How Europe can achieve digital sovereignty

CEO of EIT Digital, Willem Jonker, spoke to Innovation News Network about a recent policy perspective report which has outlined how Europe can achieve digital sovereignty.

EIT Digital aims at global impact through European innovation fuelled by entrepreneurial talent and digital technology. It strengthens Europe’s position in the digital world by delivering breakthrough digital innovations to the market and breeding entrepreneurial talent for economic growth and improved quality of life. EIT Digital helps business and entrepreneurs to be at the frontier of digital innovation by providing them with technology, talent, and growth support.

In a new policy perspective report, EIT Digital has provided an overview of policy motivations, trends, instruments, and the roles of various actors in defining the perception of and perspectives for Europe’s digital sovereignty. The report’s conclusion calls on Europe to better connect makers (industry) and shapers (authorities) to create the right policy instruments for a sovereign European digital reality with innovation and regulation that respect European values and rights while creating equal economic opportunity for all actors.

The Innovation News Network spoke to EIT Digital’s CEO, Willem Jonker, about this report and the issue of digital sovereignty more generally, alongside some of the organisation’s other activities, such as the EIT Digital Challenge 2020.

EIT Digital has recently released a report about digital sovereignty, within which you highlight four scenarios for the future of digital sovereignty in Europe. Could you tell us more about what this includes and what it is designed to achieve?

The European digital infrastructure and data sovereignty report by EIT Digital is the second report in a series. The first one was about the digital transformation of European industry and we will soon launch another one about artificial intelligence.

Here, we are gradually beginning to focus more on thought leadership. EIT Digital has become well-established now; we have a strong ecosystem and a strong delivery on digital talent, as well as a strong delivery on ventures and innovations. As we have worked to develop this, we have also developed our experience with regard to what works when it comes to growing ventures in Europe and, particularly, what the typical issues are when you want to bring new technologies to the market. Very often, these challenges have policy elements, and so we have expanded our attention to include thought leadership with respect to digital policies.

The new report uses a scenario-based approach, and this is because a lot of discussions in this area appear to be based more on sentiments and less on strong underpinning data (and a strong analysis of that data). We wanted to create something which reveals the consequences of certain policy choices that could be made.

The EIT Digital report about European digital infrastructure and data sovereignty introduces four scenarios:

  • An ultra-liberal scenario with soft infrastructure control and weak data protection;
  • A dystopian scenario with firm infrastructure control and weak data protection;
  • An ultra-social scenario with firm infrastructure control and strong data protection; and
  • A utopian scenario with soft infrastructure control and strong data protection.The

Our scenarios look at digital sovereignty by exploring the key parameters that can be influenced by policy decisions and, of course, there are many such parameters and including them all could become confusing. We therefore looked at the main elements of the debate, one of the most important of which relates to infrastructure – who should own and control it? And how does the infrastructure serve the public interest? And we know that who controls the infrastructure also determines what use the infrastructure is predominantly put to. This, then, is one axis. The second is data, and this concerns how data is handled, how it is protected, and to what extent it is possible to regulate around it.

These axes, of course, are independent but related – data can be driven over any platform (for instance, a mobile platform, fixed infrastructure, an Internet of Things system, a centralised system, a completely decentralised system, and so on).

At the extremes of these axes are a complete absence of regulation and control on the one side, and a highly regulated environment with complete control on the other. It is thus possible to look at a scenario in which there is a high level of governmental control of infrastructure which has very limited data protection; essentially, this is a situation where the government is incredibly powerful and where citizens are unprotected in terms of their data. This would be a surveillance society which goes against European values.

Of course, there are different voices and different views in Europe today on infrastructure. In general, some want it to be privatised, while others, on the other side, want enhanced government control.

With respect to digital infrastructure, policy is less developed than in other areas – such as transport, for instance, where, in many countries, we have seen the privatisation of railways. Although in some instances there is regulation (such as in mobile communication frequencies), in most areas, notably platforms, there is almost none.

Policy decisions, of course, are taken with a certain objective in mind: to create an equal playing field, to develop a trusted infrastructure, to stimulate economic growth, or to achieve open and equal access. As such, the charts we have included in the report illustrate the different scenarios and how they impact the objectives in different ways. It is also important to understand that while the scenarios and their outcomes are ranked in number order within the report, the differences between the ranks are not immediately discernible. As such, we created spider diagrams to make the differences more easily visible. The report’s conclusion is very clear: the right side of the axis, where there is data protection in place, offers the best opportunities.

From the feedback we have received, it is clear that people like the scenario-based approach because it provides a more structured way of thinking about these complex problems. And, of course, there is also an extended version of the report available with much more detail.

To what extent has the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for European sovereignty when it comes to digital infrastructures and the handling of data?

