Is the EU industrial strategy still fit for purpose, six months after the start of the corona crisis? That was the question posed to the European Commission by Neth-ER in its first-ever webinar. According to Mark Nicklas from the European Commission, innovation is one of seven key enablers of the strategy. Representatives of Dutch research and education organisations argued that knowledge should be at the basis of both the strategy and the industrial ecosystems that should implement it.

Neth-ER webinar: “Collaboration is the key to an innovative EU industrial strategy”

Knowledge and the European Industrial Strategy                            

Five months after the Commission presented the industrial strategy, we find ourselves in a completely new geopolitical and socio-economic reality. Is the strategy still in line with the priorities of the European Commission after corona? In its first-ever webinar, Neth-ER welcomed high-level stakeholders in the fields of education, research and innovation to discuss this issue. A keynote address by Mark Nicklas of the European Commission was followed by a panel discussion with representatives from the Dutch knowledge community and Tom Berendsen MEP.

“Innovation as cross-cutting enabler” 

Innovation is a cross-cutting enabler of the European industrial strategy, said Mark Nicklas, Head of Unit Industrial Strategy and Value Chains in the European Commission. According to Nicklas, the COVID epidemic has accelerated and reinforced ongoing trends like the green and digital transitions, which in turn has repercussions for the industrial strategy. The effective implementation of the strategy depends on new tools that stimulate the uptake of innovation and increase diffusion. Horizon Europe is vital as it provides several instruments that support this, including partnerships, the European Institute of Innovation & Technology and the European Innovation Council. The sectoral arrangements in Horizon Europe could form the nexus of industrial alliances under the strategy, Nicklas said. However, Nicklas also issued a warning, saying that authorities and funding organisations will have to change if they are to embrace innovation. Innovation is inherently risky, and awarding funding cannot be dependent on a guarantee of success.

Knowledge is the bedrock

In four separate contributions, representatives of the Dutch knowledge community were unanimous that knowledge is the bedrock of the industrial strategy. Servaas Duterloo, liaison officer at the Delft University of Technology, called for a long-term focus on research & innovation instead of the wait-and-see attitude some companies still use as their business model. He warned that the Commission’s geopolitical ambitions should not be limited to window dressing. To make true on this intention, the EU needs to invest in research to strengthen its competitiveness in the world. Gosse Vuijk, head of the EU Office of TNO, welcomed the partnership approach of the strategy and the spirit of industrial innovation, particularly for Europe’s recovery from the COVID crisis. However, the strategy makes no reference to technology infrastructures or how they relate to the industry alliances. Both Vuijk and Duterloo wondered how the strategy’s focus on sectoral ecosystems might affect the programming of Horizon Europe, as well as its partnerships and the EIT Knowledge and Innovation Communities.

Need for human capital

An ambitious strategy is pointless without a skilled workforce. Bouke Bosgraaf, senior project leader at the Dutch Platform Talent for Technology, emphasised how partnerships between the VET sector and industry (in particular SMEs) can support innovation and the upskilling and reskilling of the workforce. The Netherlands is home to several such projects, including the national network Katapult. Ellen Willemse, policy adviser on STEM education at the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, pointed out how the future sectoral industry alliances will have to be inclusive. The European Commission should involve a wide range of stakeholders, including all levels of education as well as enterprises, large and small.

Time for reflection

In response Mark Nicklas emphasised the role of ecosystems in the industrial strategy, pointing towards several Dutch projects as examples of how ecosystems can link up education and research organisations with industry and authorities. In a reflection on the discussion, Tom Berendsen, MEP for the European People’s Party and one of the shadow rapporteurs for the industrial strategy, stated that R&D should be at the heart of the recovery from the crisis. In his view, strategic autonomy should be at the heart of the strategy. Europe can only become self-reliant if it invests in R&I to develop the technologies that other countries need.

Three steps forward

The discussion points towards three steps forward, concluded Jurgen Rienks, director of Neth-ER. “First of all, it is about addressing the need for transition and recovery. The green and digital transition start from knowledge. The coming years will be about the viability of our economy and our European social model. A successful recovery will require action and planning. We can accept failure, but we cannot accept inertia in the EU.” Second, Europe has global ambitions, but the means are not there. This is particularly obvious in the negotiations of the European budget: “The ambitions of the EU and its member states are not yet clear. We need to reflect on this and act accordingly, for example with increased investments in R&I from all Member States.” Rienks also highlighted the need for cooperation, which should get everybody on board and involve young talent from all education levels. Neth-ER is looking forward to working with stakeholders from all levels and regions to implement the industrial strategy.