A new survey from the project eupinions shows that around two-thirds of Germans and Europeans expect innovation and digitization to impact their lives over the next 15 years positively. Expectations are particularly high in the areas of mobility and energy supply. Meanwhile, the greatest need for support is seen in the health sector, in job creation, and in the fight against climate change.

A clear majority favors stronger European cooperation: A clear signal for a mission-oriented supranational innovation policy. This could be a counter-model to the US and China approaches, which are thought of by Germans and Europeans as being ahead in cutting-edge technologies.

In this time of digitization and increasing global crises such as climate change, Germany, as a high-technology nation, is under great pressure. If it wants to remain competitive in the long-term and, at the same time, play a pioneering role in mastering the major challenges of our time, it must become significantly more innovative – both economically and socially.

The past decades’ economic successes must not be allowed to tempt us to rest on the technological status quo while innovation cycles are accelerating. The impressive pace of innovation in the United States, and especially in China, is already evident today in some key technologies. Sooner or later, this will put Europe’s competitiveness and creative power to the test.

To meet this challenge, it is not entrepreneurial creativity or individual inventiveness that is. It is instead a modern innovation policy that is needed today.  It must invest significantly more and continuously improve the framework conditions for open innovation processes for start-ups and leapfrogging innovations. Overall, innovation policies should no longer be geared solely to economic success but designed to be more mission-oriented in solving pressing social problems.

Finally, they must become more European. Not only because innovation efforts can hardly be financed on their own, but also to give innovations a binding legal framework and ethical compass that will set them apart from those in the USA or China, if necessary. Only a united EU will prevail as a global economic power.


Openness and political support as important success factors

All of this requires a corresponding mindset on the part of the decision-makers and the general population. A certain openness to technological progress is a basic prerequisite for political initiatives to receive the necessary support. Conversely, goals, and missions in innovation policy should be developed transparently and be inclusive to gain broad acceptance.

The EU will only be able to function efficiently and generate economic added value if the public also stands behind European cooperation. Heterogeneous preferences, political dissent, and solely national efforts will otherwise slow down the pace of innovation in Europe and damage both global competitiveness and the capacity to solve social problems. Neither the economy nor society in Europe can afford this deficit any longer.

But what about the attitude of Germans and Europeans towards innovation? Until now, at least Germans have often been regarded as rather skeptical about technological progress. But there is barely any actual evidence of this.

This cliché has often been used in the context of major infrastructure projects and controversial technologies such as nuclear power or genetic engineering, the use of which has led to major protests. However, does this indicate fundamental skepticism or express a well-founded and more differentiated view of far-reaching technological innovations?

Survey shows positive expectations in Germany and Europe

The eupinions survey shows no general pessimism about technological progress in Germany.  For example, 65 percent of Germans expect innovations and technological progress to positively impact their lives over the next 15 years. Only one-fifth have some negative expectations for the future. This means that Germans are only slightly less innovation-friendly than Europeans as a whole.

The Germans’ positive expectations are primarily focused on five fields of innovation: For example, half of all Germans rely on innovations in the field of mobility and transport. Thirty-three percent expect benefits in energy supply, 31 percent in healthcare and long-term care, 28 percent in environmental protection, and 26 percent in the education sector.

In contrast, a rather German peculiarity is the high degree of sensitivity to data protection: 45 percent of Germans expect negative effects from advancing technology and digitization. This concern ranks first among potential concerns in Germany and is much more pronounced than the European average (36 percent). Furthermore, 41 percent of Germans see negative effects from innovation in creating new jobs, a fear that is also widespread throughout Europe.

Promotion of innovation should be geared to social goals

Fears exist in particular where there is a threat of individual disadvantages, such as the misuse of personal data in digital services or the loss of a job as a result of automation. In contrast, positive innovation effects are seen much more frequently in more abstract areas such as climate protection or energy supply.

If broad public support is to be achieved, innovations should not be completely unregulated or subject to maximum economic efficiency goals but should instead generate added value in key areas of society. Accordingly, more than half of the respondents want to see innovations promoted that create jobs – making job creation, by far the top category after healthcare (presumably due to the corona crisis.

Broad support for ambitious European innovation policy

In addition, there is clear support for closer cooperation between European states in innovation policy: Almost two-thirds of Germans and Europeans are in favor of stronger EU cooperation to create an innovative and competitive economy.

This should also be seen in light of the fact that most German and European citizens recognize that, in particular, the United States and China are ahead in some key technologies such as AI. This is justified as, in 2019, the US had the most world-class patents in 50 out of 58 cutting-edge technologies while China made the most significant progress in terms of world-class patents during the last two decades. Especially in the field of digital technologies, Europe is far behind.

These results should encourage German and European policymakers to launch a new offensive in innovation policy. Existing approaches such as the Green Deal or a digital strategy with considerable supranational added value can build on strong public support. In any case, these findings cannot be used to justify a hesitant policy and a slow innovation process.

This blog post is based on the results of a representative, Europe-wide eupinions survey conducted by Dalia Research on behalf of the Bertelsmann Stiftung among 12,000 EU citizens. You can find more details in the German Policy Brief “Deutsche sind offen für Innovationen und wünschen sich mehr europäische Kooperation”.