On Wednesday this week the European Commission published a Communication on the Innovation Union which is one of the Europe 2020 Flagship Initiatives. This flagship initiative is led by Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn who also presented the Communication. The document is available with some further introductory notes and links to the respective press conference on the website of DG Research.
In my opinion this Communication is a very good document. Regarding standardisation it addresses a wide range of aspects where standards are relevant for innovation. And it touches on and identifies some key issues that exist with European standardisation today:
“If not able to adapt, the European standardisation system risks becoming irrelevant with companies turning instead to other instruments (as could be seen in the ICT sector) or worse could start to work as a brake on innovation. A dynamic standardisation system is also a pre-condition for the EU to maintain and further reinforce its impact on the setting of standards at global level, where other countries are increasingly seeking to set the rules.” (p. 16)
I personally think this general criticism is a bit too harsh. The European standardisation system is not bad at all. It's basic structures are working fine and it has worked very well in supporting the development of harmonised standards for the European common market. Nonetheless, it is true that the system requires some reform. It needs to be more flexible for reacting to global developments. And for the ICT sector it needs mechanisms for allowing specifications from fora and consortia that meet a certain set of openness criteria to be used and implemented in Europe, i.e. to be available for direct referencing in EU policies and in public procurement.
This urgent need of ICT is, in fact, addressed in the Communication as well with a re-confirmation on the ICT standardisation reform – committed now for “early 2011”:
“In early 2011, as a first step, the Commission will present a Communication accompanied by a legislative proposal on standardisation, which will inter alia cover the ICT sector, in order to speed up and modernise standard-setting to enable interoperability and foster innovation in fast-moving global markets. This will be combined with a multi-annual programme to anticipate new standardisation needs and integration of standards into R&D projects in the research Framework Programme.” (p. 17)
Open Standards from global ICT fora and consortia are so important for fostering innovation so that this reform is of highest relevance. Open Standards ensure interoperability and thus provide a trusted base on which innovation can take place by implementing the standards, integrating them and combining technologies for developing new, smarter solutions.
For being effective in fostering innovation, the availability and the conditions under which standards can be used are, for sure, key. The Commission has clearly recognised this and stresses that “standard setting processes require clear IPR rules to avoid situations where a company can gain unfair market power by incorporating proprietary IPRs in a standard” (p. 19). And the Commission makes the right level of differentiation that is needed on the one hand for providing incentives for contributing technologies to standardisation and on the other hand for having technologies available for exploitation and innovation:
“This means, in particular, offering equivalent protection of IPRs, open access to interoperable standards, nondiscriminatory public procurements, and removing other non-physical barriers to trade, in line with international requirements.” (p. 27)
The reference to public procurement is very good, as well, because this is where public authorities have an actual tool to promote innovative technologies based on standards and thus making active use of all the benefits from open standards. So “faster setting of interoperable standards and strategic use of our massive procurement budgets” (p. 3) is for sure the right angle to look at. This Communication is very promising in this respect and is certainly another extremely important step the Commission has taken within its flagship initiatives.