23 Apr 2021

NATO and the EU are ready to collaborate with the digital sector to spur a new era of technological innovation

Event report

Are NATO, the EU and digital technology all fighting the same battle? In this DIGITALEUROPE workshop, we gathered high-level speakers from NATO, the European Commission, and the digital industry to explore how collaboration between the private sector and the defense industry can spur a new era of technological innovation.

One key lesson emerged: collaboration between all actors is vital. Indeed, both NATO and the European Commission admit to a temporary lapse in pursuing innovation, though they now commit themselves to massive investment, both dedicated to improving alignment between their respective member parties.


  • David van Weel, Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, NATO
  • Günter Koinegg, Group SVP, Global Head of Defence, Space and Homeland Security, Atos
  • Izabela Albrycht, Executive Board Member at DIGITALEUROPE and  Chair of the European Cybersecurity Forum CYBERSEC
  • François Arbault, Director, Defence Industry, DG DEFIS, European Commission

The debate was moderated by Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, Director General, DIGITALEUROPE.


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Reinventing defence

The time when defence was the sole driver of innovation is now over: both economic and defence security are now primarily informed by academia and business. One good example given of civilian solutions overtaking military ones was GPS.

David van Weel, Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at NATO, acknowledged the Alliance’s detachment from innovation ecosystems over the years: he emphasized the need for NATO to reengage, build back on its reputation as an innovator and look at ways to integrate defence and security, starting with how to be a savvy investor.

In line with the report by the Advisory group on emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT), NATO is determined to be an agile risk-taker, to create technologies that will augment their deliverables. Indeed, it emerged that NATO is ready to work as an accelerator, acting as the ‘tip of the spear’ in terms of nurturing innovation: importantly, it acknowledges that its brand has the potency to attract the kind of “patient capital” needed by Deep Tech.

Read the full report

NATO EDT advisory group’s annual report 2020

David van Weel, Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges, NATO

“We need to reengage from the security sector into the world of deep tech, the world of academia and into the cutting-edge of innovation because that’s where we need to be if we want to adopt at the speed of relevance but also create the preconditions for a world of technology that actually fits our values of democracy and privacy.”

R&D Incentives

Likewise, François Arbault, Director for Defence Industry at the Commission’s DG DEFIS, agreed that the winds of innovation have changed direction: once dominated by national defence cultures, it seems they are now blowing from non-traditional players.

Now, participants emphasized, the challenge is to spot these players and offer the right incentives for others to travel in the same direction. To help on this front, and with a budget of €8 billion until 2027, the European Defence Fund aim to tap into all possible synergies to make them work for flagships, such as drones, space-based security technology, space traffic management, etc.

The Commission assured that Member States are planning their defence-related R&D 20 years ahead. There was a strong consensus that early alignment is of the essence: lack of it and the EU will lose out in an area deemed instrumental to its future. With determination, cooperation and luck, today’s different markets (addressed by the same big players) will make room for a multitude of innovation-powered ecosystems.

Indeed, a comprehensive approach is not out of reach. Participants stressed that convergence is growing between space and defence technologies, between civilian and military uses, national agendas and international organizations. However, we must remember that red lines will keep running through how data is collected, shared and processed – and how secure and resilient communication lines are. Only by taking this leap and investing in leading, cutting-edge technology can Europe keep up with the pace of innovation: cross-border cooperation is the way to go.

François Arbault, Director, Defence Industry & Space, DG DEFIS, European Commission

“We need to pull in the same direction. As always, big issues are complex and they need to be tackled in a comprehensive manner but I think we see clearly that there is a common willingness to talk and exchange on those major challenges to make sure that we join forces and keep the pace because we simply cannot afford to fall behind.”

Weaponization of cyber

The private sector is happy to see cybersecurity flying high on the political agenda, emphasized Izabela Albrycht, Executive Board Member at DIGITALEUROPE and Chair of the European Cybersecurity Forum CYBERSEC. Traditional defence actors like NATO are now stepping up to the plate and eventually integrating their technological strategy.

Indeed, not long ago, 5G, smart cities and artificial intelligence (AI) were not envisioned as concepts that could be weaponized into adversarial tools. Speakers noted that now, with experience, cybersecurity is seen as central to both dynamic innovation and in protecting citizens who are otherwise lost in our hyperconnected world. AI is a case in point: an instrument to empower people, as well as something that could overpower and get out of control.

Geopolitics of cyber

Cybersecurity innovation has to keep pace with the exponential growth of the cybersecurity market: there was a consensus that innovation has to be conceived systemically, with respect to items already deployed. Increasingly, it seems, geography is not the fundamental driver of geopolitics.

Taken in the cybersecurity dimension, technology standards aim to prevent exposure to breaches and to reduce the attacker’s ability to knock out your defence. It was noted that, in contrast, ethical standards aim to increase the power to project and protect our democratic values. China’s global tech diplomacy is relevant here.

Izabela Albrycht, Chair of the European Cybersecurity Forum CYBERSEC

“Ethical standards are to project our democracy, free and open society, rule of law, privacy, human integrity, responsible use of technologies and cyberspace itself – those must be met while we innovate in order to protect our way of life in the new digital world.”


Dual-use products create ample opportunities and are a must for addressing the challenges of today. For example: in recent years, we have seen F1 grade solutions trickle down to regular cars. It seems that the battle-field test, once tested and secured, can make the most of commercial products, thus keeping all providers – big and small – on their toes.

Indeed, participants referenced European IT players supporting EU-defined security technology – tech that is meant to strengthen digital sovereignty by way of industrial autonomy, yet also remain interoperable with global solutions.

High performance computing is another example: despite strong policy steps taken by the Commission, the best of the supply chain sits out of European hands. A similar case is quantum computing: 80 per cent of related patents come from the US or Canada, with China and Japan as distant followers, and the EU fetching only 5 per cent of them – from only 2 companies.

Emphasized by Günter Koinegg, Group Senior Vice President and Global Head of Defence, Space and Homeland Security at Atos, as a guiding light to Europe, interaction-by-design can secure an ongoing communication loop between the private and public sectors.

Günter Koinegg, Group SVP, Global Head of Defence, Space and Homeland Security, Atos

“Collaboration and interaction must be by design, not by process. To innovate, there has to be an ongoing communication loop between private sector and public sector.”

A unified approach

Since development is such a critical stage, all participants stressed their support of security-by-design, interaction-by-design and values-by-design.

There was an equally strong consensus in support of protecting technology from leaking intellectual property, to set the standards that will secure the democratic values Europe is built on.

The next steps of such cooperation may take the form of mapping out critical technologies together with like-minded, value-conscious partners, starting with – but not limited to – the US.

Crucially, speakers stressed education as key going forward, as cybersecurity is not a matter for experts only: it should be everybody’s concern.

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