Innovation funding and digital skills crisis: More can be done, says EIT Digital CEO

This article is part of our special report Pushing Europe’s tech frontiers.

“Are you surprised that the leading software companies dominating the world today are American platforms?”

These are the words of EIT digital chief Willem Jonker, speaking at the EIT digital conference 2018 in Brussels on Tuesday (11 September), where he highlighted a lack of digital skills in the EU as well as the need for more funding in innovation across the continent.

A central theme in Jonker’s opening speech was the fact that Europe is at risk of lagging behind global competitors if it does not bridge the funding gap that exists between Europe and the rest of the world.

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“Our GDP is world class. However, Europe is not really a leader in e-commerce.” Jonker said.

“A majority of the digital trade happening in Europe is not coming from EU platforms. With the right investment, we can perform better.”

Jonker’s announcement comes after the commission’s proposed budget plans up to 2027 that see an increased investment in digital innovation through the Horizon Europe programme as well as an additional €9 billion outlay for the Digital Europe project.

Horizon Europe is the commission’s 7-year scientific research initiative meant to succeed the current Horizon 2020 program, while the Digital Europe programme is a funding commitment designed to increase the EU’s international competitiveness as well as develop and reinforce Europe’s strategic digital capacities.

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Tuesday’s conference also drew attention to the digital skills gap that exists across the EU.

“Europe’s education is world class. We generate many doctorates.” Jonker said. “But, if you look at the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, China leads the way. We lack an enormous amount of people with digital skills.”

Research carried out by the European Commission shows that 9 out of 10 jobs in the not-too-distant future will require digital skills, while around 44% of Europeans aged between 16 and 74 years of age don’t have the basic digital skillset required to perform in the future jobs marketplace.

However, some of the most striking figures come from the gender gap in the digital sector. A 2016 study concluded that there are four times as many men than women in ICT-related studies, and the share of men working in the digital sector is 3.1 times greater than the share of women.

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Speaking at the conference, Director-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture at the European commission Themis Christophidou paid heed to the challenges presented  by the digital skills gap, together with the fact that women are disproportionately underrepresented in the industry.

“Today, many Europeans lack the appropriate digital skills in the jobs market,” she said.

“There is clearly an ICT mismatch in Europe. Thousand of vacancies remain unfilled. Moreover, fewer women are interested in the digital sector.  No one should be left behind.“

The hurdles likely to be presented in the future with regards to the digital skills gap are further exacerbated by a lack of training programs offered to younger students in the educational system.

Christophidou drew attention to the alarming vision that “most people entering primary school today are likely to work in jobs that at the moment don’t exist.”

“In an age of polarisation, radicalisation and disinformation education must protect our democracies. Technology should be embraced as a method of teaching,” she added.

Millennials see robots as job creators rather than a threat

Young people remain optimistic about the impact of robots and artificial intelligence in the work place, as a large majority of them believe that more jobs will be created than will disappear, according to a global poll published on Monday (28 August).

EURACTIV spoke to Tuomas Syrjänen, founder of the digital services company Futurice, to chew the fat over how Europe can meet the challenges of attracting more people to work in european tech.

“What I’m really concerned about is how we can retain our workers who are trained in Europe and are then tempted to leave for the US and occasionally, China,” he said.

“I think it would also be really interesting to consider the methods by which we could attract workers back to Europe who have previously left for America. We need them to inspire the next generation of tech entrepreneurs who will  eventually go on to be the innovators of tomorrow.”

But for the EU to compete with the US and China in digital skills, does it need to have a greater degree of centralisation in terms of its tech industry?

EURACTIV spoke to Sorbonne University’s Professor Jean-Michel Dalle, who has been working with EIT Digital since 2014 in the area of innovation and entrepreneurship.

When pressed on the lack of a central hub for technology innovation in Europe, Dalle was clear that it may just not be in the European makeup to have a concentration of one particular industry in a particular geographical location.

“In Europe, we have a polycentric culture. Its architecture has been defined by a long history, but that does not prevent us from adopting strategies that are in line with our competitors,” he said.

“It’s too late for us to build a single digital hub akin to Silicon Valley in California or Shenzhen in China, but that doesn’t mean that innovation across the continent has to suffer.”


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