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European Commission Vice-President for the Digital Agenda
Welcome to Brussels: crossroads to the future
Opening address at ICT 2010 Conference
Brussels, 27 September 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning everybody and a very warm welcome to the ICT 2010 event. It is a great pleasure for the European Commission to host this event in Brussels with the Belgian Presidency.
This sort of unique gathering is one of the things the EU does best: bringing people together to think big and act big.
The changing landscape for ICT research and innovation
Let’s face it – we do need to think big and act big to deal with today’s financial and economic problems and the societal challenges we know are on our horizon. Your work is crucial to developing the new technologies that we need to tackle them.
Many of the things we take for granted today are the result of science – very prominently including ICT research. From the Enlightenment to the World Wide Web, Europe and Europeans have contributed to scientific progress for the benefit of all humanity.
In our day-to-day lives we don’t always remember this history or see the mechanics of these processes. Our research community – you – can seem like magicians. You take our minds to places we did not think we could go, and your brilliant ideas help us out of situations that even James Bond would want to avoid. But there is one important difference: science is not an illusion. Scientific breakthroughs are the results of extraordinary hard work by researchers. What seems magical and joyful on the outside represents a lot of sweat, tears and - of course - money, behind the scenes.
My point is that we cannot appreciate the tools used to make our current ways of life and business run smoothly without understanding the role that science and researchers have played in getting us here.
Scientific research creates the future. And there is no branch of research more associated with the future than ICT research. We need solid ICT research strategies today to ensure a sustainable society and economy in the future.
The case for investing more in ICT research
Investing in ICT research is the absolute core of this effort. It is research that develops technologies for better networks; it is research that leads to new uses for the internet; new ways of travelling; new medical technologies; more efficient ways of doing business.
You and I know this because we work in the field every day. But we must remember to keep making the case to those who do not live and breath these achievements.
In times of nearly universal budget cuts, such discussions about the future of ICT research naturally have a strong economic focus. Taxpayers, ministers, and people in need have good reasons to expect that all public expenditure is duly justified.
That does not make it impossible to increase public investments in ICT research. But it does mean we have to make the strongest possible case.
We must start by pointing out that Europe can obviously do better in ICT – this is why the Commission has developed a comprehensive and ambitious Digital Agenda for Europe.
We must make clear that ICT innovations from research boost productivity in all sectors of the economy. ICT investments are so valuable because of their direct link to increased productivity. Greater productivity means we are able to do more with less. That is the key to dealing with public debt and the shrinking workforce as our population ages.
The proof is found in reactions to the crisis: each sector has been hit differently. Businesses that are able to innovate in products, services and processes, have not only been much more resilient to the turmoil, they have grown and prospered. They are also more likely to continue to grow in the face of increased global competition.
But ICT can do much more than boost productivity. Whether it is in green technologies, better healthcare, or fast internet services, there are dozens of ICT investments that deliver broad societal benefits far beyond whatever private profits they generate. ICT will transform the way we consume resources, the way we cure and prevent diseases, the way we can live longer and remain independent and active, the way we build our social networks and so on.
These impacts bring everyday benefits to every citizen and business. That is a message the public and ministers need to hear loud and clear from the research community. In other words: Europe's future depends on ICT innovations.
Such ambition requires the Commission to be much more than a cash machine for researchers. Even a small amount of cash can go a long way if properly used and put in the right direction. The field of public support to ICT research is in constant need of innovation itself: We need to improve the design of our programmes to achieve more leverage and to concentrate our efforts where we can have the biggest impact.
Recent history has shown us again and again that the riskiest and most long-term research is often publicly funded. So public investments are essential, no doubt about it. It is too much to expect individuals to sacrifice their entire financial future to do research that may only pay-off after they are gone. Often it is not even possible for one company or government to assemble the expertise and money to make a real impact. In such situations public authorities are best placed to bear this risk, and the European Commission is unique among them because we cover the interests of 27 member states and work with many close partners. Bringing together the best researchers from different countries is one of the clear strengths of our framework programmes.
