The European Commission has received much praise for putting innovation and creativity at the centre of attention in 2009, but it remains to be seen whether the special year can go beyond mere symbolism and deliver concrete results at a time when Europe is engulfed in a global economic recession.

Overview

Special 'European Years' focusing on specific themes have been held since 1983. Their main purpose is to increase public awareness and stimulate political debate across the EU on a given topic. The most recent editions were the European Year of Workers' Mobility (2006), the European Year of Equal Opportunities (2007) and the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue (2008). 

2009 has been dedicated to creativity and innovation. Throughout the year, the European Commission will jointly organise campaigns, events and initiatives at EU, national, regional and local levels in conjunction with the Czech and Swedish EU presidencies. Funding will come from existing Community programmes.

The EU executive nominated 27 European personalities from various fields as special ambassadors for the year, headed by Esko Tapani Aho, executive vice-president of Nokia and a former prime minister of Finland. 

The ambassadors' key task is promoting the public interest in relevant fields such as education, culture, innovation or enterprise. They are supporting the Year in their countries and worldwide and participate in the leading events. 

Issues

"I believe the 2009 Year of Creativity and Innovation will represent a source of inspiration. It should grow into a big tree and not only be a one-year plant," Education Commissioner Ján Fígel said at the official opening of the year in Prague. "Those who invest in creativity and innovation will be more competitive than those who do not," he declared (EurActiv 09/01/09).

No lack of innovative initiatives 

There is no shortage of EU initiatives in support of innovation. EU leaders made innovation a key element of the bloc's strategy to boost growth and jobs (see EurActiv Links Dossier), while it also features in the bloc's recently adopted economic recovery plan, which highlights the need to boost R&D investment, increase broadband coverage in rural areas and turn Europe into a low-carbon economy (EurActiv 27/11/08). 

However, a recent Commission report showed that progress has so far been limited (EurActiv 30/01/09). In terms of R&D funding, Europe is even falling further behind the US, a recent study suggested, indicating that the EU may never close the gap without boosting investment in the services sector (EurActiv 10/02/09). But other experts disagree with the one-dimensional approach of defining innovation solely in terms of R&D investment.

Despite differences of opinion, it is clear that such findings largely contradict the EU's stated objective of becoming the world's most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010, a target set out in the Lisbon Strategy ten years ago but which has since quietly been dropped. 

Creative 
industries ignored so far

Ann Mettler, executive director of the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think tank, lauded the Commission's attempt to "broaden our understanding of innovation" by including creativity in the picture. "We shouldn't underestimate the benefits of creative industries, such as film-making or design," Mettler told EurActiv, declaring that these industries offer a "huge opportunity" to transform Europe into a "magnet for talent from around the world".

The EU executive has pledged to highlight creative industries' potential with events throughout the year, supported by various special ambassadors working as authors, artists or directors in their home countries.

Education and life-long learning

In line with the EU's goal of becoming a knowledge-based society (see EurActiv LinksDossier), education and life-long learning will also feature prominently on the agenda of the European Year. 

The events planned complement the Union's 'New skills for new jobs' initiative, unveiled by the Commission at the end of 2008 (EurActiv 17/12/08). The initiative was designed to help Europe's workforce to adapt to the changing economy, which has become more services-oriented and more focused on ICT and green technologies. For Ann Mettler, this was already "a step into the right direction".

Creativity starts at school

The EU executive admits that schools play a crucial role in stimulating and discovering problem-solving attitudes, curiosity and talents, but regrets that the role of creativity in their curricula is declining. 

Events like an annual European six-week 'Spring Day' campaign, which invites all kinds of schools to devote one or more days to debates, interaction and reflection on European themes, should help to address this. 

More school-business links 

The Commission is also seeking to foster closer cooperation between educational institutions and businesses. Speaking at the second edition of the University-Business Forum on 5-6 February, Education Commissioner Ján Figel' said European universities have significant untapped potential, "especially in their ability to establish links with the business community" (EurActiv 06/02/09). 

The EU executive will publish a Communication on 'University-Business Cooperation' in April to establish a set of good practices, Figel' said, adding that it will be a "recipe" for partnership between education and industry. 

The move is considered as a response to the growing number of complaints from employers that many graduates do not have the right mix of knowledge and skills, the commissioner stated. "In particular, they ask for more cross-cutting and transferable skills. So, this is a suggestion for academia," he added. 

The EU executive's priorities are enhancing learner mobility by expanding the Erasmus programme, improving the efficiency of education and training, modernising Europe's universities and promoting innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. 

Positions

"We must enhance our problem-solving capacity, in every age group and in every place in Europe," said EU Education Commissioner Ján Fígel'. "What I would like to see at the end of the Year is that the citizens of Europe understand better that by promoting human talents and the human capacity to innovate, we can actively shape Europe for the better, to help it fully develop its potential, both economically and socially," Fígel told EurActiv in an interview.

"Innovation can provide good tools to overcome environmental challenges," said Nokia's Executive Vice-Chairman Esko Aho, a former prime minister of Finland who is chairing the ambassadors' group. Aho urged EU governments to refrain from cutting R&D budgets at a time of crisis to provide short-term solutions, stressing that doing so would be a "great mistake".

Professor Edward de Bono, a leading authority on creative thinking and innovation and an ambassador of the European Year, called on business in particular to take the issue seriously. He told EurActiv in an interview: "I think businesses ought to take creativity as seriously as they take finance and legal affairs. We need someone in every organisation who is directly responsible for creativity and new ideas, who organises training and puts together lists of new thinking, who listens to new ideas, who transmits them and stands behind them."

Radek Spicar, external relations director at Skoda, a Czech carmaker, stressed the importance of innovation for businesses' ability to remain competitive. Echoing Aho's sentiments, he insisted that the middle of the financial crisis is the best time to think about innovation. 

He also called for education systems to be improved, which should prepare students for the needs of the labour market. For the time being, businesses are struggling to find qualified workers as young people do not possess the required skills, Spicar said. Teaching entrepreneurial skills and winning over more students for natural sciences also should also rank highly among policy priorities, he argued.

Ann Mettler, executive director of the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think tank, declared the Year to be a "fabulous idea," with the potential to trigger debate and even inspire the creation of new institutions in the mould of the prestigious European Institute for Technology (EIT).

Timeline

  • 4 Dec. 2006: EU ministers adopt a broad-based innovation strategy.
  • 31 March 2008: European Commission proposes that 2009 should be the European Year of Creativity and Innovation (EYCI).
  • 16 Dec. 2008: European Parliament and Council approve EYCI.
  • 7 Jan. 2009: Official launch of the European Year of Creativity and Innovation (EYCI).
  • 2-3 March 2009: First EYCI flagship event focusing on education and training (Brussels).
  • 25 March – 9 May 2009: 'Spring Day for Europe'.
  • 26-27 March 2009: Second flagship event: 'Forum for Creative Europe' (Prague).
  • May 2009: AmCham EU conference on creativity, innovation and business.
  • 24-26 June 2009: Third flagship event, entitled 'The territorial dimension of creativity and innovation'.
  • Sept 2009: Fourth flagship event: European Cultural Forum (Brussels).
  • Oct. 2009: Fifth flagship event: 'Creativity at work: The triangle of knowledge' (Brussels).
  • Dec. 2009: EYCI closing event (Stockholm).