Neelie Kroes:research and Innovation in ICT: Time for radical change?

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our world is changing fast. Twenty years ago few had heard of the Internet. Today, it’s used by 2 to 3 billion worldwide; it’s a trillion-euro marketplace; it’s the platform for innovation transforming every sector from healthcare to transport.

These days, it’s hard to predict how the world will look in a few months, let alone years: there’s so much potential in the path ahead.

Those changes are thanks to research and innovation; in new technologies, new products, new business models.

But those changes also enable a new kind of research and innovation: open, agile and collaborative. Innovation using new forums like online collective platforms; new resources like open data; new techniques like data-mining.

The EU has long supported research and innovation. And rightly so: it’s the best way to invest in future growth. And it delivers better when we do it together: when we pool our resources for economies of scale, and let the benefits spill over across borders.

Our investment has already delivered great things. And that support will continue: for the 7 years of Horizon 2020, from 2014 to 2020, we have proposed 80 billion euros of investment, of which around one fifth for ICT. Across the spectrum, from pure research to pure innovation, and all the bits in between.

That support should continue. But it also needs to change.

Because the tools that supported ICT in yesterday’s world won’t work in tomorrow’s. The pace of change, the capacity for new disruptive ideas, is simply too great.

We must update our policies and practices for the digital world.

Better innovation needs new ideas, more agile support, and a culture where it’s OK to take risks. If you’re an entrepreneur, and you don’t take a risk, you don’t innovate; it’s that simple. It’s time that this philosophy also spread more to the public bodies who support innovation.

There are a number of things we need to do. Already we’ve set out how we will make Horizon 2020 easier to use: with a simpler architecture, more streamlined funding schemes and the lowest possible administrative burden.

But we need to go further. We need to give our research and innovation the three C’s: more challenging; more coherent; and better at boosting competitiveness.

First, remember that great innovation isn’t about keeping the status quo: it’s about challenging it.

It’s radical, disruptive, and sometimes non-linear – especially for emerging technologies. So let’s make space for that in Horizon 2020.

Here’s what I want to do.

I want to try out support for truly open, disruptive innovation in ICT. Allocating perhaps 5% of funds to create an open, agile, responsive funding instrument. Starting an experiment to support creativity and innovation.

I also want to inspire innovators: with inducement prizes for solutions to major technical and societal challenges; however disruptive.

I want to show procurement agencies across Europe the benefits of buying innovative technologies, even before they hit the market. Show them how they can save taxpayers’ money – and stimulate a new generation of technology leaders at the same time.

And most of all, I want us to be more challenging and responsive in how we manage projects. There’s nothing wrong with taking a risk. But if a project turns out not to work as intended, funders should be able to stop it, and free up innovators for other challenges.

Equally, if a project exceeds expectations, if it works, great! Then we should prioritise it, for example supporting private fundraising for it, and exploiting its results faster.

Second, innovation needs to be coherent.

At the moment, we work within our own safe little boxes, researching in separate subject silos, or funding from separate pots of money. We still too often see policy issues as distinct islands; ‘societal’ challenges as unrelated to ‘industrial’ or ‘academic’ ones.

And many actors, as beneficiaries, are quite happy staying in their silo, too comfortable to risk breaking out of them.

But this isn’t right. The areas we are working in aren’t distinct and separate: they are inherently linked, different parts of the same puzzle. Here to read more.

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