We should also not forget the added value that Europe can bring to the way science is done in our countries. We have built supranational e-infrastructures like the GEANT network and the PRACE supercomputing partnership that allow many scientists to work at the forefront of knowledge. Just a few years ago they would not have had this chance: because their country or institution could not afford the required tools. We need to maintain and expand these efforts into other fields like collection and preservation of scientific data. In this context we also need to look into ways to ensure optimum dissemination of the results of research we fund. Expanding our Open Access policies will bring the best results on top of dedicated infrastructures.
These European investments are essential. They allow high-risk research to be carried out while reducing the risk for the individual participants and maximizing the benefits for society as a whole.
More than that, European level action stabilises the whole research environment. It makes collaboration easier, spreads skills and allows for economies of scale. In mobile communications, for example, a series of EU projects starting in the early 90s brought together all major European companies and leading research institutes to develop the 3G standard which is now the most widely adopted mobile standard. EU-funded ICT research has also been instrumental, for instance, in the development of time-triggered architecture technology that provides highly reliable electronics for safety-critical systems. I would also like to point to the future of computing itself: Europe has invested in risky quantum computing research for many years. Today we see the first commercial applications of quantum computing and this is just the beginning. I could go on with more examples but let us leave it at that for the moment.
The need for a step change in European strategy
The race to innovate is now even more global and more intense than it was just a couple of years ago. Emerging economies are not only competing in production, but also in research and innovation. They are not only competing on costs, but also on quality. At the same time, innovation cycles have become shorter and shorter. As always innovation in ICT is a leading example of this evolution.
Today ICT “transforms” as much as it “enables”. It not only affects all of us, it affects each of us more and more. ICT innovations shape and enrich and integrate so well they become even universally understood verbs, as in to ‘Google’ and to ‘Skype.’
This new role is reinforcing ICT as the key set of technologies underpinning innovation, competitiveness and social progress.
If governments cut back on ICT research they will quickly stunt or unravel this progress.
Rest assured – our competitors realise this, and that is why they keep investing.
World-wide the ICT sector leads research expenditures, venture capital investment, patents and high-wage employment in nearly all industrialised countries. The sector spends double what the car industry does on research, and triple that of the pharmaceutical sector.
This is a race Europe must not withdraw from. Yet it is a race in which we are currently behind.
Let me put that statement in context. In the late 1970s - before the Commission began to fund collaborative ICT research in programmes like ESPRIT and RACE - European companies held just a 10% share in world ICT markets. After 30 years and €20 billion in Commission funding, the figure is now 25% of the now much larger world market. We are the second biggest market player.
The message is that European research coordination helped get us back in the race. But we need to do more now to stay in the race.
If we ever hope to be number one – as we should, given the size of our population and economy and our future needs – we have to invest. If we are timid or slow or fragmented, we could slip back to our position in the 1970s and 1980s.
Given the massive growth in the global ICT market it seems we are still far from reaching the limits in ICT. New network, sensor and services platforms will take the Internet and the Web to a whole new level. Nanoelectronics and better components will add functionality and increase cost-efficiency in a wide range of intelligent systems and engineered products. From portable devices to cars and transport systems, health systems and manufacturing plants: there are complex problems to solve and billions of Euros to make.
Strengthen investments, sharpen efforts, achieve impact
So let us be serious about this digital future. Let’s strengthen our investments – sharpen our efforts – and achieve higher impact!
How should we do that? The Commission believes we need a greater focus on partnerships with industry and academia to create the European 'heavyweights' needed to succeed in global markets. These should build on the lessons learnt in Joint Technology Initiatives, Public-Private Partnerships and joint national research programmes.
You know that I am a strong believer in Public-Private partnerships. These partnerships can be a way to articulate a winning strategy: this was the reason to set up the Joint Technology Initiatives ENIAC and ARTEMIS on nanoelectronics and embedded systems, two sides of the one coin.
