24 februari 2022
‘International collaboration is key to the success of technology infrastructures’
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24 februari 2022
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Operational and financial support from the European Union, cross-border access, multidisciplinary, and being embedded in a regional innovation ecosystem. These aspects are key to the creation, development and sustainability of technology infrastructures. During the webinar ‘Technology Infrastructures in European Innovation Ecosystems’, TNO and Neth-ER invited Commission representatives, national civil servants and SMEs to discuss the future of technology infrastructures in Europe.
How to develop and improve technology infrastructures across Europe? During the webinar ‘Technology Infrastructures in European Innovation Ecosystems’, Neth-ER and TNO invited stakeholders to discuss the future of technology infrastructures in Europe. Ms Apostolia Karamali, keynote speaker and Head of the Academic Research & Innovation Unit within DG Research, was eager to exchange views with stakeholders. Hosted by Ms Christa Hooijer (TNO), the discussion saw contributions of Mr Fabio Taucer from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), Mr Patrick Schelvis of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs & Climate, and Mr Korneel van der Meer, who recently experienced working with a technology infrastructure, from Huisman Equipment.
Hooijer, director of science at the technology unit of TNO, kicked off the webinar by defining technology infrastructures. One example is a wind tunnel that is open for testing from external partners in exchange for a fee. Another is the EBL2 Machine operated by TNO in Delft. However, technology infrastructures (TIs) are not to be mistaken for research infrastructures (RIs). While the two share many similarities, including a need to pool funding in Europe, they are quite different. The experience of jointly establishing research infrastructures under ESFRI can act as inspiration, but should not serve as the blueprint for a future strategy on technology infrastructures. Taucer of the JRC, which also hosts multiple TIs, observed that the European landscape is very diverse. For instance, TIs typically have shorter time horizons and higher Technology Readiness Levels compared to RIs. RIs also tend to be larger. Schelvis added that technology infrastructures are not only a place to test technologies but also a meeting place to exchange knowledge.
Opening technology infrastructures across borders is of major importance. Taucer mentioned that the TIs hosted by the JRC are used by researchers from all over the continent. The knowledge growth gained from this is of importance for the whole EU. He added that during the COVID-19 pandemic, technology infrastructures were forced to experiment with remote access, where the JRC conducted the tests on behalf of its clients. The JRC intends to build on this experience, possibly opening up sites to researchers who cannot physically visit the facility. Van der Meer underlined the international perspective. His company is currently collaborating with a TI close to home, but Huisman also considered sites in Norway and the United States. When looking for technology at this level, competition is global.
Is EU financial support needed to start and develop technology infrastructures? Taucer would agree, pointing out the high costs. Not only do TIs require high start-up costs, but they also need operational investment to sustain their activities. These investments should be synchronised with the investment programme of Horizon Europe. He also cautioned against the urge to start a new TI when a new technology is needed. Slightly older TIs can often be refurbished at a fraction of the costs, while also extending their life cycle. Van der Meer added that their recent selection of a technology infrastructure also factored in financial aspects like the costs of the logistics to get to the facility with their samples, although the determining factor was the services offered.
In response, Hooijer mentioned that there are other aspects too and that the Commission’s upcoming strategy can deliver more than just financial support. Karamali agreed, saying that the Commission is looking to support technology infrastructures through other means too. For instance, European TIs would benefit from a European advisory service that helps users find the right facility. The Commission is also creating a repository of technology infrastructures for this purpose. Van der Meer added that this would be helpful, as it can be quite difficult for smaller players to get the full overview. Schelvis expressed his hope that the strategy would also put technology infrastructures higher on the learning curve. Besides financial means, the EU also needs to think about a new governance mechanism. Any funding scheme aimed at TIs would have to be much faster than EU support for RIs, given their shorter life cycle. Other solutions are a platform to create a fast track for demand and to teach researchers about access, and the collaboration between existing and new technology infrastructures.
Technology infrastructures play a crucial role in the green and digital transitions through their role as testbeds. The core business of Huisman is to support the energy transition, Van der Meer said, but to do so, Huisman depends on the experimental facilities that the company could not afford. The same applies to the digital transition, Hooijer added in response to a question from the audience: digital services could be considered a technology infrastructure, if they are made available for tests, demonstration and upscaling. Schelvis mentioned that technology infrastructures are not always massive undertakings. Specific field labs are an example of smaller technology infrastructures. What can add to this is a place-based approach, where TIs are embedded in regional innovation ecosystems. This raises the question, however, how TIs compare to other place-based initiatives the EU has been rolling out, including ERA hubs under Horizon Europe and Digital Innovation Hubs under Digital Europe (DIH).
The discussion on green and digital unveiled a key dimension of technology infrastructures: technology is just one dimension. Potent TIs also serve other purposes, such as networking or advisory services. Van der Meer recalled that technology is just a minor determinant of the success of their projects. While Huisman proposes solutions based on technology, equally instrumental are legal and financial expertise, regulatory consideration, political support and community engagement. Technology will only go so far if people in the area are opposed, for instance. Taucer mentioned the importance of social links between infrastructure operators and their users. Networking is an essential aspect that contributes to knowledge growth. Schelvis reiterated that technology infrastructures must become a link in the knowledge chain, acting as meeting points in an ecosystem.
To conclude, each participant shared their main suggestion for the upcoming EU strategy. For Van der Meer, the strategy should recognise that technology infrastructures are about more than just technology. Schelvis added that the infrastructures are crucial for the knowledge ecosystem. He suggested a flexible open governance system, ensuring that more people have access to technology infrastructures. Taucer suggested the development of an EU instrument to ensure the long-term sustainability of European TIs, as well as a European repository. Finally, Karamali recalled that an EU strategy on TIs can draw from the experience with research infrastructures, while keeping an eye on the key differences, such as the shorter life cycle. She also mentioned that the strategy would have to be multifaceted, given the many challenges. It is important to first identify the necessary actions of the strategy, which will also clarify the required financial means.
Technology infrastructures feature prominently in the policy agenda of the European Research Area. The Commission will launch a public consultation in 2022 to collect evidence for the future EU strategy. On 23 June, the French presidency organises the conference ‘Technology infrastructures in the new deal on research and innovation’.
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