Europe’s division is harming its ability to innovate

Culture is Europe’s forte, but the continent is lagging behind when it comes to turning its creative heritage into concrete solutions. The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) is working to change that. This year, the EIT is calling for proposals on how to build their newest Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC), focused on Europe’s cultural and creative sectors. Its aim is to bring innovation to these industries, and also lift up the EIT’s eight other KICs, which cover a range of areas from sustainability to health.
“Europe is no longer in the lead,” says EIT director Martin Kern. “We can see that in innovation scoreboards and success stories. If you once had the leadership in a certain field, then of course that’s not automatically perpetuated.” Europe is still a creativity powerhouse, but fragmentation is holding it back.


Political divisions aside, the continent boasts an array of different cultures and perspectives. “Because of the richness and the diversity and the differences we have in Europe, it may not always be so easy to all move in the same direction,” says Kern. Too often that spreads us apart. But if we pool together, Kern says, we’d have a huge advantage.
“Europe producing an enormously rich culture, that has not changed,” he says. The EIT’s challenge is transforming that heritage and those ideas into solutions. “It’s difficult to predict which innovation will be needed – and succeed – but what we can see is that only if we work together in Europe can we compete.”
The EIT is almost like an incubator. It provides support to innovators across Europe, but first it needs to build the framework for them to work within. Instead of taking a top-down approach and picking ultra-specific focus areas from the get go, the EIT broadly sets the field of enquiry, then chooses institutions to work with based on how they intend to work together.
“A successful proposal will have to be developed by a consortium of institutions,” says Kern. From education and research organisations to businesses, governments and regional authorities, the make-up can and should be varied. The selected groups will link to form a pan-European ecosystem – and that’s when the innovators come in.


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Entrepreneurs, startups, artists and inventors will get whatever support they need, whether it’s money, advice, skills or connections – and they’ll have the freedom to decide what’s important. “We always put the innovator at the centre,” says Kern; the EIT eco-system works for them, not the other way around. “It should be a framework, not a set of limitations.”
The one non-negotiable for the EIT when constructing the framework is that it’s pan-European. Cross-border collaboration is essential if they want to make a real impact. Unlike countries such as China and the United States, European nations don’t have the kinds of massive populations that give local startups worldwide fame. Just because you’re the coolest fintech bank in London or Berlin, doesn’t mean America is going to just fall into your lap. Prominent American startups, meanwhile, are often household names in Europe before the products are even available to buy. Pooling Europe’s resources gives local startups a better chance of making it big.
Swedish startup Northvolt is proof of that. The green battery company was just an idea in 2017; now it has reached unicorn status. Its success was powered not only by the EIT InnoEnergy’s €9.3 million investment, but also through the European Battery Alliance (EBA), which is managed by the EIT InnoEnergy (the KIC focused on innovation in the energy space). The EBA brings together over 400 partners across Europe and many different sectors, from policy makers to companies sourcing the raw materials, which opened doors that Northvolt may not have been able to on its own. “You have the EU level, the national level, and different players working together,” says Kern. “That’s the way, in Europe, we can succeed.”
The EIT is working to create as many cross-pollination opportunities as possible, whether they’re interdisciplinary or intercultural. Diverse cultures and attitudes add another avenue for unforeseen innovation. Looking at something from a different direction is usually when innovation sparks – an engineer’s perspective on fashion design, for example – but a Danish viewpoint might also help solve a problem that a Barcelona-based entrepreneur has been stuck on.
“Innovation happens at the boundaries,” says Kern, “not by the same people working together on the same issues, but by cross-fertilisation and creating room for serendipity and different encounters to happen. That’s our experience of how creativity can spark innovation.” Creativity is hard to get to, so it’s good to have as many shortcuts as possible.


When EIT Food and EIT InnoEnergy communities collaborated, they helped to accelerate the build of Trigger Systems, an irrigation management tool. It doesn’t sound sexy, but through a combination of computer vision and weather data, the system can save 40 per cent of the water usually lost through agriculture irrigation (which is where 70 per cent of fresh water is used globally).
The idea of distinct groups pulling together isn’t out of the realms of possibility. In fact, it’s basic instinct in emergency situations. “If you have an extreme urgency or a major event, you know the traditional way of working doesn’t usually do the trick,” says Kern. When he was dealing with floods in Serbia in 2014, he says the World Bank, United Nations and the European Union all pooled their resources incredibly quickly. “The same happened last year in the pandemic.” But, as the EIT shows, it doesn’t have to take an emergency for Europe to get creative, together.
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