On 29 September 2021, EIF hosted an exchange of views with European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel. The Commissioner shared her views on the need to create a pan-European Innovation Ecosystem, involving constant bottom-up consultations with our European Champions, without forgetting women’s potential and central role in education and research.
The exchange was hosted and moderated by MEP and EIF Steering Committee member Maria da Graça Carvalho, who asked the Commissioner 5 questions on themes that are at the heart of Commissioner Gabriel’s work.
The latest comprehensive EU plan on innovation dates back to 2010: the Innovation Union. It was designed to achieve the objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy. Things have changed a lot since then, politically and in terms of research and innovation. On the technical side, we have seen the 3rd wave of innovation with digital startups, and we are at the verge of the 4th wave of innovation with deep tech startups that have a hardware component and that address the SDGs. On the political side, Europe 2020 Strategy has been replaced by the six Commission priorities, including the twin transition and an Economy that works for all. What are the components of this new EU innovation agenda to reflect the changes on the technical side and in the political side?
EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel confirmed the urgent need to update the Europe Innovation Strategy from 2010 and how she prefers to talk about an innovation agenda for Europe. “We have enough strategies, we should rather focus on an innovation agenda for Europe with clear directions, milestones and work packages now is our priorities.”
The Commissioner outlined the 7 main novelties she envisages for the innovation agenda for Europe: (1) the approach, which needs to be a new, pan-European innovation ecosystem approach, focused on facilitation and supporting bottom-up collaboration between private and public actors. The (2) target constituency in order to support the next generation of innovators and pioneers (startups, investors, accelerators, universities), with a special emphasis on Europe. Innovation now comes from a diversity of sources: startups, students and civil society.
Other novelties are (3) the type of innovation, being the 4th wave of innovation centred on deep tech startups and contributing to the SDGs, the (4) implementation, combining different programmes from the European level to national and regional level, (5) making choices based on European competitive advantages: education systems, science performance and industries related to hardware.
The (6) inclusion of all sources of innovation, from students in universities to researchers in labs to the civil society in hackathons is also important, as well as (7) the inclusion of directionality-oriented policy interventions. This will explicitly contribute to tackling societal challenges defined as a priority in the current European Commission.
In the last years we have also seen the emergence of a new class of innovation ecosystem, that is transversal to the different industrial ecosystems proposed in some European policies. How do you see this new kind of innovation ecosystem at European level and how do you see the role of the new generation of innovation players in the process to create it? We really need the transversal approach to complement the horizontal one in the strategy.
The innovation ecosystems, explained Commissioner Gabriel, are the new kind of ecosystems that emerged in the last 20 years which include all the innovation actors (startups, investors, accelerators or ecosystem builders); horizontal by design, they can contribute to advance in more than one industrial ecosystem. What we should see in the future are innovative solutions that will help our industries become more competitive and see how they can solve the main challenges of our time; the 14th industrial ecosystems and their alliances should work closely with the new pan European innovation ecosystems.
She then promoted a bottom-up approach where the new generation of innovators is the main driver of a co-creative and co-implementing process.
I would like to move now to one of the areas that are close to both of us: women in innovation. We have done a lot of improvements in research, but what are your plans to increase the prominence of women in all the actors’ groups of the innovation ecosystems from startups to SMEs, investors?
There is a lack of women representation at all levels; this situation needs to change. The Commissioner firmly believes in the motto “Lead by example”, with small actions but with bigger added value. A good example of this is all the programmes helping women, like Women TechEU. At the same time, we need to address the presence of girls in STEM and STEAM; an issue which is being tackled in new dedicated actions in the digital education action plan together with the European Institute of Innovation and Technology through offering 40 000 girl trainings on AI, Big Data, Entrepreneurial skills.
Another example is the number of women-led applicants to the European Innovation Council that will be increased to 40% of all applicants reaching the interview phase. The Commissioner confirmed the intention of the European Commission to continue to support women, giving them more visibility and recognition.
And there cannot be innovation without talent and a strong education system. How do you see the role of the education system, in particular Higher Education Institutions, in the new pan European Innovation Ecosystem you are advocating for?
According to the Commissioner, Higher Education Institutions are engines of innovation and of regional innovation too. The latest analysis of the innovation ecosystems around the world shows that access to the right level of talent and the quality of education are the two main factors leading to the creation of startups and unicorns.
Talented individuals are the key element for any innovation ecosystem. In Mariya Gabriel’s view, talent is more important than financial capital for growth; contrary to the past, capital follows talent. This is why it is crucial to continue to co-create the European strategy for universities. In the framework of the European education area, the Commissioner ensured to pay a lot of attention to the future development of European University alliances.
Nowadays, the sources of innovation are very diverse. Much more diverse than before when it was very focused on transfer of research results. The new sources of innovation range from students in their classrooms all the way to members of the creative sector. Therefore, innovation is not a linear process any longer and many say that we should use Research, Education and Innovation instead of Research, Development and Innovation. How do you see this evolution and how the EU could use the new synergies approach to make several EU programmes, from HEU to Erasmus+ to Cohesion Funds, to work together towards a common innovation agenda?
This evolution from the linear process of “Research, Development and Innovation” into a much more complex triangle of “Research, Education and Innovation”, with links between these elements that should fit one another, leads us to think of ways for innovators to feed the researchers with challenges that innovators are finding in their work and that need progress in some science domain.
