Next Generation Internet Forum 2021 – Building the Internet of Humans

A SPECIAL EDITION

This 2021 edition of the NGI Forum was a very special one, for several reasons. First, because it came after a long break – we had to skip the NGI Forum 2020 due to the pandemic – second because for the first time we met fully online and third because we had the opportunity to take stock of the results achieved by NGI projects and innovators after two years from the launch of the first projects. NGI Coordinator Dr Monique Calisti gives her view of the event.

NGI Forum 2021

The NGI Forum is the place where Internet researchers and innovators meet to discuss and share experiences about how to shape a better Internet. This year we could not meet physically in the same place unfortunately, but we met exactly there, on the Internet. More than 600 from more than 50 countries watched the event live over the two days and met the NGI innovators who shared the results of their work, their experiences, their views, their plans, and the lessons learned along the journey.

Since the first NGI Forum edition in 2017, the NGI community has grown incredibly. With 12 ongoing Research and Innovation Actions, five Coordination and Support Actions and a large community of innovators that joined the NGI via Open Calls – more than 700 individuals involved in about 500 selected and funded projects, in the last two and a half years only – many important outcomes have been produced.

We could obviously not squeeze all this into the two-day program we put together, but across the plenaries and parallel workshops, the NGI Forum 2021 featured some of Europe’s top Internet innovators, the open source community and European policy makers. Discussions focussed on how to pave the way for an open, trustworthy, and sustainable future Internet, showcasing the results of the NGI projects, debating main challenges and opportunities, and anticipating its next steps.

A SPRINT RETROSPECTIVE

It was an intense and inspiring event. Commissioner Thierry Breton opened the first day and set out the expectations for the NGI community to contribute to the wider European vision of the Internet for the coming years. This was followed by a keynote speech of Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum on the future trends of the internet, while the second day was opened by the Member of the European Parliament Eva Kaili who gave a keynote on the topic of internet of trust. These were the highlights of a rich and dense programme: 18 top speakers across six plenary sessions, nine NGI innovators’ pitches, 12 workshops covering several technological and policy-related topics, as well as interventions from representatives of the European Commission.

In his opening remarks, Commissioner Breton highlighted the central role a trustworthy, open, and sustainable Internet has for realising the ambition of Europe’s Digital Decade. He also stressed  the importance of the work of the NGI in mobilising SMEs, tech start-ups, academics, and innovators into a community that is expected to also grow thanks to further dedicated EU investments under Horizon Europe.

In his keynote, Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum underlined the disruptive effect of the Internet across many sectors and application domains, reiterating the importance of encouraging innovation and blue-sky research from small start-ups and universities with disruptive ideas.

MEP Eva Kaili reminded participants about the important role played by innovation, together with regulation, in the digital area and reminded participants that recent EU regulatory initiatives aim at safeguarding transparency, privacy and accountability in the digital sphere.

MAIN TAKEAWAYS

The NGI Forum 2021 edition gave us the opportunity to present the NGI innovators and what they have achieved so far, but also reflect on which aspects can be improved to have a greater impact, while ensuring we shape an Internet, which is better aligned with the EU values.

Some of these aspects came up already from the discussions in the “NGI State of Play” plenary session, which provided a snapshot of what the NGI has become in these first years of its history. What clearly emerged is that the NGI initiative has gained enormous momentum since its inception, having engaged top experts, researchers, and young innovators from all over Europe. This has been possible by adopting an agile funding approach that allows NGI to attract and support individuals and organisations for the benefit of a growing and vibrant ecosystem of developers, SMEs and Startups. The support provided to NGI researchers and innovators goes beyond funding as it provides an open and collaborative environment where value for its participants is created by increased synergies, as well as open exchange of knowledge and transfer of technologies.

NGI Forum 2021 | Day 1 | Panel "NGI State of Play"

The other plenaries across the two days also yielded some important takeaways:

