How EU-funded projects can become more sustainable
July 2022 marks the half way point for our Horizon 2020 research project ACROSS. This makes me think about what we have learned until now and what is yet to come. ACROSS is an EU funded project in which Waag is one of the 10 partners from different EU countries. Together with the partners, we have come to the conclusion that we will not be delivering a finalised product, but rather a proof of concept and a set of recommendations. It makes most sense for our project, since the problem we’re trying to solve is massive and complex. However, it does make me question the sustainability of EU-funded research and innovation projects such as ACROSS.
While we are working together with expert partners on an important topic and are lucky enough to have sufficient funding, we will not be delivering a product with long term effects that can fill the research gap we’re working in. This is not unique to ACROSS, it is a theme that we see in other EU projects, too. Waag is currently taking part in 11 Horizon 2020 projects, one Creative Europe project, and one Erasmus+ project. While EU-projects are a large part of Waag’s research activities, the question that we have to ask ourselves is: how can research and innovation projects take all of the excellent individual parts – the motivated partners, the relevant topic, and the available funding – and create a sustainable product that helps their target group on the long term?
How can research and innovation projects create a sustainable product that helps their target group on the long term?
I also raised this question at the Exit Platforms policy hackathon in Brussels on the 11th and 12th of May. The hackathon was organized by Alliance4Europe and Project for Democratic Union and consisted out of workshops, presentations, panels, and pitches. On the first day, we had inspiring talks by the Members of European Parliament Sandro Gozi and Damian Boeselager and we started brainstorming how to become less dependent on Big Tech. But the highlight was definitely the final event: a panel discussion with Paul Tang (MEP), Andy Yen (Founder and CEO of Protonmail) and Chris Worman (Co-Founder of the Connect Humanity fund).
In this piece, I will outline something that I think is an issue in many H2020 and Horizon Europe research and innovation projects, and present a possible solution that we discussed during the Exit Platforms hackathon. I will use ACROSS as an example to illustrate my point.
For those less acquainted with ACROSS; ACROSS is a research and innovation project that aims to make moving across borders in Europe easier. When European citizens want to move to another European country, they have to undertake many steps to set up their new life in their new destination. These steps can be slow, confusing, often need to be done on paper, in person, and can even be interdependent. If you want to find a job in Germany, you would need to have a German bank account, but to open a bank account, you need to have an address, and to rent an apartment you need to have a job. This can be done a lot easier and faster if all these services were digitally accessible. This is what ACROSS aims to facilitate.
However, just like many other research and innovation projects, ACROSS faces certain feasibility constraints related to budgets and deadlines, differences in cultures and languages, and even governmental approaches. We thus have to carefully make decisions that limit the scope of ACROSS, and avoid trying to solve everything, all at once. This allows us to focus on specific use cases and makes the problem space more comprehensible. Another benefit of these constraints is that they require us to turn our attention to addressing certain fundamental gaps: by developing more complete workflows and user journeys for moving across borders, and by exploring better technical routes for sharing personal data and managing digital identity.
But there is also an issue with these constrains, which is often inherent to research and innovation projects in my opinion. The project and the outcomes become more abstract and intangible. Most research and innovation projects produce proof of concepts or deliver recommendations on how to approach building a new platform that will, for example, make moving across EU borders more digitally accessible and privacy safe. EU projects, ACROSS included, often focus on research and innovation on an abstract level. These projects rarely build a sustainable product that will fill a gap in the digital public sphere. Which raises the question of how we can create lasting results and solutions that help EU citizens, given the large sum of EU-funding we receive through Horizon 2020 or Horizon Europe programmes.
Most research and innovation projects produce proof of concepts or deliver recommendations on how to approach building a new platform.
A solution to this would be to shift some of the European funding opportunities from research to making. In addition to the research projects, we need funding opportunities for makers and technology developers (who take EU values such as inclusivity, openness and transparency into consideration, of course) to follow up on the research done here. While projects such as ACROSS do fundamental research into the management and governance of personal data flows across EU borders, the risk is that this knowledge will get lost. To avoid this, we need some form of long-term commitment from the EU to fund the building of the platform after the research is completed. For example, after ACROSS finishes, the EU could commission designers from the margins to actually build the platform and to maintain it. This way, we could end up with a functioning product that will improve the quality of daily life of EU residents.
A solution to this would be to shift some of the European funding opportunities from research to making.
In short, I think it would be beneficial for the sustainability of EU projects if the EU would create incentives such as funding opportunities for makers and other initiatives that develop technologies with European values at their core. This funding can, for example, go towards start-up incubators, supporting open-source communities and the maker movement. This was one of the ideas I got to pitch to MEP Paul Tang, so who knows; maybe in the future we will see more EU funding for makers coming our way.
Marit Hoefsloot is a concept and project developer within Waag’s Future Internet Lab. She works on European projects such as Urbanite and ACROSS, focusing on the creation of digital platforms that adhere to public values such as openness, fairness, inclusivity, and sustainability.