7.7.2Flanders’ position in digital technology

The EIB Investment Report (EIB, 2021, p. 289) reveals that, while Europe is at the forefront of green technologies, its position in digital innovation is less encouraging. Patent data reveal that Europe is lagging behind both the United States and China for digital patent applications. Whereas the share of digital patents in the total patent portfolio has remained relatively stable in Europe since 2013, the share in the United States has increased, widening the gap between both regions. Such a widening gap is even more pronounced between Europe and China. 

When we consider the position of Flanders within Belgium and within the European Union, we show in Figure 2a that Belgium and Flanders are mimicking the steepening curve that is visible in Europe, and are even displaying a stronger growth (7% and 9% annual growth for Belgium and Flanders respectively versus 3% for Europe) over the whole period. Looking at the shares of digital patents in the total portfolios, we show in Figure 2b that Belgium and Flanders (resp. 12% and 13%) consistently remain below the EU rate (17%). At the same time, and opposed to what was observed in green technologies, Flanders is not performing less at a national level in the share of digital technologies. Moreover, the annual growth in digital patent shares is again considerably stronger for Flanders and Belgium (6% growth) than for Europe (3%). 
 

Figure 2a. Number of digital patents (EPO)

BelgiumEuropeFlanders050100150200250300350400450Number of patent applications010203040506070809101112131415161718Application year020004000600080001000012000010203040506070809101112131415161718 BelgiumEuropeFlanders0100200300400Number of patent applications010203040506070809101112131415161718Application year020004000600080001000012000010203040506070809101112131415161718 BelgiumEuropeFlanders0100200300400Number of patent applications010203040506070809101112131415161718Application year0500010000010203040506070809101112131415161718

Source: PATSTAT (Autumn 2020 edition) - Digital technology delineation adopted from EPO (2017)1

 

Figure 2b. Share of digital patents within the total patent portfolio (EPO)

BelgiumEuropeFlanders0246810121416182022Share of digital technologies010203040506070809101112131415161718Application year0246810121416182022010203040506070809101112131415161718 BelgiumEuropeFlanders05101520Share of digital technologies010203040506070809101112131415161718Application year05101520010203040506070809101112131415161718 BelgiumEuropeFlanders05101520Share of digital technologies010203040506070809101112131415161718Application year05101520010203040506070809101112131415161718

Source: PATSTAT (Autumn 2020 edition) - Digital technology delineation adopted from EPO (2017)1

The figures suggest that Flanders and Belgium are on their way as to their contributions to the digital part of the twin transition. If the digital developments can be maintained and reinforced throughout the coming years, Flanders may play a positive role in strengthening the currently weak European digital position on a global scale.

The relevance in strengthening this position lies in the fact that digital technologies are put forward as critical enablers of the green transition to meet the sustainability goals defined in the European Green Deal. Indeed, if emerging digital technologies are properly employed, they could play an essential role in tackling environmental challenges. The extent to which technological developments are fostering such an enabling role - whereby digital technologies are deployed in the green domain - can be evaluated by considering patents residing in both the digital and the green domain: technological developments in which both worlds collide. The next section analyses the position of Flanders in this respect.
 

1 European Patent Office (2017). Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. European Patent Office, Munich, Germany.