europe Facility and the Digital Europe programme to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other transformative technologies.

The two main barriers to innovation which have been highlighted today seem to be access to finance – especially perhaps access to venture capital – and the speed at which innovation takes place. How would you like to see this being addressed in Europe moving forwards?

When it comes to access to finance, innovation calls for access to equity financing because there can be a significant risk of failure. But if you never fail, you will never succeed. As such, we need to foster a more risk-taking culture in our corporate finance world; and whatever we can do at the European level – from the European Commission, the European Investment Bank and the EIF – would be very important. For instance, we will continue working on seed financing for Artificial Intelligence; we are also working on a blockchain project and other transformative technologies.

The other element, of course, concerns the European budget. The European Commission has made a proposal which increases the support for infrastructure, innovation, and technology: this includes the Horizon programme, as well as sectors such as space and digital. If our proposal is watered down then the future for innovation, for research, for space and for digital will be gloomy indeed.

Is that likely? Or are you optimistic that the Commission will receive what it has requested?

I must be optimistic because it simply doesn’t make any sense to identify areas such as digitisation, greening and innovation as being the most important topics for the coming years and then to not provide the financial support necessary to tackle them properly. At the national level, many prime ministers agree that these areas are important – but now they need to walk the walk and not only talk the talk. And the only real way to do that is to be committed when it comes to finances.

What progress have you seen in the Digital Europe programme, which funds large digital innovation projects, and the Connecting Europe Facility, which oversees digital and infrastructural connectivity, in the last year?

Huge progress has been made. Those programmes are now ‘real’ in the sense that there is a legal text which has been agreed by the European Council, the Parliament and the Commission. Of course, this has not been fully finalised because one important detail is still missing: the amount of funding. However, this is very similar to what I have already said: every cent less than the Commission’s proposal for the Digital Europe and the Connecting Europe Facility would have a tremendously detrimental impact.

Together, Digital Europe and the Connecting Europe Facility will require a little under €14bn, and the overall European budget is in excess of €1 trillion. As such, reducing the requested budget for these facilities would have a very minimal impact on the overall budget, but would have a huge impact on the work the programmes would be able to do. For instance, through Digital Europe €700m has been allocated for education via advanced courses in areas such as digital, big data, AI and others. If this is cut, it will be the next generations who suffer.

The session you have been speaking in at this year’s European Space Conference is entitled ‘The keys to the future: European strategic autonomy in AI, quantum technology, data, the cloud, 5G and cybersecurity’. How would you describe Europe’s progress towards autonomy in these areas? What role will the space sector continue to play here? Where would you like to see short and long term priorities lie for the Commission?

Firstly, we have to agree on what ‘autonomy’ means. Europe needs a supply of those technologies in order to protect our democracy, our critical infrastructure, to ensure we have security of supply in critical value chains; and to ensure that we are an international player. Then ultimately, we can deliver benefits to our citizens.

This is not about ‘fortress Europe’ or about closing Europe to the rest of the world. On the contrary, we are the most open economic area in the world. The point is to make sure that we own our own choices.

When it comes to where we are now, we have done some very important things since we last met. To take our supercomputing initiative as an example: there is a European organisation, EuroHPC, which has 33 Member States – so its membership is beyond the EU. It is by far the largest supercomputing organisation in the world, and tenders are now live to procure the three gigantic computers plus another five, which will make our computing grid the best in class. We also now have the ambition to look even beyond that.

The Quantum Communication Network has a good alliance with the European Space Agency (ESA) to define where we want to go. We now have many Member States on board – we have in excess of 20 who have now signed the Quantum Declaration, which is basically a memorandum of understanding to say let’s work together to define and deliver the most secure communication network ever built. ESA has recently held its ministerial conference and funding has been allocated to the network from this; and within the Digital Europe programme we have in excess of €3bn for cybersecurity. We have also launched two parallel studies to define the system. We are marching at full speed.

In the coming weeks we will present our ideas on what can be done in Europe to boost Artificial Intelligence – not only in terms of what is necessary but also the investments we need. Another important area is data: we need data for a digital society; and the Commission will soon present the results of its data study.

What progress has been made towards transposing the Open Data Directive on the national level? How important is this?

The progress on transposition has not been fantastic, but that is normal because the deadline is still quite far away. Nevertheless, I am urging the Member States to not wait until the final deadline to do this. I have been testifying at national parliaments to say that this is about the future of our society when it comes to utilising public data for the benefit of everyone. There are important elements in the new directive, such as access to dynamic data and high value datasets; but frankly, every day lost is an opportunity lost. And so the message is: let’s transpose the new directive as quickly as possible.

What are your thoughts on private sector ambitions in the area of connectivity, such as the SpaceX Starlink mega-constellation? Do you feel that more needs to be done to enhance the dialogue that takes place not just between public and private entities, but also across disciplines (astronomers have warned that such constellations will obscure their view of the night sky, for instance)?

Firstly, the more connectivity in the world, the better: it is something which needs to be promoted globally. But, of course, this has to be achieved within established rules.

The first element, which is very important, is that connectivity has to be for good. It has to be used to increase openness and democracy in the world, to increase the possibilities for less developed areas to develop. This must be the goal. There is clearly a public dimension connected to this and that is, on one side, preserving the environment, including the space environment. Public authorities and international organisations need to know what is going on so that they can hold a dialogue, again with the intention to create the possibility to do more, not less. And activities here have to be done in an orderly way – this is not the Wild West, where the first to arrive lays claim to all the orbits. Indeed, there is a clear issue about access to orbital positions and traffic in space which needs to be regulated; there is no doubt about that.

The other element, which is also very clear, is the radio spectrum. This is a public resource, and that is why it is used under a licence. It has to be for the benefit of everybody; connectivity is clearly of value, but so is science, as are other applications. The incumbent services are very valuable in connectivity and so they must have a certain degree of protection. We therefore need a spectrum policy, which is forward looking but which at the same time respects the usage in many different areas. Within this, technology must also be taken into consideration: the more intelligent the systems are, the less of a problem we will have with using the spectrum. Collectively we are underinvesting in many such areas.

Roberto Viola
Director General
European Commission

Please note, this article will also appear in the first edition of our new quarterly publication.

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