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This Digital trends exercise is divided into 2 parts in order to allow readers to focus on their own interest:

2020 was a year that was a priori hardly predictable. In the realm of quantum physics, once can say that what happened in the digital field in 2020 was one of the scenari with the lowest probability. Yet it happened, and one can safely say that never in the history of humankind has digitalisation reached such a fast-forward speed. This makes our review of digital trends for 2021 even more exciting.

This is a look ahead and a state-of-play of what will shake the digital world in 2021. It includes a touch of my personal expert opinions. It is certainly not a crystal ball!

The 2021 digital word of the year: XaaS

If there is one word which will drive the entire digital sector in 2021, one can expect it to be Everything-as-a-service. Advanced digital technologies are progressing rapidly and getting closer to the market. Innovative technologies such as High Performance Computing (HPC), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity, and other, have now reached the large-scale deployment level where they can be used in an industrial environment. Since not all SMEs or start-up can afford the investment in a HPC infrastructure or an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm, providing an access to them is a fast growing market.

 

5G and Data platform

Two technologies will have the upper hand in 2021 in Europe and shape the policy dialogue: 5G and data platforms. 5G has reached its deployment phase. The Commission’s “5G for Europe Action Plan” made it mandatory for Member States to start their deployment by December 2020. The first 5G antenna in Luxembourg was launched on 16 October 2020 and the infrastructure is being deployed. Following the implementation of the infrastructure, 5G-based services will be in the ramping phase in 2021. For instance, the Media and communication Service (SMC) of the Ministry of State has launched a call for a training pilot on 5G for businesses and Luxembourg is still actively participating in the autonomous driving cross-border test bed set up with Germany and France.

At the EU level, we shall see the creation of a new Joint Undertaking, Smart Network and Services, overseeing research and innovation for 5G and 6G alongside the new services related.

Data platforms and, more specifically, industrial data exchange platforms, are the 2021 priority for the European Commission. Since 2019, the Commission has already invested in ten Horizon 2020 projects developing market-creating data platforms (Data Market Services / DMS Accelerator, DataPorts, DataVaults, i3-MARKET, KRAKEN, MOSAICrOWN, MUSKETEER, OpertusMundi, PIMCITY, Safe-DEED and EOSC). In 2021, this activity will expand through investments via the Digital Europe Programme (DEP) on 6 data spaces for EU: Green Deal, Mobility, Manufacturing, Agriculture, Cultural Heritage and a specific activity for Destination Earth. The Commission plans to spend €131 million over the next 18 months to launch these data spaces.

Artificial intelligence

AI will again be a central digital buzzword in 2021. Despite the pandemic, the von der Leyen Commission kept its vow to publish an AI plan in the first 100 days of her presidency. On 19 February, alongside the overarching strategy “Shaping Europe’s digital future”, it published a white paper entitled “On Artificial Intelligence – A European approach to excellence and trust” to lay the ground for the future EU work on AI. Two main legislations are emerging from this document, the Digital Service Act and the Data Governance Act. But in terms of principle, it anchors the concept of trustworthy AI.

In 2021, the EU funding for AI will be shaped in the following triangle toolbox: AI4EU, the Testing and Experiment Facilities (TEF) and the European Digital Innovation Hubs.

AI4EU is up and running and expanding! This AI-on-demand platform is now the cornerstone of all innovation funding at the European level on AI. It is the one-stop shop for innovators (users) to get access to AI as a service (developer).

Testing and Experiment Facilities: a new tool in the box that will be developing world-class reference sites for experimentation and testing in real setting. The DEP will invest €220 milion over 2021 and 2022 in 5 thematic TEFs: edge AI, manufacturing, health, agri-food, smart cities and communities. These TEFs are supposed to be able to scale and be opened to any innovator in Europe.

European Digital Innovation Hubs: the last piece of the puzzle, responsible to deploy digital technologies and provide access for SMEs.

Interestingly, in the AI pillar also includes federated Cloud-to-Edge infrastructure investments, which bridges to another large and not EC-initiated initiative, GAIA-X, which aims at developing a European data infrastructure.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity, which is also part of the Digital Europe programme, will go through a consolidation phase in 2021. In December 2020, Bucharest, Romania, was selected as the location of the European Cybersecurity Competence Centre. At the same time, a new cybersecurity strategy was published and a new buzzword arouse: cyber-shield! The cyber-shield will be a combination of EU-based digital capacities, capabilities and infrastructures to shield EU citizens and organisations from cyber-threats.

EU funding investments are split between different programmes with research-based activities in Horizon Europe cluster 3, capacities in the DEP and Connecting European Facilities(CEF)programmes. Fundamental research and infrastructure investment for cybersecurity can extend on the quantum activities within Horizon Europe cluster 4 and the euroQCI (European Quantum Communication Infrastructure) in the DEP. Interestingly, the EU Cybersecurity Strategy also includes a part on addressing cybercrime, cyber diplomacy and defence.

As a side point, one can note an emerging trend linked with cybersecurity, which is the fight against disinformation. Several topics in Horizon Europe clusters 3 and 4, along with the DEP, will be launched in 2021.

Quantum

2021 shall see the acceleration of the Quantum flagship. In the Quantum Flagship’s Strategic Research Agenda, investments during the first 2 years were focusing on quantum computing, quantum simulation, quantum communication, and quantum sensing and metrology. In 2021, the focus will be to further develop quantum technologies and their applications in the areas of quantum computing, simulation, sensing and communication.

The Commission will used a dedicated instrument to address this topic: Framework Partnership Agreements (FPAs). In a nutshell, this is a 2-steps process. The FPAs set up a community of organisations (usually for 7 years) that will then be mobilised by sub-consortium in (usually 2-year long) Specific Agreements (SGA). To be able to participate in the innovation activities on quantum, you must join first the community that will apply for the FPA. Luckily, they are easy to find, as they are part of the QT flagship community.

Another trend in 2021 for the Quantum domain will be the investment of over €150 million that will be made via the Digital Europe Programme in a Quantum Communication Infrastructure. This trend aims at developing a secure communication infrastructure, euroQCI, that can support quantum-based encryption such as quantum key distribution (QKD). This infrastructure covers both terrestrial and satellite segments. Italy and Luxembourg are among the most advanced countries in this sector and the purpose of the euroQCI is to create a new market and ecosystem for secure communication.

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