Likewise, education systems should be fed with input coming from the innovation world as well as from science and this is an important change of paradigm, with interactions among these three elements but taking into account also a fourth crucial element: civil society.
These changes in the nature of innovation are also reflected in the disruptive innovation appearing in all fields. Startups are emerging as key players and we are witnessing a new wave of innovation based on deep tech and new combinations of scientific knowledge and technologies. Here, collaboration is our keyword: we need to ensure internal synergies between the different pillars of Horizon Europe, European Research Council working with European Innovation Council.
MEP Pilar del Castillo added the transatlantic dimension to the debate, asking the Commissioner her expectations for the EU-US Trade and Technology Council on research and innovation.
In particular, the MEP asked if there will be a particular working group for research and innovation which can materialize the political decisions in the field and coordinate technical work, also to put in place the two main goals specified in the memorandum of the TTC: 1) to give support to collaborative research and 2) promote innovation and leadership by EU and US firms.
EU Commissioner Gabriel confirmed the presence of a working group on research and innovation. She is following this work very closely and actively participating in it. It is time to have a real coherent common strategy identifying our strengths and seeing what are the fields where we can better join forces. She mentioned a good example of collaboration already in place: the Mission Innovation EU-US meeting between ministers on research and innovation.
The Commissioner very much looks forward to Glasgow for COP26: a good occasion for the EU and US to renew their engagement and continue to work together on the topic of clean energy. She then clarified that Europe has the priority to preserve its own strategic interest and stay pragmatic, but at the same time, the transatlantic dialogue is one of the EU’s biggest priorities and symbol of openness.
MEP Sabine Verheyen thanked the Commissioner for putting forward the STEAM approach: innovation has also to do with creativity and arts. She mentioned how the New European Bauhaus initiative should foster innovation in the future not only to the building sector but to the whole environment, combining in a horizontal approach the artistic, cultural, societal elements, with new technologies and city planning.
At the same time, we need to change the way we educate people using more and more holistic approaches, combining more disciplines and more entrepreneurship ideas.
How should we support the connection between universities and handcrafts? It is very important to use the tools of innovation to help jobs in the future to become more digital and understand how to develop new technologies from the practical side. How can the education system and the arts and culture play a role in bringing new ideas to foster innovation?
Commissioner Gabriel fully believes that education systems have a crucial role to play and she very much hopes that with the New European Bauhaus initiative there will be a new push for more innovation together with creativity and cultural sectors, constituting a fundamental resource and source of richness. The Digital Opportunity Traineeships is a perfect example, putting enterprises in direct contact with students; it will be soon expanded to vocational education and training.
The Commissioner underlined how important the role of teachers is as well as the European Network of Excellence for vocational education and training in the framework of the Erasmus programme. “I think we should preserve this bottom-up approach which, despite the different competencies between the EU and Member States, from small actions brings good examples with more chances to make a difference.”
On ed-tech in particular, EU Commissioner Gabriel assured she will continue to put a lot of pressure in order to pay more attention to this sector which is, in her opinion, a completely unexploited potential of Europe. She is also happy about the progress in AI in the education system, with the high-level expert group that she will meet again very soon.
MEP Victor Negrescu put the attention on 2 particular issues: the (1) issue of implementation, in order to reduce gaps between the countries that move faster than others and to offer a clear perspective to innovators on EU strategies and ideas – and the (2) issue of education which, such as the engine of innovation, should reflect how we see education for innovation and how we can focus on excellence and accessibility at the same time. We need to make sure that as many young people as possible have access to this type of education and to entrepreneurial innovation.
According to MEP Negrescu, there is the need to involve more people in the process and make sure that Member States, local communities, civil society are involved as well.
EU Commissioner Mariya Gabriel seconded the opinion that excellence and access to excellence are the two sides of the same coin; what is needed is to work with our regions and local authorities, involving European citizens not only in the discussions for the co-creation but also for the implementation.
She mentioned the newly created 5 missions and how this can be a good example of citizens’ engagement since the beginning, changing the approach into a citizens-centred approach.
We should have a horizontal and team-based approach, an ecosystem with actions that are scalable at the European level.
MEP Negrescu supported the importance of local authorities and shared the idea of involving the representations of the European Commission in countries and the MEPs and members of the EIF community in the promotion of these initiatives.
MEP Eva Kaili commended the Commissioner’s work towards reducing the gender gap for which Europe has achieved good results but, as there is still sufficient work ahead, asked how MEPs could better support the Commission’s efforts in this regard. Moreover, MEP Kaili asked how the Centers of Excellence would start delivering if they would need to be built on the current Digital Innovation Hubs ecosystems, which in some countries have failed to launch, although announced two years ago.
Tackling the issue of geographic inequalities of digitalisation, the MEP addressed the question of online courses developed at EU level that could also offer certification, in order to boost recognition of European’s skills acquired through online education.
Commissioner Gabriel acknowledged the need for a clear mapping of the Digital Innovation Hubs, in order to identify the different strengths and weaknesses of each region’s implementation and speed up the process. Regarding the geographical differences, Mariya Gabriel reiterated the Commission’s commitment in delivering high quality, timely information to all Member States in order to support them in their digital transformation. Moreover, the Commission will offer more on the education front for potential applicants to the Horizon Europe programme, building on the successful example of the European Green Deal.
In conclusion, the Commissioner reassured the audience that a European Framework for Micro-Credentials is in development, which will be able to offer Digital Certificates to the millions of Europeans who are following online courses.