COVID-19 has really magnified some of the issues that we have here in Europe. To take the contact tracing apps as an example. In the USA, the CEOs of Google and Apple agreed on a common approach, and their teams built a common interface which is now readily available on almost all mobile phones in the world. In Europe, however, 27 countries argued about whether they should use Apple’s or Google’s technology, as well as whether it should be centralised or decentralised, and so on. This resulted in 27 different countries all developing their own apps, none of which appear to be interoperable, and many of which are either not yet fully rolled out or are experiencing significant problems in terms of uptake.

This, then, exemplifies the fragmentation and limited co-operation that we have in Europe, and may also go on to show just how important it is to address this fragmentation should none of the apps developed by the EU 27 actually work.

This would have been a great opportunity for European countries to come together, to work together on a digital technology that could have benefitted all, and it is a pity to see that a disjointed approach was taken which delivers suboptimal results.

To what extent could the Gaia X project come to break Google and Amazon’s cloud dominance?

I like this initiative; it is strongly driven by policy, industry, and science, which is great to see. However, the question of the real end objective needs to be clearly defined. If this is to be European leadership in terms of the cloud and related platforms, this will involve the creation of an ecosystem and an infrastructure, but at the same time it also requires the creation of the European business players on cloud and data with global impact. That can be a challenge in itself, and one which involves simulating the development of companies in the context of such an infrastructure.

For me, this is something that the project needs to develop further, because if it is not, then there is the danger of an infrastructure being developed in Europe but which is side-lined in favour of that provided by the existing tech giants, such as Google and Amazon.

The importance of a strong digital Europe is widely acknowledged and best achieved by makers (industry) and shapers (authorities) working together to create a sovereign European digital reality with products, services, and regulations that serve citizens, respect European values, drive innovation, and provide equal opportunity for everyone. Could you tell us more about EIT’s Makers and Shapers programme and how it aims to inspire entrepreneurs and engage innovators, investors, and policy makers in Europe’s effort to be a major player in digital innovation?

We decided to begin the Makers and Shapers programme in the context of our 10-year anniversary. Over the last decade, we have created a great ecosystem – we started with just 30 organisations, and we now have 300; we have established education programmes in which we enroll 400 students per year; and we have an accelerator that leverages close to €1bn in private investment into European scale ups. We have a track record of success.

Of course, this has not always been an easy journey, but the general direction has always been positive, and we have seen continuous growth and impact. This enabled us to understand the obstacles that are often faced in this arena – we have learned from our failures as much as we have from our successes. We have accumulated a lot of knowledge and we have the credibility and the track record to step up and to become a partner in the policy debate. We are approaching this by mobilising the key actors, and the Makers and Shapers series is only the beginning.

In this initiative, we bring decision makers from industry and policy together, mixing them with the entrepreneurs who are driving the new digital economy. The Makers and Shapers journey features thought-leading conversations with, for example, Frans Van Houten (Philips), Risto Siilasmaa (F-Secure), and Roland Busch (Siemens), and also Roberto Viola (DG Connect), Eva Kali (EU MEP), Anne Buchet (DG Health).

Through these interviews we are building a community, which we will continue to develop. This may be affected somewhat by COVID-19, in that we would typically have physical roundtables and so on where we bring people together, and this will now need to be done virtually. But it is a continuous process and will therefore continue beyond the pandemic.

In doing this, however, it is crucial to understand the key European values. As such, trying to copy Silicon Valley does not make sense; we must do it in our own way. This may be more complicated at times, but it is nevertheless the right way for this to be approached.

At EIT Digital, we often quote what is said to be an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.’ We understand the value of co-operation, and we have spent the last decade building up a network and developing connections at the top level – this is evinced by the calibre of the people being interviewed in the Makers and Shapers initiative; we have created an environment where people know that we are credible and that we have something to contribute and, moreover, that we are impartial: we do not have a political agenda, and nor do we exist to defend the interests of large corporates. We value our independence and our sole aim is to improve the European digital economy.

The EIT Digital Challenge 2020 has established a new record. How do programmes such as this tie into the concept of European digital sovereignty, and where else will EIT Digital also be focusing moving forwards?

I was extremely happy with the success of our EIT Digital challenge, not at least because this normally involves organising events to raise awareness and to attract people to the table, which has been severely hampered by COVID-19.

The challenge’s success demonstrates how attractive our proposition actually is, and that the EIT Digital accelerator is increasingly seen as being able to deliver and to help scale companies due to the strong ecosystem within which it sits, and because of the people involved who can help improve access to finances and to the market.

In the past, there would typically be a mix of products and services on the one hand and ventures on the other. Now, however, we have begun to increasingly focus on the embedding of products into a venture, because the latter acts as an investment vehicle. We believe that there is more value in starting a venture with a single focus or objective than an umbrella company that tries to encompass a range. We will be following this type of model by developing a strong and focused portfolio of ventures, all of which work in of our innovation ecosystem.

Willem Jonker
EIT Digital
Tweet @EIT_Digital

Please note, this article also appears in the third edition of our new quarterly publication


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