  • Internet architecture. There is a common understanding from a technological point of view, that decentralisation, openness, and sustainability are core requirements for a human-centric next generation Internet. However, the increased concentration of power and control into a small number of companies represents a major obstacle to innovation, creativity, as well as transparency and business opportunities for smaller players. To overcome this, the role of initiatives like the NGI is crucial, especially when it comes to ensure high-level data interoperability, contribution to open standards, environmentally-aware choices, and also the development of new governance and business models.
  • The Open Source model. Open source is at the heart of many NGI projects, and it will continue to play an important part in the future NGI agenda. Open source hardware and software initiatives play a key role and must engage academia, industry and policy makers. The cascade funding approach offered by the NGI is well suited to support open source efforts, as also proved by the many outcomes already produced within the community. However, going from the initial spark to the extra step of scaling up and going beyond the initial developers/technologists requires the creation of an ecosystem with sustainable business models and renewed procurement processes and schemas.
  • Internet of Trust. To increase security and transparency, as well as privacy preserving mechanisms it is essential to meet the ambition of the EU Digital Decade and create an Internet of trust. This requires moving beyond purely technology-related aspects and enforce mechanisms for trust and reputation-building that strike a balance between privacy and security requirements. The work done in this direction within the NGI ecosystem is important to move beyond the form of “digital feudalism” big tech players have instituted. Existing alternatives must be better promoted for broader uptake, since, especially in recent pandemic times, many mainstream solutions have been adopted without realising how much privacy we are relinquishing. Many of the tools and software developed within the NGI aim to allow for greater technological sovereignty and freedom of choice, as ultimately trust should be a conscious choice we make – human versus technical trust.
  • Digital Principles. The NGI initiative is strongly positioned to support the Digital Decade vision as it has supported many researchers and innovators at work to ensure universal access to Internet services, keeping a secure and trusted online environment and ethical principles for human-centred algorithms. The Internet is a main driving force of the future economy and society, but it is vital to ensure it benefits all citizens, universal, secure, and trustworthy access must be granted. This is calling for technologies and mechanisms preventing identity manipulation and data poisoning, supported by appropriate policies, standards, and regulations. The community is invited to participate to the European Commission’s public consultation on the Digital Principles, which will stay open until 2 September 2021.
  • A global ambition. Building a human-centric Internet does not stop at the EU borders. Therefore, international collaboration plays an increasingly important role in the NGI agenda. The current successful cooperation with the US in areas such as privacy, trust and decentralised data governance will be further strengthened and new collaborations with key international partners will be launched in Horizon Europe.
NGI FORUM 21 WORKSHOPS

The NGI Forum featured 12 workshops attended by more than 640 live participants. Sustainable technology was a key focus of two of the workshops. Equally, technological innovation was unpacked during dedicated sessions on  Self Sovereign Identity, data portability, open hardware and software ecosystems. Practical  applications of NGI research and innovation were showcased by the innovators themselves. A session on NGI International celebrated outcomes from EU-US transatlantic collaborations. Support for innovators was also a main topic, including business development support and FED4FIRE+ Free testbeds for the NGI Innovators’ experimentations.

MOVING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

By making the NGI innovators the main protagonists of this year’s edition of the NGI Forum and bringing them on stage in all plenary sessions, in all workshops and via their pitches, NGI has presented the opportunity to understand how much the initiative is central to ensure a green and human-centric digital transformation of our economy and society.  However, more work still needs to be done and some challenges need to be addressed.

There are many interesting results emerging from projects which need to be better shared so that other projects can benefit from the learnings of these results. NGI technologies, even if still in an early stage, must be used and more widely deployed within our own community – practising what we preach – to help moving them to the next level. Increased deployment is key to understand how to meet users’ and organisations’ needs. This requires targeted engagement and community building activities.

The value brought by being part of a community of people, knowledge, and solutions, still needs to be fully exploited by many NGI innovators that need further support in developing their work either in a research-driven perspective or in a more commercial-oriented way. Public funding and smooth procurement mechanisms need to be ensured, but also, as stressed by Pearse O’Donohue, Director for the EC Future Networks Directorate of DG CONNECT, European Commission, when closing the event, ideas, needs and input from citizens need to be injected into the work we are doing within NGI. This is essential to build an Internet of trust and an Internet of humans.

A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE

To enable universal and secure access to the Internet, where freedom of expression and access to transparent information are granted and where personal data protection, as well as privacy are preserved, is an ambitious mission the NGI has undertaken. Many challenges lie ahead going beyond technological progress. Several regulatory, policy and market-related aspects need to be properly addressed, but Europe is fully committed to that with major investments in Horizon Europe for building an Internet of Trust.

As announced at the NGI Forum, across 2021 and 2022 more than €60 million are planned to be invested on research and innovation actions focusing on trust and data sovereignty, trustworthy open search and discovery, Internet architecture and decentralised technologies, such as blockchain and distributed ledgers, as well as on international collaborations with the USA and Canada.  

This is extremely important news for our community as it reconfirms the political and financial commitment of the EU and all Member States to help the NGI grow even further as an essential movement that aims to empower end-users with more control over their data and their digital identity, while enabling new social and business models respecting European values. This gives meaning, purpose and hope to all of us at work on this ambitious plan!

Even though the journey is long and challenging, what clearly emerged from this year’s edition of the Forum is that the NGI initiative is here to stay and grow even further.

We are confident many more new individuals and organisations will join the journey.