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Digital Sovereignty: France’s Digital Ecosystem Luck and Weaknesses …

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For several months now, the theme of industrial and digital sovereignty has come to the forefront. The pandemic crisis we are going through has only highlighted our industrial and digital dependence on foreign powers whose commercial or geostrategic interests may converge or diverge from ours.

The highlight of this awareness was the reaction of French digital players during the Health Data Hub affair. The result of this awareness was the creation of a collective behind the appeal of April 9, 2020. While I personally am a fervent supporter of this initiative, I will try to outline the strengths and weaknesses of our French digital ecosystem here.

What also motivated the writing of this article is when on a cutting-edge subject, Artificial Intelligence, one of our brilliant brains Antoine Blondeau created his specialized company Sentient Technology® (JDN) in AI in California and not in France?

 

Our Digital Ecosystem

 

Like many in the beginning, I had the vision of a digital world populated mainly by American or Chinese solutions. If it is true that they are the ones that hold the top of the media spotlight, including in the specialized press, when you look at the subject, you discover a rich and bubbling ecosystem.

During the first few weeks spent with the PlayFrance.Digitalcollective, one of the first activities was to create an initial mapping of French digital players. It is not exhaustive, but already shows an unsuspected richness:

 

Source: PlayFrance.Digital

In this map, we have about 300 actors, but there are many more. They cover sectors such as hosting, storage, marketing, compliance, messaging or collaborative work platforms.

In this quick overview, we have established players that are no longer start-ups, but solid companies as in the hosting sector where we find great solutions like OVH Cloud, or Outscale (by Dassault Système) …

We also find real innovative and promising startups such as Olvid, which offers high-performance secure messaging, or models such as Tresorio (hosting coupled with hot water supply), Smanck (collaborative platform) and many others.

We have powerful specialized solutions in different areas such as:

  • Health, a solution like 4mg Transparency which proposes to industrials to control their compliance with the Transparency Law, I recognize that I am not completely objective, given my accompaniment to this adventure … We also have Iktos, a nugget specialized in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to define new therapeutic molecules.
  • Marketing with Kwanko, which is now well established, or ContentSquare, a start-up incubated at Essec, which has set out to conquer the American market (article).
  • Defense with some nice solutions (article), one of the most emblematic of which is Earthcube which becomes Preligens, offering solutions for the analysis of satellite images by AI, for the recognition of objects and assistance in the analysis of geostrategic threats.

These start-ups and digital companies that I have quickly introduced to you are an example of the vitality of our ecosystem. There are many others that would have had their place here …

 

The strengths of our ecosystem

 

One of the elements on which this proliferation of digital companies is based, in my view, is a high-performance education and research system, which enables us to produce individuals with a strong scientific and engineering culture. This point is crucial, but it must be noted that it is in full decline (PISA ranking), particularly in mathematics, which has long been one of France’s strong points and undoubtedly a key factor in the digital economy

Another key element is that we have a social and support system for the early stages of entrepreneurship that is quite unique in the world. These start-up financial aids are found at both the national and regional levels. And our unemployment protection system has mechanisms in place for those who want to start their own business (Chamber of Commerce and Industry – CCI). In addition to these mechanisms, there are other private/public initiatives, notably on the creation of incubators such as Station F, but also our engineering and business schools, which offer their incubators

The other aspect that can reassure us about the quality of our ecosystem is that it is the hunting ground for major American groups seeking to enrich themselves with new technologies (acquisition of patents) or to acquire customer segments that complement their own. While this is reassuring in terms of the quality of French offerings, it is more worrying in terms of digital and industrial sovereignty…

 

The weaknesses of our ecosystem

 

For some, one of the weaknesses of our ecosystem would be the multiplicity of fairly similar offers, which in the end would compete with each other. While it is true that we have a plethora of solutions that are fairly similar, particularly on collaborative platforms or marketing tool offerings, in my opinion they are sufficiently differentiated to adapt to different types of customers and uses. I would therefore temper this vision of the weakness of our ecosystem.

The major weakness over the last few years, in my view, is mainly linked to a lack of support for this ecosystem by our economic and political leaders. Most of them are unable to understand the challenges of digital technology and its impact on economic and societal organization, or geopolitical issues, as shown in the report of the Fondation Concorde in 2015 (Atlantico).

But even today, this is still the case. Just look at the recent examples concerning the Healthcare Data Hub, the BPI for EMP management, and Renault (Article).

This initial observation leads to other difficulties that the French digital ecosystem may encounter, particularly with regard to financing during the later phases of company development, when significant funds are needed to change scale.

When it comes to decisions within large industrial groups, the CIO will never be “fired” if he fails on a digital transformation project but has chosen a recognized solution such as GAFAM…

Another weakness, mirroring the great strength of most American players, is marketing and their ability to facilitate the user approach, where French solutions are often technically well developed but not attractive. Notably by a lack of ergonomics, on the use of the product.

 

Conclusion

 

The birth of the PlayFrance.Digital collective is the first step in a sector that is organizing itself to deal with issues of digital sovereignty. This primarily French initiative will try to take on a European dimension.

The other encouraging element is the norm-setting force of Europe, which is becoming a real support in the reconquest of our digital sovereignty, such as the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation, the recent decision of the CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) on the invalidation of the Privacy Shield. This paradigm shift is beginning to show these effects in the new recommendations of the European CNILs (Les Echos).

If the French and European backwardness is flagrant, it seems that finally a serious awareness has taken place, and that we can hope for a rebalancing of the forces at play, but this requires that at all levels we play the game and adjust our choices with this new reading grid.

 

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