The future of Europe is in its own hands

Our current lens combines science fiction and reality. To enter a future worth living, Europe needs its own ideas — its Moonshots.

by Harald Neidhardt


Exponential technologies and innovations are on the rise, bringing with them new challenges and opportunities. For sustainable developments, we need changes that require not only courage, but also an entrepreneurial, cross-industry rethinking. 

We have the best chances for redefining our lives, our work and our values for the better. Technological developments in particular are leaping towards fulfilling many of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. On the other hand, our lives also seem to be becoming more complex, faster and more unpredictable—the challenges brought about by climate crisis, the industrial shift to modern, networked workflows, and the increase of efficiency through robotics, artificial intelligence and new business processes cannot be denied. We need an ambitious “Kennedy Moment”a moonshotthat inspires us with a new narrative so we can dedicate our passions and goals to a great idea. For me, this great idea is a “Europe of Opportunities.”

A mission for Europe

The European Union has begun defining a mission for its new funding and research program “Horizon Europe” which is oriented towards desirable future over impartial technology research. Europe is home to some of the world’s top companies and leading fundamental research, but the future will be more about submitting technology to a greater purpose. In this sense, the EU mission has a chance to awaken the combined forces of research and innovation departments, which are goal-oriented, but leave plenty of room for concrete implementation. One prime example of a mission is: One hundred CO2-neutral cities by 2030. 

When looked at closely, this goal demonstrates how no individual technology is being targeted, but multiple innovations simultaneously stimulated. This requires a new way of thinking and cross-industry networking, as well as the very much desired involvement of the public.

Institute for Exponential Technologies and Desirable Futures

It is precisely because the tasks ahead of us cannot be solved by individual technologies, but rather by innovative ways of thinking. This is precisely why Futur/io Institute was founded. Futur/io is the European institute for exponential technologies and desirable futures. The institute‘s mission is to highlight and situate Europe‘s strengths next to global power blocs the United States and China.

The institute, founded in 2017, invites decision makers from all branches of the economy to selected locations in Europe, such as Venice, Aix en Provence or Davos. In a relaxed atmosphere and enchanting landscapes, top speakers are invited to share their innovation roadmap. Interactive workshops help participants deepen their knowledge and, more importantly, practice the new attitude and mindset needed to develop a positive strategy for their own company: their own Moonshot.

Exponential innovation takes off

Exponential innovations (exponential technologies and new business models) have a disruptive force, but also offer enormous opportunities for increasing efficiency, improving the quality of life and offering new products and services. The importance of exponential technologies will increase significantly. This is underlined by the fact that the Federal Government has founded a new institute with the agency for disruptive innovations in order to support the German economy with a massive budget of 1 billion euros in funding. The Leipzig Agency for Disruptive Innovations focuses in particular on promoting artificial intelligence, medical research and climate protection.

With this political support for and awareness of innovation, Germany as an economic region in a newly orienting Europe has enormous opportunities to reposition itself through societal challenges as a provider of solutions for global competition. We see massive potential, especially in the combination of cutting-edge research with the values and experiences of hidden champions in Germany. The strengthened data protection rights (GDPR), ethical questions regarding the use of AI and occupational health and safety rights offer added value that secures Germany’s position as global export champion.

Moonshots with courage and method

The first “Moonshot” was initiated by John F. Kennedy‘s speech in 1962 at the Rice University stadium in Houston, Texas. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” with these words, Kennedy animated an entire nation to face this challenge. Driven by his vision, new companies were founded, innovations released and new collaborations concluded. The goal has become a reality and Neil Armstrong‘s historical footprint celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

“Moonshot Thinking” was born of the principle “from a vision becomes reality,” a method that helps executives face major challenges in interdisciplinary teams, in order to conceive new visions that inspire and anticipate the compass for innovation in decade-long steps. The technology group Alphabet (formerly Google) founded the world‘s first Moonshot Lab “X” in 2015. Their focus on new technologies is merely superficial. Technology is viewed as a means to an end in fulfilling a mission that meets specific criteriait is a different way of thinking. The first thing is to find great challenges, to “fall in love” with the problem and not with the first solution, then do everything possible to efficiently sort out the worst ideas. This requires courage to learn, and implementation of new agile working methods, coupled with a corporate culture that is open to experimentation and pilot programs as well as their possible failures.

The second worldwide Moonshot Lab in the world and the first in Europe was launched in Barcelona at Telefónica Alpha. The budding company currently employs more than 60 people who are independently organized, report directly to the CEO and aren’t situated in the classic R&D department. When Alpha was founded, the following guidelines were given to make a project a Moonshot: Has a sales potential of 1 billion euros in 10 years after entering the market; Positively contributes to the lives of 100 million people; Uses innovative technology; Creates social improvements, compatible with the UN sustainability goals.

