Sunday

21st Apr 2019

Opinion

Europe is lacking tech leadership

  • Most of the tech stories coming out of the EU are tax-fines for multinational corporations, or battles over free speech vs hate speech (Photo: Andrew Neel)

Henry Kissinger once asked who do I phone if I want to phone Europe. An updated version of this question might be who do I Skype?

Crisis after crisis has left a continent without a cohesive vision of the future, particular how it plans to support, develop or regulate new technology.

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  • Macron has proposed a new inter-governmental agency on innovation, modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) (Photo: GotCredit)

This is dangerous. Europe, along with America, has led the world in supporting fair and responsible innovation. A free global internet was not a passive development, and - as Trump's move on net neutrality shows - needs consistent support.

Europe cannot sit by and let private enterprise or China (or a Zuckerberg presidential run in 2020) set the norms for artificial intelligence or driverless vehicles.

Europe needs to shape technology for the benefit of citizens and the economy. But who can step up?

First, let's rule out those who definitely won't.

Nationalism rules out Hungary and Poland. Populist challenges ahead of elections leave Italy navel-gazing – similarly Spain has its territorial future to worry about.

Russia has already proven its maleficent use of tech, and increasing pro-Russian sentiment in countries like Austria is worrying.

Germany, despite its strong science base and high research spend is reluctant to lead. Due to their troubled past, citizens are rightly wary of biological manipulation or access to personal data.

The liberal FDP were the only party ahead of the federal election with anything to say on digitalisation. Problematic implementation of new laws on digital content and terrible internet coverage also gives a poor impression of the country's attitude. A watery new 'Grand Coalition' is hardly going to rock the boat.

The UK is more liberal towards innovation, regulating early and supportively for genomics or mitochondrial donation. But the civil service's limited foresight is consumed by Brexit.

Meanwhile both major parties are backward looking with neither setting out their vision for how should be used to benefit citizens. Threats to scientific links with the continent could isolate Britain and deprive the EU of expertise.

Eyes to the north

Northern Europe is doing better.

Thanks to a global outlook and heavy investment Stockholm is a thriving hub for start-ups with unicorns like Greta and Detectify.

The recent amalgamation of innovation agencies, Finpro and Tekes, into Business Finland and savvy use of state returns on investment in Nokia also makes Finland a great place to trial tech.

Estonia showed real leadership on digital issues in their recent EU presidency, showing that digital interactions with the state can be more efficient, more enjoyable and still private.

As every Norwegian already has their tax information available to the rest of the country, Scandinavian attitudes to transparency might help boost big data.

But despite Estonia's recent efforts, the EU as a whole lacks cohesion on emerging technology.

The EU has the power to defend its values from technological revolution.

But regulation is often slow and not future proof. The furore over GMO crops has left Brussels wary of supporting innovation. This week's decision on lighter-touch regulation for gene editing crops is positive, but has taken years and still lacks boldness or clarity.

Margarethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, has been bold towards tech companies, but must be careful not to make protecting both innovation and the public a binary proposition.

Vestager's actions must be balanced by a coherent European narrative on technological spaces, like the completion of the digital single market, or faster progress on driverless vehicles rather than the vague 2025 roadmap.

The EU is going to have to make bold decisions where foreign relations, privacy and the single market meet.

As state-backed Chinese companies like Alibaba move into the EU the 'Brussels Effect' will be put to the test. The EU would have to take firm action to stop these companies shipping data back to their version of the 'Politburo'.

Protectionism could help European start-ups to grow, but will make it bureaucratic for them to go international and might lead to retaliation or the 'Balkanisation' of tech.

There is hope in Paris.

Macron has urged the EU to support radical innovation to maintain its competitiveness, and the lure of labour reforms and the 2024 Olympics tech companies are supporting his vision. His proposed new inter-governmental agency on innovation, modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), could develop European expertise and policies on AI or new biotech.

In the proposal for a new Grand Coalition, this even got conservative backing from Germany.

Macron in China

Macron's recent trip to China also underlines his desire for Europe to set the rules for artificial intelligence, with strong words on Chinese attitudes to openness and calls for a European big-data strategy, alongside greater cooperation with the East.

Instead of intergovernmental cooperation in the model of science infrastructure like CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), or the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), Macron should push greater collaboration through the EU.

Emerging technologies are not about pure scientific endeavour but are closely tied to how people interact, eat, shop and move. Leadership in these areas needs more than research, but policies to protect individual rights, and European values.

Significant investment needs coordinating with other large funds, something the European Research Area is set-up to provide.

To ensure a truly European set of values Macron should open up cooperation to neighbours, Norwegian and British expertise will be invaluable, but so will making sure countries to the south and east follow European attitudes - and not those of Russia or China.

Sam Alvis is a policy professional, specialising in EU research and innovation.

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