Technology sovereignty for Germany and Europe. From demand to concept

July 13, 2020

It is not only since the corona crisis that it has become clear how important technological competitiveness and independence are for Europe. Growing geopolitical uncertainties and the threat of global trade conflicts are increasingly questioning trade relationships that have evolved over decades. The debate surrounding the introduction of the 5G standard is another example that shows a discussion is needed about how independent Germany and Europe can and must be with regard to essential technologies. In a position paper, Fraunhofer ISI presents a differentiated analytical approach to determining the criticality of technologies and the degree of technology sovereignty at national and international level. Applying this concept can be the basis for modified, situation-specific strategies to ensure future-proof technology sovereignty.

The position paper “Technology sovereignty – from demand to concept“ introduces an analytical approach that can be used to answer the question of whether a certain technology is critical for a state or a federation of states, in the sense of being indispensable, and what the consequences of this are. The main questions of the analysis include: How critical is a technology and why? How high is  the dependency on third parties, and what risks are associated with this? Within which geopolitical boundaries should technology sovereignty be achieved? Are there alternatives that could substitute the technology if necessary? Could access to key resources be threatened by external shocks? How pronounced is one’s own technological competence?

In addition to presenting the methods used to answer these questions, the position paper also proposes a number of strategic options for achieving a higher degree of technology sovereignty.

What is technology sovereignty?

Technology sovereignty is the ability of a state or a federation of states to provide the technologies it deems critical for its welfare, competitiveness, and ability to act, and to be able to develop these or source them from other economic areas without one-sided structural dependency.

A multi-layered and differentiated view of technology sovereignty is required

“The calls for technology sovereignty, which are becoming louder and louder, enhanced by current crises and geopolitical shifts, are in conflict with the globally networked economy as the guarantor of prosperity, especially for Europe and Germany”, says Jakob Edler, the executive director at Fraunhofer ISI. “The added value of our concept is its differentiated view of technology sovereignty and concrete proposals for its analysis. This differentiation is based on current and future criticality as well as on the motivation for producing and establishing technology sovereignty.”

The current and desirable degree of technology sovereignty can be determined by the interplay of different dimensions and, where required, strategies can be developed to preserve or produce it.

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Example: 5G standard

Given the high level of integration and the benefits for the single market, the EU should be the frame of reference here for  the analysis of technology sovereignty. The example of the 5G standard can be used to illustrate the dimensions that should be considered in greater detail in the analysis.

It is true that, with Huawei and ZTE, many patents are in the hands of Chinese companies, but Europe also has two main elements for achieving technology sovereignty: First, there is a dynamic knowledge base here that is working intensively on alternatives for subcomponents of 5 G technology, among other things. Second, Europe is home to its own industrial production sites, for instance, Nokia and Ericsson, European producers among the global leaders in this field with a number of established suppliers.

Further, the global market offers long-term alternatives to Chinese producers. Focusing the discussion about technology sovereignty for 5G on the role of Huawei and the dependency on China is therefore too narrow. Expanding supply relationships to manufacturers in other countries and developing a European innovation ecosystem seem suitable options for establishing reliable innovation networks for 5 technologies in the EU.

The example of 5 G clearly illustrates that only a differentiated and systemic analysis opens up a wider discussion about the development of suitable strategies for dealing with technology sovereignty. This position paper provides such an analysis.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.