Innovation requires stable structures and long-term thinking to help entire industries overcome the dominant short-term imperatives of cost-cutting, writes Antonio Arcidiacono, EBU Director of Technology & Innocation. This blog post first appeared as an editorial in our quarterly magazine tech-i (048).
Later this month we will name the winner of the EBU Technology & Innovation Award 2021 from among the 24 projects. Looking through the entries – the highest number received since the award was inaugurated five years ago – I take heart from the fact that the spirit of innovation is clearly alive and well across the EBU membership. The diversity of topics and approaches is also heartening, from remote production and authoring tools to innovative devices, apps and platforms, virtual studios, AI implementations, cloud, sustainability and much more. (I encourage you to make connections – a new collaboration may be just around the corner!)
That many of these projects have come to fruition in the difficult conditions of the past year is a testimony to the resourcefulness and resilience, and often to the passion, of the technologists and creators in our community. Of course, in some cases it was specifically the pandemic that generated the necessary momentum, but all of these projects represent public service media (PSM) innovating under increasingly difficult circumstances.
The recurring economic crises of recent decades have pushed many companies in Europe to progressively stop innovating and to reduce investment in research and development. While the COVID-19 crisis has served to spark and accelerate innovation in some domains, in the longer term its deep budgetary impacts will also be felt – and PSM will not be immune.
Large companies often look at short-term financial results; the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that represent the vast majority of all businesses in the EU do not have the necessary cash for R&D and innovation (R&D&I) and often live on the brink of a funding crisis. Even public structures, also under the pressure of recurring crises, are victims of reduced funding and must almost mechanically reduce their staff and in particular their medium- and long-term investments.
Innovation only works in the medium to long term. And restarting it, despite the best political claims, is complicated. A ‘normal’ company will often prefer not to draw on funds for innovation if it risks financial strain later, having to repay loans, however subsidized, or to continue paying the salaries of people hired.
What, then, is the solution? How can we unblock sustained innovation?
What we need are stable structures with which companies, public and/or private, can partner for their R&D&I with an ‘on-demand’ approach. We must join forces to support the creation of these flexible and modular structures. This is what would make it possible to innovate, limiting the risk for motivated companies and reducing expensive medium–long-term investments that they, at that specific moment in time, would not likely make.
This new innovation effort should receive substantial and urgent support from European funded R&D and national innovation projects. This is explicitly indicated in the December 2020 action plan1 of the European Commission. A specific reference is made to 'Recovery and Resilience Plans' providing national reforms and investments to contribute to “strengthening European news media and audiovisual digital capacities, including through multi-country projects, such as co-productions of European content, EU media data space infrastructure, or equity investment to foster European audiovisual production or distribution.” Such support should go beyond the development phase and also help with initially commercializing the results of the innovation projects.
As I have previously observed, the EBU is today the largest structure coordinating European media R&D&I activities. I believe it is thus the natural candidate to lead such an effort targeting innovation in media technology. If we can take the innovative spirit epitomized by the 2021 T&I Award nominees, working alongside our counterparts in the private media sector, and fuse that with Europe’s deep pools of academic and industrial talent, we can build a sustainable structure that will keep alive the flame of innovation, sustain growth, and develop a resilient ecosystem that would also generate the momentum required to survive through future crises.