The knowledge triangle: How to stimulate innovation in the EU

The knowledge triangle: How to stimulate innovation in the EU
Screenshot from the webinar. The panel included experts from international organisations in both the public and private sector.

The interaction between education, research and innovation is key to generate a knowledge-based society and to implement the digital and green transformation of the EU economy after the coronavirus crisis. What is the best model to achieve this?

This was the topic at a webinar on Tuesday (15 December) organised by The Brussels Times with the participation of experts from international organisations in both the public and private sector.

Professor Willem Jonker, CEO at EIT Digital, explained that the knowledge triangle is at the heart of The European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT).  The institute was set up as an independent EU organisation in 2008 to deliver innovation across all sectors in Europe.

The idea is to bring together leading business (industry), education and research organisations to form cross-border partnerships, so-called Innovation communities, and to develop innovative products and services, start new companies, and train a new generation of entrepreneurs. EIT digital is one of nine communities – others are for example in Climate, Health and Food.

Credit: EIT

“We are building a pan-European ecosystem with companies, universities and research institutes across Europe,” he said. “Buy doing this, we are going beyond the traditional business incubator or accelerator model. Education plays an important role in all our entrepreneur internships.”

Focusing on digital challenges, his aim is to triple the current number of 5 digital “champions” or multinational companies in the EU, out of the total number of 50 around the world, towards the end of this decade.

Abraham Liu, Huawei’s Chief Representative to the EU Institutions, underlined that his company depends heavily on research and is reaching out to universities in Europe. The share of its revenues which is invested in R&D has increased from 10 % to up to 15 %. If it in the beginning focused on applied research and the direct needs of customers, it has now switched to supporting basic research.

“5G is one our best examples of our cooperation with all stakeholders,” he said. “In less than 10 years we managed to agree on common standards for the 5G platform, which is a condition for its commercialisation.”

Professor Soulla Louca from the School of Business at the University of Nicosia represented a university which is transforming itself into the digital age. The university recognised already in 2014 the need for Blockchain education by offering the first MSc programme in Blockchain and Digital Currency. The programme attracts students from all around the world.

In addition, her Department of Digital Innovation carries out interdisciplinary research on forecasting models and artificial intelligence (AI) and explores their impact at technological, business, and societal level, among others by international forecasting competitions. The department receives funding from EU research projects and advices the Cypriot government on national economic strategies.

“Our keyword is collaboration with private and public stakeholders,” she summarised how the university is implementing the knowledge triangle.

Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, a Senior Analyst at the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), described different knowledge triangle models in the EU and in the US. The traditional model, even in countries are known for their innovation, universities basically provide a skilled workforce for the industry.

A more active approach is to co-locate universities close to companies in a certain business sector, to offer PhD-education to employees and to respond proactively to business demands.  “However, it’s difficult to link outputs and results to specific arrangements and to assess which model is the most effective one,” he admitted.

Is Europe good in producing science out of funding and but less strong at earning money from science? “Europe is making a lot of money of its private research,” replied Vincent-Lancrin, “but the US spend more money, among others because it’s more willing to accept failures.”

Louca agreed that the knowledge triangle is successful in the US, where companies and government fund projects at the universities, but added that it’s not only about money. “To innovate is above all to make a difference in society and to find meaningful solutions to technical, economic and social challenges – the money will follow then.”

“We need to build up our own culture in connecting industry, government and universities with each-other,” she said.

Jonker said that the knowledge triangle model varies by time and industry sector in Europe. “We have strong players in food, health and energy but have lost dominance in the digital area where a decade is a life time.”

“The good news is that we have realised that Europe has to reinforce its innovation potential and that the EU will invest huge amounts in the digital economy. The pandemic has served as a wake-up call.” On Monday, the European Parliament and the EU Member States reached a political agreement on the first EU programme that aims to accelerate the recovery and drive the digital transformation of Europe.

Worth €7.5 billion (in current prices), the Digital Europe Programme is a part of the next long-term EU budget that covers the 2021-2027 period. It will provide funding for projects in five crucial areas: supercomputing, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, advanced digital skills, and ensuring the wide use of digital technologies across the economy and society.

Jonker also highlighted Horizon Europe, where a political agreement was reached last week. The successor programme to Horizon 2020 for the budget period 2021 – 2027, it will have a budget of around €95,5 billion, a 30 % increase. The new programme will have a strong digital component and support collaborative research relating to societal challenges.

The discussion finished on a note of agreement between the panelists. “Digital sovereignty is about choice between several companies,” Jonker said, referring indirectly to EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s concept of “strategic autonomy” in EUs relations with third countries. In a multilateral world, EU wants to choose its interdependencies rather than having them imposed.

The Brussels Times

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