However, maintaining momentum over the lifecycle of such bodies turns out to be a challenge. Once things are up and running there is a tendency to go back to old habits: to concentrate on only making cash distribution more efficient! In that respect the interim evaluation report on ENIAC and ARTEMIS was a wake-up call to me and I am sure it will be the same for our partners. We cannot afford to let our JTIs become "sleeping beauties". A winning strategy is the one with strong commitment of all parties – maintained for as long as it takes.
I also think there is a lot of value in targeting common open technology platforms. Standards like 3G have set some of the world’s largest industries on new and profitable courses. The message I want you to take away is that breakthroughs of this type achieve high spill-over and leverage effects. They allow for a much wider range of stakeholders to piggy-back on new developments and apply further innovations. By definition these common platforms need to be developed jointly.
We have also learned that we need to articulate better our financial interventions, not only in research and development but right to the end of the innovation chain, with policy actions that support the initial investments. Additional policy support helps to roll-out innovations and increase uptake.
What sort of support? I don’t mean old-style subsidies or other state aids. I mean partnerships that accelerate and scale up the development and deployment of the technologies needed to meet our societal challenges. The sustainability of our healthcare system and carbon footprint in particular depend on improving these last stages of the innovation chain.
I also want to ensure that we retain an open scheme for bottom-up collaborative research proposals. This scheme will give all sizes of entities access to finance for high-risk, high-return ideas. The paperwork must be 'simple, light and fast' in order to succeed.
Such a scheme is needed to continue to capitalise on our science and technology knowledge and skills base. It is needed to build a more exploratory and entrepreneurial mindset that boosts the number of alternative ideas, start-ups and high-growth SMEs.
An important new element, both for new partnerships and for this open scheme, is better public procurement of research and innovation. This is about stimulating supplier product development from the demand side so that there is a better fit, from the outset, to the needs of the public authority deploying the service.
What ties these ideas together you might ask? Let me remind you of those very first Commission research programmes. Why do I mention that? Because our digital future is about partnerships and competitive spirit.
In that sense the Digital Agenda is completing a circle started decades ago. The competitive landscape and the names of our research programmes may have changed – but the value of the original idea remains. In a competitive world, Europeans are stronger together.
Showing the way …
The ICT 2010 Conference is a great step towards these approaches. Our biggest ever event for our biggest ever ICT research programme.
We will invest hundreds of millions in the next generation network and service infrastructures and offering funding pressing socio-economic challenges.
Our Work Programme notably features a set of Public Private Partnerships. The 'Future Internet' Partnership is my baby, so to say – so I will be making sure it has a great future. Meanwhile the three Partnerships on 'ICT for Energy Efficient Buildings', 'ICT for the Fully Electric Vehicle' and 'ICT for Factories of the Future' will make sure that ICT plays its full part in delivering the smart and sustainable growth set out in the Europe 2020 strategy.
With the work of these partnerships we have the opportunity to lead the world; to decide the growth path of key new markets. With partnerships like these we will continue to show the way so others may join or improve on our work.
To conclude. We have been investing in ICT research and innovation for the last 25 years because that is how we can help our world-class researchers to create the future. I will be making a very strong case for even stronger levels of support into Framework Programme 8.
We want to help you strengthen Europe's competitiveness, explore new horizons and take greater risks for greater returns. When we started the Commission’s ICT research programme in the 1980s our challenge was to achieve a critical mass in the face of US and Japanese competition. Today the list of competitors is longer and the set of societal challenges is tougher.
So I call on you to think big and act big – to help me secure and distribute the funding to deliver this vision of Every European Digital.
I call on you to participate in this entrepreneurial mindset and to embrace your part of the shared risks we must take to deliver social and economic progress.
And most of all I thank you for all of your efforts to make Europe a better place to live and work.