European sector is undermining its ability to innovate

Culture is Europe’s strength, but the continent is lagging behind when it comes to turning its creative heritage into concrete solutions. The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is working to change that. This year, EIT is seeking suggestions on how to build an up-to-date knowledge and innovation community (KIC) focused on the cultural and creative sectors of Europe. Its purpose is to innovate in these industries and enhance EIT’s eight other KICs covering a wide range of areas from sustainability to health.

“Europe is no longer in control,” says EIT director Martin Kern. “You can see it in the innovation scoreboard and success story. If you’ve ever taken leadership in a particular area, of course it’s not automatically perpetuated.” Europe is still creativity. It’s a big country, but fragmentation is preventing it.

Aside from political divisions, the continent boasts a variety of cultures and perspectives. “Europe has abundance, diversity, and differences, so it may not always be easy for everything to go in the same direction,” says Kahn. Too often it breaks us apart. But pooling together has a big advantage, Khan says.

“Europe has created a very rich culture, but that hasn’t changed,” he says. The challenge for EIT is to translate that legacy and those ideas into solutions. “It’s hard to predict which innovations are needed and successful, but what we can see is that we can only compete when we work together in Europe.”

EIT is almost like an incubator. It provides support to innovators across Europe, but first we need to build a framework for them to work in. Instead of taking a top-down approach and choosing a very specific focus from the beginning, EIT sets a wide range of research areas and selects institutions to work with based on their intent to cooperate.

“Successful proposals need to be developed by a consortium of institutions,” says Kahn. From educational and research institutes to businesses, governments and local governments, the composition can and must vary. Selected groups link to form a pan-European ecosystem. That is the introduction of the innovator.

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Entrepreneurs, start-ups, artists and inventors have the support they need, including money, advice, skills and connections, and are free to make important decisions. “We always focus on innovators,” says Kahn. The EIT ecosystem works for them, but not the other way around. “It should be a framework, not a set of restrictions.”

What EIT cannot negotiate when building a framework is that it is pan-European. Cross-border collaboration is essential if they want to make a real impact. Unlike countries such as China and the United States, European countries do not have a large population that gives local start-ups global fame. Just because you’re the coolest fintech bank in London or Berlin doesn’t mean America will fall on your lap. On the other hand, prominent American start-ups are often popular names in Europe before their products are available for purchase. By pooling European resources, local start-ups are more likely to grow it.

Swedish startup Northvolt is proof of that. The green battery company was just an idea for 2017. It has now reached the position of a unicorn. Its success was supported not only by EIT InnoEnergy’s € 9.3 million investment, but also by the European Battery Alliance (EBA), which is managed by EIT InnoEnergy (KIC focused on innovation in the energy sector). The EBA has brought together more than 400 partners in Europe and various sectors, from policy makers to raw material suppliers, opening doors that could not have been possible with Northbolt alone. “You have EU-level, national-level, and a variety of players working together,” says Kahn. “That’s why you can succeed in Europe.”

EIT strives to create as many pollination opportunities as possible, whether interdisciplinary or cross-cultural. Diverse cultures and attitudes add another path to unexpected innovation. Looking at something from another direction is usually when innovation sparks. For example, from an engineer’s perspective on fashion design, a Danish perspective can also help solve the problems of Barcelona-based entrepreneurs.

“Innovation happens at the boundaries,” says Kahn. “By creating room for mutual fertilization and different encounters with chance, not by the same people working together on the same problem. That is our experience of how creativity drives innovation.” Is difficult, so it’s a good idea to have as many shortcuts as possible.

When the EIT Food and the EIT Inno Energy community worked together, they helped accelerate the construction of Trigger Systems, an irrigation management tool. It doesn’t sound sexy, but by combining computer vision with meteorological data, the system can save 40% of the water normally lost by agricultural irrigation (70% of freshwater is used worldwide).

The idea that separate groups come together is not outside the realm of possibilities. In fact, it is a basic instinct in emergencies. “If you have extreme urgency or big events, you know that traditional ways of working usually don’t work,” says Kahn. When he was dealing with floods in Serbia in 2014, he says the World Bank, the United Nations, and the European Union all pooled their resources incredibly quickly. “The same thing happened in last year’s pandemic.” But as EIT shows, Europe doesn’t have to be in a state of emergency to be creative together.

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European sector is undermining its ability to innovate

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