Friends of Europe annual seminar: session on innovation

We need a “decarb war room”

The substance of my point is that we probably have to move way beyond where we are in our European narrative on innovation. The classical narrative –and we all know it by heart- is that we have an innovation deficit, compared to our competitors (US, China, Korea, Japan) notably in tech. We know the reasons of this deficit: we do not invest enough in innovation and where we do not invest enough in research compared to our competitors is the private sector. We are better at producing science with public money that at producing private money with science. The other reason is that we have an ecosystem that is not innovation friendly, whether it is about finance, the internal market fragmentation, risk culture etc..

This is the classical approach and we have a solid set of recipes of how to address that : just have a look at the LAB-FAB-APP report, which a bunch of good brains produced for the Commission in order to frame the next European research and innovation  programme for the period 2021-2026, a distant the descendent of the first ones created by Stevie Davignon in the 80s.

My point here is that we have to move beyond the streetlamp, because if the priority number one is not just growth, but clean growth – and this is what European people want-, we have to direct our minds to how we address this decarbonisation challenge through innovation. Decarbonisation 2050: that is the target with some sort of benchmark in 2030. How do we get there? Of course, we need a lot  of tech  –disruptive or less disruptive innovation-, a lot of finance, a lot of de-risking, a lot of public investment, a lot of public procurement.

But this will not suffice if  we do not properly address through innovation is the formidable complexity of this task of decarbonisation  the EU by 2050. The biggest challenge we have, in my view – and I am also looking at what they do in the US and in China – is complexity, which by the way is a discipline where, given the huge complexity of the EU system, we have a comparative advantage in governance compared to other parts of this planet. I would agree that we do not have a comparative advantage in making sure people obey, like China, or in making sure markets would do the trick, like in the US-, but we have one in managing complexity at EU level.

In order to do that –and this is my proposal this morning-, I want to borrow an image, a narrative that I discussed recently with John Kerry, which is the “D-day” narrative. The point is that it took two and a half years from 1942 to 1944 to think and organise how in 24 hours 3,000 ships could land 200 000 soldiers on the shores of Normandy. This formidably complex operation took all this time to put together. Decarbonising the EU 2050 is something that is a hundred times more complex than this one and we are simply not organised to do it.

So let us move –and that is my proposal on the table- and  create at the European Commission the decarbonisation war room. The purpose would be to identify and coordinate all the tasks we have to do  and who is in charge –and we know that this list is huge and crosses disciplines, policies, instruments, sectors, constituencies. Let’s face up to this formidable, and existential innovation challenge.