Cohesion policy: helping Europe get fit for the digital age

1. Introduction

Digital technologies are transforming the world at an unprecedented speed. They have changed how we communicate, live and work. They have changed our societies and our economies. Progress in Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, robotics, automation, block-chain or 3D printing is bringing about technology-led transformations across all European industries. After knowledge and people, it is now physical devices and sensors that are linking up with each other. Digital technologies are key ingredients for innovations that can help us to find solutions to societal challenges, from health to farming, from security to manufacturing.
The public sector has an important role in stimulating digital transformation. This starts with a different mind-set: We need to move from “need to know” to “need to share”.
Cohesion Policy embraced these principles and leads on this by example via the Open Data platform and e-Cohesion.
The Digital Single Market initiative sets out the current EU policy framework. It aims to open up digital opportunities for people and business and enhance Europe's position as a world leader in the digital economy.

2. An overview of cohesion policy investment

EU Cohesion Policy makes a key contribution to delivering Digital Single Market objectives on the ground, in particular through significant financial allocations from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), totalling more than EUR 14 billion for EU financing over the current investment period 2014-2020, complemented by national public and private co-financing. The focus of digital investments under Cohesion Policy is to overcome the digital divide both socially and geographically, e.g. by supporting digitalisation of firms, by improving access to e-government, e-health, and digital skills, and by fostering the roll-out of broadband in remote and rural regions, so that no EU region is left behind.
Cohesion Policy supports in particular:

2.1. Digitising European Industry

... to ensure that businesses, SMEs, digital and non-tech industries can benefit from digital innovations to create a higher value chain. This strategy links national and regional initiatives and boosts investment: 
  • Over 100 ERDF programmes support the specifically the development and up-take of digital technologies by SMEs and cooperation between large firms and SMEs on ICT products and services. Many more support technology transfer and advanced advisory services for SMEs that often include strong digital elements. ERDF helped build up Digital Innovation Hubs and LivingLabs in many EU regions. 
  • In order to enhance the impact of these investments, Member States and regions prepared digital growth strategies, or included a digital dimensions in their smart specialisation strategies, tailored to their specific needs and potentials.
  • The Commission runs a pilot action for “regions in industrial transition” to test new approaches in regions with a lack of appropriate skills-base, high labour costs and deindustrialisation, aiming to harness the benefits of technological change, including the change to digital and customised systems of production. 
  • Horizon 2020 ; COSME programme.

2.2. Improving broadband connectivity and access

... to boost productivity for businesses, efficiency of public services and access to digital opportunities and amenities for citizens across Europe. The EU broadband mapping shows that mainly in rural and remote regions there is a dire need to improve connectivity and make it affordable.

2.3. Creating a digital society and economy

.... which benefits from digital opportunities, via building smart cities, improving access to e-government, e-health, digital skills and the take-up of digital solutions in public utilities, while ensuring cyber-security. 
  • More than 130 ERDF programmes in 21 Member States foresee investments in e-Government services and applications, e-Inclusion, e-Accessibility, e-Learning and education and in ICT solutions for healthy, active ageing and e-Health.  
  • More than 130 ERDF and Cohesion Fund programmes in 23 Member States foresee investments in intelligent energy distribution systems (incl. smart grids) and intelligent transport systems. 
  • More than 80 ERDF programmes in 16 Member States foresee support for making public sector information accessible, including for e-tourism and e-culture. This is the raw material for enterprises using artificial intelligence and big data.
  • The Urban Agenda for the EU has a strong digital transition dimension that helps making cities smarter and helps optimising the impact of the over EUR 10 billion from the ERDF for the implementation of integrated strategies for sustainable urban development. The Urban Innovative Actions give seven cities an opportunity to experiment creative, innovative and durable solutions to address the challenges, including those linked to digital transition

2.4. Investing in developing innovative digital technologies

... such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, gamification, human-machine interfaces, and supercomputing: 

3. Planned ERDF investments to make Europe fit for the digital age

The detailed allocations to specific actions and investment progress are set out in the 3 charts below:
  • "Planned ERDF Digital investment 2014-2020" - showing the latest planned values by intervention field;
  • "ERDF support to digital investments: 2014-2020 timeseries" showing changes over time in aggregate planned amounts and implementation progress; 
  • "ERDF planned support and implementation by digital intervention fields" chart showing progress in delivering the planned investments by intervention field (filters by country / year). 
The global filter below allows users to filter the three charts presenting financial allocations and progress by year, country and fund.     

