• Published on 08 Jan 2020
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Foundations for trust: the new Commission and our digital future

Trust is a European brand that can shape the digital transformation. As Deputy Director-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology at the European Commission, Khalil Rouhana is intimately familiar with this theme. What follows is a summary of the major takeaways from his keynote speech at EFECS 2019, in which he outlined the need for a coherent policy approach that respects both our values and our climate.

The race is on

A new Commission (2019-2024) means new opportunities to reflect on Europe’s current strengths, weaknesses and goals. It’s therefore no surprise that President Ursula von der Leyen has already stated that a key priority is ensuring that we fully grasp the potential of the digital age and strengthen its industry and innovation capacity. Where does Europe stand today? The first place to look is the Commission’s Composite Index, which is issued every year to show the world’s performance in areas such as connectivity and digital public services.

As a whole, Europe is not a global leader. The top four EU performers – Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark – are much further ahead than the rest of the world, but disparities in terms of economic growth and well-being highlight the need for a comprehensive strategy that reaches all European citizens and businesses, no matter where they are.

This isn’t to say that Europe is falling behind. Since 2013, the Composite Index has shown continuous growth – but the same is true of other regions. The US, Japan and South Korea remain ahead and China is catching up. While the EU has stopped its decline in component production, even managing to increase this in the last four years, it has retained the same percentage share. This is an obstacle that must be overcome to remain competitive and derive benefit from the digital transformation. Although certain areas of the digital supply chain are still firmly rooted in Europe – 25% of the world’s embedded systems are produced here, for instance – plateauing is not an option.

Four pillars of success

From personalised healthcare to environmental monitoring, the Commission envisions a digital transformation that touches all aspects of our lives. Three largescale trends lie at the heart of this: artificial intelligence, security and sustainability. The growth of AI means smartness and autonomy for all sorts of products, so trust is a key factor – particularly when facing fears over concentrated wealth, cybersecurity and data privacy. Many also believe that new technologies are doing too little to tackle climate change, yet it’s clear that there are big opportunities in the field of sustainability.

Four enablers must be developed in order to build this trust. First and foremost, data must be accessible, privacy must be respected and both must be used to address societal issues like safety and health. Connectivity and advanced computing are also vital, but attention must be paid to secure components and systems with lower power. A coherent approach thus rests on four key pillars:

  1. Digital sovereignty
  2. Digital for a stronger and more resilient economy
  3. Digital for society
  4. Digital for planet

Khalil: “For a trustful digital transformation, we need the minimum autonomy to shape our fate. This is digital sovereignty. We also need to ensure that we bring the technology to our businesses and citizens, including a wider uptake of skills and talents and the tackling of disinformation. Finally, we must ensure that digital is used for the ‘greening’ of our economy and society.”

Open to ideas

The Commission has big plans for an approach that involves all policy instruments. At the top of the list, the regulatory framework must be adapted to current needs. This will be open to consultation with all stakeholders, as the whole innovation chain must be addressed if digital sovereignty is to be realised effectively.

Additionally, greater attention will be paid to investments into possible game-changers. While it’s important to build on what already exists within ECSEL, new ideas will help to develop organic innovation ecosystems and support the growth of start-ups and SMEs. To make such transfers of knowledge more straightforward, the Commission has adapted the legislative framework to enable a single digital market, which is a necessary condition for the EU to be able to act as one region.

Time to act

When looking ahead to the next five years and beyond, it’s also important to reflect on what has had the biggest impacts so far. In its first five years alone, ECSEL funded 63 projects at a total cost of EUR 3.37 billion, including an 822 million EU contribution. This proved an important step towards the first ever Important Project of Common European Interest (IPCEI), which focuses on the microelectronics supply chain.

Nonetheless, achieving first place in a field is unimportant if this position cannot be maintained. An implementation plan is therefore being finalised to examine Europe’s strengths, weaknesses and threats. In addition to this, the proposal has been made for a Digital Europe programme, which is intended to run from 2021 to 2027. With a proposed overall budget of EUR 9.2 billion, this will boost investments in supercomputing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and advanced digital skills.

It’s also worth remembering that trends can be reversed, as has been proven in the semiconductor domain. Between 2010 and 2013, the revenues of the EU’s major semiconductor companies were on the decline and eventually slumped to around USD 17 billion. With the introduction of ECSEL, it took just five years to add an additional ten billion to this – an all-time high. The trend is even more striking when it comes to supercomputing: in 2018, the EU’s top ten supercomputers could carry out approximately 25 Pflops (1015 floating point operations per second); in 2020, this will rise to almost 150 Pflops, ahead of the US and China.

If digital is truly a priority for the European Union, it must also take precedence in the budget via a doubling of investments and the realisation of the Digital Europe programme. As EFECS 2019 demonstrated, joint efforts from across the continent can have enormous results. There’s no reason to assume that the world’s most powerful digital ecosystem won’t be one of them.