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The Knowledge Future: Intelligent Policy Choices for Europe 2050

February 24, 2016

I was part of an Expert Group which was tasked with tackling this theme for the European Commission.

The report from the Expert Group asks – how do ideas become reality? The whole process of transforming knowledge – creating it, sharing it, and using it – has become important to policy makers. They see it as connected somehow with how rich we are, how competitive Europe can be, how healthy or happy our citizens are, and how sustainable our world will be. It looks at the future of this knowledge engine – towards the challenges of 2050. It recommends steps to ensure that, through maintenance of a robust system for transforming knowledge into action, Europe’s citizens are better off, rather than worse off, in that distant future.

Vital to that system is the ‘knowledge triangle.’ The acts of learning, discovering and innovating all go together, like three pistons in an economic engine. Education, research and innovation; universities, laboratories and companies; academics, researchers and entrepreneurs – all are part of an engine that, if well managed, creates wealth, jobs, growth and, if one is an optimist, social progress. Europe today has many such triangles, of varying strength, specialisation and fecundity.

They include very large, multi-disciplinary agglomerations of big universities, companies and agencies; specialised but no-less dynamic sectoral hubs; and rising new centres. Increasingly, they interconnect: Indeed, EU initiatives like the Framework Programmes or, within them, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, include linkage as an aim. But despite these centres individual vibrancy, many policy makers share an overriding concern that they aren’t enough: That competition from the US, China, India and elsewhere risks leaving Europe behind – and that the difficulties coordinating and managing a European response are enormous.

At least three major trends are destabilising the status quo in Europe’s knowledge system.

Globalisation is one. As the world gets more inter-connected, and economic competition expands, the way we learn, discover or innovate will change, and the impact will hit home faster and harder.

Demographic change is another. The move to cities, the ageing population, the shifts in family size and social norms – all will alter what we expect and can do in education, research and innovation.

And technological change is accelerating. Just 35 years ago came text editors. Now: gene editing. By 2050, what next? Each invention, coming faster and faster, changes not only our society and economy, but also our expectations and the way we work in education, science and business.

How will Europe cope with these changes? Can we continue to play a key role in the global generation, spread and use of knowledge? Can we use the knowledge system to improve our lives, integrate our societies, preserve and improve our environment?

The report makes policy recommendations to the Commission under three headings –

  • An open innovation system – including re-thinking intellectual property laws
  • Flexibility and experimentation in innovation – including new economic analysis metrics
  • European-level co-operation – better to hang together than hang separately.

As Commissioner Moedas says in the foreword:

“Globalisation, demographic changes and technological advances pose important challenges and opportunities for research and innovation in Europe. By reflecting on the trends and articulating scenarios, this report helps us think differently about European policies in the medium to long term.

In Europe we need to:

  • Create the necessary conditions to capitalise on the results of research and innovation;
  • Boost excellence in cutting-edge, fundamental research;
  • Reinforce our international engagement through science diplomacy.

On this basis, I have set my priorities to be Open Innovation, Open Science, and Open to the World.”

The report is available on the EC’s web site at https://ec.europa.eu/research/pdf/publications/knowledge_future_2050.pdf

Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow and CEO.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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