Citizens’ needs at the forefront – innovation the European way?

Much was said during Digital Day 2 about doing innovation the “European way”, but can Europe deliver on its values?

The advent of the „Digital Day“ is making its mark on European politics. Last year’s edition blew life into the EuroHPC initiative, albeit with only 7 signatories, which by today has more than doubled to 15. This year’s Digital Day aimed even higher, adopting declarations on blockchain technology, artificial intelligence and personalized healthcare – each well into the double digits when it came to finding backers.

Aside from the somewhat uncomfortable lack of female representation (an omission that the Twitterverse and Commissioner Gabriel were more than happy to point out), one unifying theme emerged from the multitudes of panel discussions that styled the day: the need for a so-called “European way” of doing innovation.



So what is this European approach to innovation? Though the idea took many shapes and forms, the gist of it was perhaps best captured by France’s Mounir Mahjoubi who – very much echoing the words of president Macron – referred to the need to move forward without sacrificing the values that define us. This means that core European values such as the respect for human dignity, rights and freedom must be at the centre of our technological advancement. This path to innovation is a way to balance and give meaning to technological disruptions, by harnessing their power to address major social issues such as healthcare and climate change, as was aptly pointed out by AI rapporteur Catelijne Muller

But, as is so often the case with words, their true value is reflected in the actions that follow. The obvious test of Europe’s commitment to its way of doing things shall be in the implementation of the 1 million genomes initiative. To stay true to its values, EU leaders need not look much further than the very declaration they signed on Digital Day. In it, member states recognize the need to harness the digital transformation of health and care to ensure the sustainability of healthcare systems, and commit to putting the needs of citizens “at the centre of data-driven healthcare innovation”.  In practical terms what this means is that instead of a laudable but narrow focus on reaching one million sequenced genomes by 2022, EU leaders must give immediate attention to making all this genomic data work for EU citizens. This means finding ways to connect genomic and other health data, both within and between nations, for better research, prevention and care. What it means is being smart about our investments in genomic medicine, always keeping in mind the end-goal: advancing the health and wellbeing of Europeans everywhere.

In doing so, Europe need not limit itself to a single million from a population of over 500 million.  Indeed, as put forward by Estonia’s Chief Information Officer Siim Sikkut, digital innovation in health and care has the potential to bring tangible benefits to at least 100 million Europeans in the next decade. The advancements we (hopefully) will make in genomic medicine can be a “tiny big step” in that direction, but they need not and should not be the only step. In the Digital Health Society, this moonshot goal of 100 million Digitally Connected and healthy European Citizens is the glue that ties together our efforts – such as fostering interoperability and citizen-controlled data governance. It is our way of taking forward the digital health agenda and bringing about a true single market for e-health in Europe. Perhaps Europe too would be well placed to adopt such a vision as the “true North” for digital disruption in health, to ensure we stay the course towards values-based innovation.

Now that is a worthwhile and meaningful challenge.