“All politics is local”, the old saying goes - and this is true for so much more than just politics. We may all be citizens of Europe, but we are also citizens of where we live, embedded to a greater or lesser extent in our local communities. As these multiple identities become increasingly a part of all of our lives, the local aspect sometimes appears to take a back seat. And yet in many ways it is the most important.
This is certainly the case for SMEs. Without the national or international reach of bigger firms, small and medium-sized enterprises need to look to their local environment to grow. In particular, to take full benefit of the opportunities afforded by the digital world, they need relevant knowledge, expertise and infrastructures, and easy access to them within their local environment.
This is the logic behind the Digital Innovation Hubs, a key component of the Digitising European Industry Initiative launched by the European Commission in 2016 to reinforce the EU’s competitiveness in digital technologies. The goal is to ensure that every business in Europe – no matter its size, location or sector – is able to benefit fully from digital innovation.
Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs) support organisations – notably SMEs and the public sector – in their digital transformation. They help their customers to experiment and test digital innovations to better understand their opportunities and return on investments. They also offer training and skills development, support to find investments, and give access to an ecosystem and networking opportunities. At the core of the DIH is normally a research & technology organisation or university lab working with other relevant organisations as a "one-stop shop".
The hubs are usually specialised in certain technologies and sectors, according to the "smart specialisation" of a region. As companies in that region develop more innovative products and services with the help of the hub and the ecosystem around the DIH grows, there are positive spill-over effects for the whole region. Hubs then become magnets for new companies.
Take the Basque Digital Innovation Hub in Bilbao, Spain, focused on flexible robotics, 3D printing and cybersecurity, for example. This hub is run by a network of R&D organisations, vocational training centres and universities and is supported by regional public institutions as part of their smart specialisation strategy. More than 20 SMEs have already received assistance from the hub, including the local company Egile, which turned to the BDIH for help in developing a high-precision computer-assisted surgery (CAS) system. Thanks to the support of the hub, the company was able to build a fully functional prototype and to apply for two international patents.
The Digital.Hub Logistics in Dortmund, Germany, meanwhile, helps businesses working in the fields of goods, data, transport and logistics to develop new digital business. Würth Industrie Service, a producer of parts such as screws, nuts and washers, is a good example of how the hub works. In association with the hub, logistics firm IML and Deutsche Telekom, the company has developed a prototype ‘service button’ that allows customers to order spare parts when they need them with a simple push. The button automatically triggers the process and all the logistics.
Two DIHs in Croatia are behind the development of a new system to inspect wind turbines while they are in operation. The Spanish SME DiagnóstiQA joined forces with the Digital Innovation Hubs of the University of Zagreb (UNIZG-FER) and University of Dubrovnik (UNIDU) to develop the system, which is based on drone technology and is already being used by the company to provide technical assistance and inspection services for the many wind farms that cover the Spanish plains. It is the first system of its kind that permits inspection on wind turbines while they are in operation, meaning there is no loss of electricity, production or income for the turbine operator.
The Slovenian company Saving, with the help of a Digital Innovation Hub Jožef Stefan Institute, has created a light, affordable and non-intrusive wearable device to improve monitoring of patients that suffer from cardiac diseases. A simple device that can be worn by the patient is the best approach to monitoring abnormal heart rhythms, but most devices of this kind are expensive and uncomfortable. Saving’s device, developed with the hub, is a wireless body sensor with just small two electrodes, using a low power Bluetooth connection to a smartphone, and an app to interpret the collected measurements. Because of its simple use, non-intrusive design and acceptable price, the system can be used as a personal medical device or to support solutions medical personal in hospitals, health clinics, and homes for the elderly.
Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Robotics Digital Innovation Hub in Vilnius has helped three local SMEs in the manufacturing sector to develop their robotic capabilities. Another Lithuanian SME, RoboBend, was helped by the DIH to develop a new business in Denmark, through connecting to a Danish Digital Innovation Hub on robotics.
The latter example shows that although the local level is important, it is only part of the picture. The European Commission is investing €500 million from 2016 to 2020 in supporting a pan-European network of DIHs, with the aim of giving companies across the European Union easier access to the support they need, whether in terms of financial assistance, access to infrastructure, or skills and expertise.
A number of pan-European initiatives have already been set up, bringing together DIHs from across the EU and supporting specific application experiments where companies can test digital solutions with the help of the hubs. This is the case for instance of I4MS (focused on digitalising the manufacturing sector) or SAE (for the integration of smart systems across sectors).
And we are also looking at how best to expand the network into those regions that are not well covered by Digital Innovation Hubs, with the goal of having a DIH in every region by 2020. This is quite a challenge, and we are investing €8 million under the EU's research programme Horizon 2020 in 2019 to support new DIHs in underrepresented regions with strong industrial activity. A series of training programmes has also been introduced, to help interested organisations learn how to set up a Digital Innovation Hub in their region.
A good example of these training programmes was on view at the European Week of Regions and Cities in Brussels in October, where 34 potential new Digital Innovation Hubs from 13 EU Member States presented their experiences from the Smart Factories project. Through this training, they learned how to develop a sustainable Digital Innovation Hub in their region, prepare a business plan and identify the needs of companies in their ecosystems. To give just one example of a new DIH that has benefitted from this training: the CYBERSEC HUB in Krakow, Poland, will work on the development of the Polish national cybersecurity system by promoting innovation within the cybersecurity sector and raising awareness of the opportunities - and threats - of digital transformation among local Polish SMEs.
Next month will also see the Digital Innovation Hubs annual event take place in Warsaw, a chance for national and regional policy makers to share their approaches to supporting the development of DIHs in their local communities. A number of existing DIHs will be on hand to discuss their own experiences, while research and technology organisations will also learn how to set up their own DIH. There will also be an exhibition where companies will show how they benefitted from collaboration with DIHs, and matchmaking events will help companies identify DIHs that match their particular innovation needs.
Part of the future
Digital Innovation Hubs will be a key part of the future digital single market policy. We are proposing a future budget of €9.2 billion for a new Digital Europe Programme to cover the period from 2021-2027, with a focus on five core areas: artificial intelligence, high performance computing, cybersecurity, interoperability and digital transformation, and digital skills. Digital Innovation Hubs will play a key role in the broad roll-out of all those strategic technologies and advanced digital skills to the entire economy, reaching the majority of companies as well as public administrations. For instance, in the field of AI, DIHs could help companies to introduce predictive maintenance of their machines or to automise their customer support helpdesk through speech technology.
The future of DIHs also depends on the support (financial and otherwise) of the authorities in each EU Member State, and the event in Warsaw will be the prime opportunity to discuss the renewed commitment of each country - and its local academic, research and business communities - to developing the work of the hubs. We’ve already seen many success stories from the hubs, giving local SMEs a gateway to the rest of Europe. Future funding and political support for the hubs will be a vital part of ensuring that we can continue to ‘think local, act global’.