TUM Brussels Insights

Key enabling technologies – key to enable Europe’s future prosperity?

January 21, 2021

Just a month ago, the European Commission published the world's first legal framework for artificial intelligence (AI) to guarantee the fundamental rights of people and businesses while strengthening AI adoption, investment, and innovation across the EU. AI is just one of the key technologies, but the move underscores the many ethical and other issues we face. This is also to ensure that we have the right skills to give Europe a competitive edge. Or can we imagine life without KETs?

Key enabling technologies, or KETs for short, are currently driving a fourth industrial revolution. They have the potential to change the way we live and work in the long term and there is no doubt that they are at the heart of innovation. Key enabling technologies allow European industry to maintain its competitiveness and benefit from new markets. Since 2009, they have marked a priority of EU industrial policy.

In 2018, the European High Level Group on Industrial Technologies defined the following six key technologies:

  • Advanced Manufacturing (additive manufacturing, autonomous systems, sensor technology, industry 4.0 and robotics)
  • Advanced (nano) materials (biomaterials, 3D printing and design, chemicals, polymers, metals and glass, rapid prototyping)
  • Life-science technologies (neurotechnology, bioengineering, AI in biology, bioelectronics, medical engineering)
  • Micro/nano-electronics and photonics (integrated circuit design, quantum computing, IoT sensors and tokens, HPC)
  • Artificial Intelligence (deep learning, quantum AI, robotics, autonomous systems, AI-as-a-service)
  • Security & connectivity technologies (standards like 5G, network architectures, cryptography, IoT networks & protocols, distributed ledgers)

Technology superiority: is Europe left behind?

Looking at the six key enabling technologies, different challenges in Europe arise. First, there is a lack of resources and raw materials in the world to feed into the production of new technologies. Secondly, Europe is highly dependent on non-European suppliers. Even though we have an excellent landscape of well-known higher education institutions in Europe, the EU still lacks the relevant skills to bring the development and use of KETs up to full speed.

Finally, Europe is facing a dilemma: being very strong on research output – but not able to convert the competitive advantages of research strongholds into commercial successes. Too often, the commercialization takes place outside of Europe or with non-European investors.

In order to improve a KET-based strategy in Europe, we need to increase commercialisation, reduce the regulatory fragmentation and develop the necessary skills, especially for the wider workforce. There needs to be a better KETs procurement strategy and we need to support digital and entrepreneurial skills.

If we are looking at Europe’s global competitors China and the US, the EU is lacking behind when it comes to Research & Development (R&D) investment.  With the Endless Frontier Act, the US government is planning to invest $100 billion into tech-development within the next five years and China is already spending more on R&D than all 27 EU member states together. For the period 2021-2025, China will ramp up its R&D spending by more than 7% every year.

Technological sovereignty: why should we care?

Technological sovereignty is the ability of Europe to develop, provide, protect, and retain critical technologies. Especially those, which are required for the welfare of European citizens, the prosperity of businesses, and the ability to act and to decide independently in a globalized environment. 

The capacity to achieve technological sovereignty is engrained in the development of R&D competencies and knowledge, turn R&D into market products, and maintain competencies and knowledge to ensure qualified people and the achievement of preserving leadership. To reach the technological sovereignty objective and hence achieve European autonomy and competitiveness in the world, we need to combine different actions:

1.     We need a serious amount of R&D& Innovation funding in Europe. With the launch of the 9th European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation Horizon Europe this year and its new third pillar, including the European Innovation Council (EIC), this is heading in the right direction.

2.     Innovation in an ecosystem approach needs to be high on the European agenda to nurture the development of new technologies.

3.     Education and skills to prepare the next generation of workforce for challenges and opportunities of disruptive technologies and the new circumstances at the workplace.

Leveraging European strengths: a vibrant landscape of innovation ecosystems 

The rapidly growing markets in KET-related sectors require an increasing number of professionals at all levels and in different disciplines. This has been indicated and reinforced many times: the EC, the member states and the regions need to address the current KET skills deficit in a comprehensive and integrated manner across all technical levels and in the different KET domains.

In 2019, leading European research and technology organisations agreed that the creation of high-skilled jobs, the establishment of robust innovation ecosystems and sustainable value chains are particularly important for ensuring scale up in Europe.

Universities and especially universities of science and technology, play a crucial role in overcoming the skills gap and preparing the workforce accordingly. Breaking down the silos is key here as interdisciplinarity is needed to achieve real disruptiveness. Moreover, “we need to teach our students taking risks”, states Herbert Zeisel, Deputy Director-General Technology-Oriented Research for Innovation, Federal Ministry of Education and Research Germany during the event Key enabling technologies at the centre of Europe’s future prosperity, organised by the EuroTech Universities Alliance.

Provide continuing education opportunities for employees

This is confirmed by Isabelle Barthes, Deputy General Secretary, industriAll European Trade Union, who adds that these new technologies are on the one side frightening for the workers, but inevitable as they will make their company future proof and secure employment. According to Barthes it is very important to include workers early on, when new technologies are introduced, so they can embrace change. Next to interdisciplinarity and risk taking, European universities need to identify these new upcoming technologies and develop suitable upskilling formatsin due time. 

The responsibility of universities does not end with graduation, but continues with the provision of life-long strategic and institutionalized life-long-learning programs. The TechnicaL University of Munich has just opened the Institute of LifeLong Learning (IL3) for this purpose. The universities need to partner up with industry and become a vital part of the wider local innovation ecosystem to guarantee disruptiveness and the preparation of society to accept and adopt these new developments. 


Conclusion: Interdisciplinarity, risk-taking, and continuing education at the heart of success

Many factors play a role in ensuring that Europe can play a leading role in the development of key enabling technologies, increase global competitiveness and reduce dependencies.

The political fragmentation in Europe must be reduced and the 27 member states must work together energetically, with a clear direction. Furthermore, regulations must be simplified and standardized. In addition to politics, the universities also play a central role here: on the one hand, Europe's research strength must not diminish, and we need to continue investing actively in excellent (basic) research. This is the basis for future innovations.

In addition, they also need to teach their students entrepreneurial thinking and risk taking, so that the commercialization of research in Europe can be increased. Lastly, the universities must bring lifelong learning formats ono the market with tailor-made offers that equip the local workforce with new just-in-time skills. In the end, this will surely make the difference. Then, Europe – steeped in its set of common values – will​​ not only continue to be a pioneer in the development of future-oriented technologies, but also in the responsible use of them.

If you have any questions, please contact Maria-Valerie Schegk.