03 Dec 2015   |   Viewpoint

Will Europe be smart in 2050? (Or not?)

An EU expert group analyses the future of Europe’s system for generating knowledge. The report is released this week.

What is Europe’s future? Will it be strong and cohesive, or will it splinter into petty nation-states? That question is on many minds right now – but usually from a purely political point of view. A new advisory report to the European Commission looks at it from a new perspective: The state of Europe’s knowledge system, the complex network of researchers, educators and business people who create new ideas, products and services.

The report, for which I was chair, paints two contrasting scenarios for this ‘knowledge triangle’ in 2050.

In one, Europe is a success at home and abroad. Its share of new ideas globally – a rough index of patents, tech trade, scientific publications and other factors – has risen to 40 per cent from 30 per cent today. Universities and schools are training vast numbers of citizens, young and old, for success in a global knowledge economy. Its crowded but vibrant mega-cities are a focus for innovation, giving new meaning to branding terms like ‘Paris original.’ Its industry leads automation and data-intensive applications globally. Science is open to all, and well-funded on a European scale.

In the other, Europe is a victim of megatrends beyond its control. Automation and globalisation have triggered mass unemployment and social exclusion. Inequality is worse and, under the resulting political pressures, Europe is fragmenting into a strong Northern Arc and a Rest of Europe. A few great universities dominate, with global brands. Education is an increasingly online business, a certificate mill for job-seekers. Hot researchers are in high demand, as ‘consultants without borders’ for stateless companies. Cross-border supply chains form and vanish quickly, making regional development difficult.

A utopia and dystopia. Both are based on projections of mega-trends well-documented by the OECD, the Commission, think-tanks and others; they were developed by the 18-member group in four workshops we conducted in 2014 and 2015, to consider alternate views of the future. The difference? In one, we assumed Europe’s leaders make wise choices. In the other, we assume they don’t. So what are those choices?

  1. Europe’s leaders promote an open knowledge system. This means investing more in research infrastructure, promoting open access to and citizen participation in science, improving how intellectual property works. It means creating what we call a European Knowledge Space, an online framework open to all citizens for research, analysis, debate and sharing of scientific results - building on Europe’s big investment in public science to involve all citizens and spark new, job-creating innovations. This idea echoes Commissioner Carlos Moedas’ recent call for the “three O’s” of open science, open innovation and a Europe open to the world.
  2. Europe’s leaders promote flexibility and experimentation in innovation. Crucial to this is building stronger regional innovation ecosystems, that take advantage of the rapid growth of Europe’s mega-cities. Universities should be autonomous, with diverse income streams. New EU challenges and prizes, a greater role for independent charities, and a new regional fund for social and environmental experiments are needed.
  3. Europe’s leaders cooperate. A single market of scale requires some form of coordination; better to hang together than to hang separately. So, this means accelerating some policies already underway, such as the European Research Area so scientists and ideas can move more freely around the EU, and the Bologna Process to harmonise educational degrees. But it also means building the European Research Council into a ‘science hub’ for frontier-research policy. None of this need mean any loss of national sovereignty; it’s about cooperating better where it makes sense.

Our last consideration is about taxes. Knowledge isn’t cheap. Many parts of the university-industry system are public goods, and will always need substantial public funding. As globalisation continues, corporate and individual tax avoidance can grow. We should apply our best scientific and engineering minds – in economics, data analysis, game theory, fiscal studies – to preventing a worst-case scenario in which only the poor and immobile are left paying their taxes. This can be a part of future Framework Programmes.

An expert group like this – 18 highly opinionated people from the academic, industry and policy worlds, ranging from Europhile to Eurosceptic – would naturally find it difficult to come up with consensus views. But in this case, we were motivated by a common fear and hope: The hope that Europe’s citizens and nations will succeed, and the fear that they won’t. It’s up to us all to make the right choices now.

Richard Hudson was chair of the KT2050 expert group on Foresight on Key Long-Term Transformations of European systems: Research, Innovation and Higher Education, reporting to the Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. https://ec.europa.eu/research/index.cfm?pg=foresight

The report can be downloaded directly in PDF format from the following link: http://ec.europa.eu/research//pdf/publications/knowledge_future_2050.pdf

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