European Innovation & Technical Capabilities

Over the past few years I’ve been writing a lot about innovation, and specifically, the lack thereof in Europe. I also touch on how we’ve outsourced a ton of operational capabilities, leaving us relatively helpless.

By now this is such a huge amount of words, audio and video that it is in dire need of a summary, if only to see if it makes any kind of sense taken together.

Am I qualified to write about these things? In most of what you find below I speak about what I observe within small organizations (mostly ones I founded) and large ones (typically my customers, or briefly, my government employer). Although I am (I think) a published scientist, I do not add a lot of what the Wikipedia scathingly calls original research. In other words, what you see below is well sourced from experience and often heavily referenced to existing work.

I think my role here is to state very clearly what many people are thinking. Because these are uncomfortable thoughts. Are we still able to innovate? Is Europe by now not completely dependent on the US and China? Do we still have it in us to invent the future? It is no fun to think about these things.

But here goes.

In this 2016 piece, I was impressed by the then recent landing on Mars of the Curiosity rover. I had also read a few other books on innovative projects and places, and I was pretty jealous.

To keep our world livable and safe, we need some fundamental innovations. We don’t need more “customer propositions” or rebranding exercises. We need actual new technology. Many things that are hyped tremendously are not actually innovative. It might be good to separate the inventing of really new things from the rebadging of existing things.

This post references Uber as a 2016 example of much-hyped actual non-innovation. Translated to today, you might compare the gigantic valuation of advertising companies like Facebook and Google, and ponder if this is actually the future.

I am pretty worried about the massive loss of technical capabilities, at least in a practical sense, here in Europe. It turns out that over the past decade or more, we’ve outsourced our entire telecommunication infrastructure to countries far away to the east and west of us. To the point that we are almost completely helpless now.

You can’t just design the logo, arrange for the funding, and have everyone else actually do your stuff. In the piece above I expand on just how bizarre our dependency has become, and what this means for innovation and national security.

This situation is not unique to telecommunication companies though. It appears there is a natural development where companies, countries and even whole continents lose interest in doing the actual work, and prefer to focus on branding and signing thick outsourcing contracts. In the piece above, I expand on how and why this happens and how hard it is to find the road back to at least controlling part of your technology yourself.

This piece was also covered in Dutch by De Correspondent.

Now, everyone wants innovation of course. Much like we all want to be pretty and healthy. But we know you can’t just spend money and become fit and sporty. It requires actual work. Similarly, you simply can not convert money into innovation. And that is a bit of a problem since governments and big company boards have exactly that as their one note flute to summon up some innovation. In this piece I sketch with some examples why innovation requires lots of things, like sufficient money, but definitely not too much.

“Software will eat the world” is what I hear. I don’t entirely know what this means, although I’ve been writing software since the 1980s. But software is of course key. It is therefore highly troubling to see that because of a bunch of interlocking reasons, Europe is no longer writing much software for itself. We do have vast amounts of software talent, but a lot of it works for Google, Facebook and other companies that better appreciate the skills we have here. Unlike our own companies and governments.

We have the talent here to help ourselves, and also the resources to pay those technologists. The question is how.

Now, many people have noted that Europe is in a rather sad situation. We get our hardware from China and our communication services from the US (and China). What communication infrastructure we have left here, we leave the operational aspects of that to people whole continents away.

This is not a happy situation, and the European Union is very concerned.

There are many initiatives to improve the situation. In the piece above, I reflect on a useful panel hosted by Scaleway to demystify European digital sovereignty. In this panel, we touched on many things, but I did worry that a lot of the policy is rather far removed from the practical things that should be done to get us to repatriate more of our services to Europe.

It is all well and good to talk about “data flows”, but actual companies here just want rock solid services, and Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Oracle for example are offering these already. We can’t counter that with improved interoperability requirements and data flows. We should counter that with better and cheaper technology.

Most of the articles on this page dwell on the problem, how we got here, and also detail how many easy solutions won’t work. In the piece above however I also spend some time on things that might help. Government, government departments and semi-government agencies are notoriously conservative buyers of technology, and currently opt exclusively for the dominant non-European platforms.

If governments were to vote with their feet, they could give a tremendous boost to nascent European solutions. Because if you can field “The German Federal Government” as your reference customer, sales get a lot easier.

Not only do I write long winded pieces on what is wrong in Europe, I also love talking your ears off about how I think innovation works in big organizations, small organizations, and how innovation actually happens. In this transcript from a podcast for the German Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation, I lament the many things that make innovation grind to a halt, but also discuss things that have worked.

Some older content

Perhaps not as relevant to Europe’s innovation and capabilities problem, but here are some earlier articles I wrote: