Digital sovereignty means different things to different people, organisations and nations, but few would deny that control of one’s own digital assets is a prerequisite for true competitiveness in Europe. Through its collaborative ecosystem for Intelligent Digital Systems, Inside (formally known as ARTEMIS) aims to enable and retain digital sovereignty across all areas of industry, and Dr Wouter Leibbrandt shares his vision on what this may look like in practice.
Tapping into other sources
“As a person, as a European citizen, digital sovereignty means that we keep control of our digital assets and data because these are becoming the most valuable things we have,” says Wouter. “If you lose control over them, you lose control over a big part of your life. In order to stay in control of your industrial development, it’s also important that you have sovereignty such that you’re not dependent on others who can shut on and off a functionality that you need to make your systems work. It’s like your light switches at home being controlled by your neighbour.”
Take GPS, for instance, which is utilised by millions upon millions of devices worldwide yet is owned by the US government and operated by a branch of its armed forces. As the head of TNO’s ESI research centre, Wouter is keenly aware of such threats to digital sovereignty but believes that Inside can play a crucial counterbalance by bringing together the best minds for cross-fertilisation.
“At ESI, we’re about 60 people. You can do a lot of things at that scale but in order to be really world-leading, you have to tap into other sources. Collaboration keeps us sharp; it makes sure that we’re connected to the latest developments and gives the opportunity to learn across different domains. This is one of the unique opportunities for Europe because we have an attitude of not being siloed. The high-tech equipment industry learns from the automotive industry; the maritime industry in Scandinavia learns from the aircraft industry in France. This speeds up innovation.”
The protection of value(s)
Today, Europe, Asia and the US each excel in different areas: Asia is traditionally well-known for extremely efficient mass production, while the US has captured the market for internet services such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. For Europe, crucial success has been found in the engineering of complex systems, from lithography machines to advanced driver assistance. “This is because we do systems engineering very well,” explains Wouter. “It’s not always well-recognised because sexy things like AI capture more attention than the people making systems in the most reliable way, but this digital engineering is, to a large extent, what Inside is all about. The key is not to become champion but remain champion, and that’s often the most difficult thing – just ask the German football team.”
But digital sovereignty need not be restricted to assets alone. For many, the term also means the protection of values, such as Europe’s particular focus on privacy, transparency and safety. “When it comes to intelligence,” Wouter concludes, “it’s about ethics and understandability. We’re still very good at integrating some auxiliary technologies – cloud and AI, for example – but you have to also be good enough in the technologies you want to integrate. It’s nice that I can leverage all these cloud facilities, but is my privacy secure? That’s where we should concentrate because that’s where it matters. It’s what Inside is for: making sure that Europe stays in the lead.”