The first Moonshots developed at Alpha targeted health and energyand not, as one might initially think, the next telecommunications standard like 6G. Alpha uses various methods to develop ideas and product concepts. One example is field research, where a team from Barcelona spent a few weeks in the Andes of Peru or in the Amazon region with indigenous peoples who have so far had no contact with electricity. Another method is developing future scenarios that deal with role-playing games and “World Building”Hollywood tools for developing science fiction films.

For this phase of development, very innovative and mostly young researchers and developers work together with design thinking professionals, designers, artists and industry experts. All ideas are allowed, and the best are tested vigorously over a period of several months before being presented.

Sustainable corporate culture

The need to rethink corporate strategy is becoming more evident every day; a new generation of politically active schoolchildren flood the streets on Fridays; the news paints gloomy pictures of effects of the climate crisis and within the company workforce questions about the meaningful creation and the security of jobs are growing more and more The change is particularly evident in family businesses. The young generation not only has to cope with digital change, but also a transformation to a more sustainable company in the interests of all stakeholders.

In the United States, a business roundtable recently announced that its members (including Apple, Amazon, BlackRock) agreed on the following goals: job creation, a sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunities. New gestures by corporations that previously been characterized by the exploitation of low-wage workers and raw material countries as well as tax avoidance.

This can be done better! I hope that sustainable business can be combined with the innovative strengths of medium-sized companies and hidden champions in Karlsruhe, Manchester or Copenhagen. Recognizing the challenge is the first stepimplementation in the company is not easy. Naturally, resistance is to be expected, as change is a threat to the working atmosphere and competitiveness. But if we take on the challenges and have the courage to act decisively, then solutions to climate change and the sustainability goals can create a billion-dollar market. Are there potential providers for this in Germany or Europe? Certainly! Does it make sense for startups to focus on innovations around these topics, rather than game apps? Certainly.

The culture of exponential innovation 

Could you also set up a Moonshot Lab in your company to jump over your own horizon? Can you imagine being successful in unknown territory of a “third horizon,” i.e. outside of your company product strategy (1st horizon) or the expected innovations of your branch (2nd horizon)? And weren‘t youas part of the generation of foundersmore courageous in the early days of your entrepreneurship as a pioneer against the current market? I think many hidden champions and world market leaders have what it takes to act like X or Alpha: fall in love with the problem! Openly articulate your mission and invite an ecosystem of partners to join you in dedicating yourselves to this mission with open innovation.

You will see how meaningful work attracts the right talent and, in the future, investors. One thing seems to be a recipe for success: start in a small and independent team “at the Edge” (John Hagel). Do not disrupt ongoing operations, but be more radical in the ideas and future scenarios that you develop. This is how exponential innovations such as the iPhone at Apple or the Hololens at Microsoft came into being, and it’s how the mobility turnaround in Germany, the most important industry, and the digital transformation from East Westphalia to Thuringia will most likely succeed. It requires a collective effort and rapid retraining and educating of specialists, but especially of board members and executives, to reinvent the corporate culture in new forms of management. Instead of top-down, we need co-thinking and incentivesnot just monetary ones. We need the 5G on every milk can and a new work culture that also allows time for a flexible home office. We need fewer ties and more equality. We even need the young talents with tattoos, broken German and without a class B driver‘s license. Taking talent seriously whether young or oldas a communicator or mentor: the automated world of work in an aging society is a new and major challenge.

Entrepreneurs who have been successful for generations show how they have constantly reinvented themselves and dared to achieve the unreachable with the help of new technologies and management methods. Just look at Ford, Apple, Googleor even Siemens, Volkswagen, Viessmann, Henkel, Airbus or Deutsche Post. Moonshots for Mittelstand is not a paradox but an opportunity for a new generation of entrepreneurs: think big and plan concrete first steps. We need a strong dose of optimism and a passionate entrepreneurial spirit that will steer the 4th wave of industrialization into new directions, and new dimensions.

Moonshots for Europe

You may be thinking that the task is too big; there’s always the possibility to go a bit smaller, slower or more perfect. Maybe you also think: we are in Darmstadt or Karlsruhenot in the valley, what can we do here? The glass is at least half full and we need to finally rearrange our minds. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN in Switzerland, not in San Francisco. The MP3 music format in Erlangen / Nuremberg and not in Los Angeles. The Biotech scissors for genes, CRISPR / CAS9, have been extensively researched in Alicante, Vienna and Umea (Sweden). But where were these innovations financed and scaled?

Mostly in the USA, especially software and soon also biotech applications. We urgently need a more positive attitude towards the exchange of research and teaching within the business worldand political framework conditions that promote a networked Europe for digital production, lifelong learninG and further education as well as sustainable innovations. A lot has been saidnow we have to do it! There can be no “keep-it-up” along the current trajectory we want to invest in the future for our successor generation.

Now is the time to start paving the way for tomorrow‘s businessesto leave the country greener than we found it. Let us not waste any more timethe digital transformation is the backlog of innovations of the past 10 years. A corporate culture that supports Moonshots ensures that the next decade can also be actively shaped in the heart of Europe.