Innovation potential in the digital age

Speech by Commissioner Moedas, responsible for Research, Science and Innovation, at the conference ICT 2015 Innovate, Connect, Transform

Kept indoors during the French revolutionary years − and in search of a worthwhile distraction − a young Parisian called Sophie Germain turned to studying her father’s library. From intellectual works like Montucla’s Histoire des Mathématiques, Sophie soon discovered a deep love and a remarkable talent for mathematics.

digital age

Though her alarmed parents took away her warm clothes, and refused to light a fire in her bedroom, Sophie wrapped herself in blankets and continued to study mathematical theorems into the night by candlelight.

She even taught herself Latin to decipher the works of Newton and Euler.

As a woman, Sophie could not attend the new Paris Ecole Polytechnique, but thanks to an innovation in education, she was able to obtain lecture notes from various professors, working under the nom de plume of M. LeBlanc.

So great was her genius that Sophie was soon corresponding with the most celebrated mathematicians of her time and happily with her true identity and credibility firmly established, Sophie eventually won the Paris Academy of Sciences grand prize for her pioneering work on elasticity theory.

Ladies and gentlemen, though every barrier imaginable was thrown in her path, Sophie Germain succeeded through hard work and perseverance: educating herself, hiding her true identity and withstanding the social pressure to conform to traditional expectations.

What I take from her story is that there have always been barriers to thought and innovation, but those barriers can be overcome. By teaching herself, Sophie brought a fresh perspective to her field. She could see the solutions others couldn’t and we can learn a great deal from her example, when breaking down the barriers to innovation in the 21st century.

The way I see it, we have reached an age of transition. The digital world can no longer be contained and we must adjust to a new reality!

So today, I’m going to talk to you about 3 things:

  1. How digital processes are changing the way we do business,
  2. What we risk if we falter in adjusting to that change, and
  3. Why we really don’t want to miss this opportunity to innovate better.

My first point is that, in this digital age, data and communication now underpin global trade and commerce and increasingly so.

The internet enables instant cross-border communication, so that everyone from tech entrepreneurs, to universities, to artists now has multiple entry points into global markets.

Today, someone’s open-source software or mobile application can set a traditional market to zero overnight.

Today, every business is physical and every business is digital.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute’s 2014 report on Global flows in a digital age, digital is exercising ever more influence on global GDP growth.

Digital technologies are not only changing how we do business, but creating entirely new kinds of business, whether improving services, making them more accessible, or digitalising them entirely.

So, you could say, the digital age is making market access more open and democratic, while speeding up the movement of information goods and services at an exponential rate.

There is no way to slow this down.

In Accenture’s Technology Vision 2015 survey, 60% of respondents said they plan to engage new digital partners within their respective industries over the next two years.

The transformation is already underway.

We have one choice, and that’s to take advantage of this new way of thinking, working and innovating.

My second point is that we risk a great deal, if we become mere observers to the transition happening all around us.

Governments can no longer ignore the digital age and its implications for health, food, water and energy – 4 areas all vital to our immediate future.

The challenge for Europe is therefore to exert influence on digital markets. As long as the digital age brings with it simpler, more accessible, more affordable options to citizens and consumers, it will only gain momentum.

We must position ourselves to lead, to lead on solutions to the universal problems of the digital age before they are solved by someone else. Problems like record amounts of data, the cost of data storage, or keeping up with advances in data science to name a few.

If we fail to act, if we fail to adapt:

  • We risk losing pace, while the rest of the world moves on,
  • We risk our business models becoming obsolete, and
  • We will be left vulnerable every time there’s a new economic shock.

This brings me to my third point: why we really don’t want to miss this opportunity to innovate better. Everyone – citizens, governments, companies – everyone, can now consider how they want to work and how they wish to collaborate.

Citizens can now engage in online democratic processes − from live-streaming political debate, to participating in public consultations. Consumers can now demand better service, by favouring digital business models that improve customer experience. Researchers and academics can tap into unprecedented amounts of information and review their research results among a global community of peers and patients in a remote village can now consult a doctor at the tap of an app.

The possibilities are endless and they’re already transforming our society. Digital is changing the process of innovation: from top-down to bottom-up − from the company to the citizen.

It’s no exaggeration that our lives − virtually every aspect of our human experience − can be improved by connecting one human being to another. Digital is compelling openness and diversity in everything we do, and that’s a recipe for better, higher kinds of innovation than we’ve aspired to before. Innovation based on European values.

As you know, the vision behind the Digital Single Market is to move from 28 markets to a single European one. A fully functional Digital Single Market could contribute as much as 415 billion euro per year to our economy and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

In research, science and innovation, we’re looking at these issues in light of my 3 priorities: Open Innovation, Open Science and Open to the World.

To name a few examples, we’re working with member states to launch a European Open Science Agenda. We’re considering the merits of developing a European Open Science Cloud. We’re encouraging the removal of legal barriers to Open Science and Open Innovation – particularly regarding the use of Text and Data Mining (TDM) techniques for scientific activities and we’re supporting the further digitisation of European industry, as well as merging the digital and the physical in our Horizon 2020 calls.

In this period of transition − in order to reach such a milestone as the Digital Single Market − my question to you is:

How do we go from observing the influence of the digital age, to experimenting with it, shaping it, making the most of it?

The answer cannot possibly come from politicians alone. It must evolve organically from your needs and aspirations. It must start with the vision citizens want for their future. Only then can we inform our policy and digital strategy in a lasting and effective way.

So I call on you to make your vision for the digital age in Europe known! Take a keen interest in how the Digital Single Market develops in the areas that matter most to you!

Finally, as I see it, there is an unmistakeable buzz and optimism surrounding digital enterprise in Europe. I could point to any number of new and exciting initiatives but, as a continent, we’re still in our digital adolescence. We still have the luxury of choosing the direction we want to take. We still have plenty of room to grow.

If we capitalise on that buzz, on that energy, now, before the momentum passes, I believe we can achieve incredible things in Europe. We can mature into a digital continent! We can be a global force for a very European kind of digital innovation.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re very lucky that we don’t have to hide our candles, or teach ourselves Latin or hide our true identity like Sophie Germain.

We are all that stands our way.

So let’s use Europe’s unique perspective to see the solutions others can’t. Let’s research digital, invest in digital and skill-up in digital! Let’s build momentum!

Today and not tomorrow.

Source: The European Commission