4. Examples of projects in the digital field

Digitising European Industry:

  • Puglia’s Living Lab matches ICT innovation with market needs (Italy): link
  • Making our open data your business in Finland: link
  • Mechatronics for SMEs forms networks of German and Dutch businesses: link
  • INNOVATHENS promotes and supports the local knowledge and ICT-based entrepreneurship in Greece: link
  • Digital Innovation Hub: Ventspils High Technology Park (Latvia): link
  • Digital Innovation Hub: am-LAB in Szombathely (Hungary): link
  • Digital Innovation Hub: HPC-Cloud and Cognitive Systems for Smart Manufacturing processes, Robotics and Logistics in Zaragoza (Spain): link  
  • Interreg Europe: Strengthening SME capacity to engage in Industry 4.0: link
  • Interreg: Supporting Atlantic digital start-ups to go international: link
  • Interreg Europe: Regional policies for competitive cybersecurity SMEs: link
  • Urban Innovative Action: AS-Fabrik -Bilbao Alliance for smart specialisation in advanced services towards the digital transformation of the industry (Spain): link  
  • Supporting smart mobility with RFID technology (Italy): link

Projects improving broadband connectivity and access:

  • Improving broadband access in rural Lithuania: link
  • Broadband access for disadvantaged areas in Romania: link
  • Fibre optic infrastructure Western French Guiana: link
  • Fibre optic network increases access to broadband in Pomerania (Poland): link
  • High-speed broadband for Auvergne (France): link

Projects creating a digital society and economy:

  • French-Spanish-Portuguese cooperation results in innovative ICT tools to promote personalised medicine: link
  • One-stop online service in Sardinia providing information on starting a business, an innovative self-certifying system, and standardised forms (Italy): link
  • Intelligent transport tools give Wroclaw a new lease of life (Poland): link
  • Digital registration of land and property in rural Romania: link
  • e-Schools project to increase ICT use in Croatia's education system: link
  • Constructing Sofia’s integrated urban transport system (Bulgaria): link
  • Interreg: Advancing Communities towards low-Carbon Energy Smart System: link
  • Urban Innovative Action: Cluj Future of Work (Romania): link
  • E-university: Cyprus University of Technology to become an electronic university: link
  • Bridging the digital divide in Galicia (Spain): link

Projects investing in developing innovative digital technologies:

  • Smart technology tested in Germany allows older people to live independently: link
  • TecBIS boosts high-tech companies in central Portugal: link
  • Innovative ICT based solutions for agriculture, ranching, agri-food and forestry (Interreg Spain-Portugal): link
  • Innovative chirurgical navigation (Germany) : link
  • Laser micro-machining innovations in Trentino (Italy): link
  • Research institute to explore the extraordinary potential of graphene (UK): link
  • High-performance computing infrastructure for brain imaging (UK): link
  • Partnership for 3D printing in Tampere (Finland): link
  • Custom 3D printed implants set to revolutionise spinal surgery (Poland): link

5. Expected results and how to track them

The project examples above are a small selection of the actions implemented in the framework of cohesion policy which are expected to have a direct positive impact on peoples' lives, productivity of companies, effectiveness of public administrations, etc.. 
Some of the expected results and progress in achieving them are summarized in the following graphs: 

6. Looking ahead

For the next investment period 2021-2027, the Commission has proposed two specific policy objectives that prioritise digital investments:
  • Smarter Europe, through innovation, digitisation, economic transformation and support to small and medium-sized businesses
  • A more Connected Europe, with digital networks
Other policy objectives will also include digital investments, in particular the take-up of digital solutions:
  • a Greener, carbon free Europe,
  • a more Social Europe,
  • a Europe closer to citizens.
The Commission promotes digital transformation investments also under the next generation of Cohesion Policy programmes. In its 2019 European Semester country reports it recommended investments in digitisation for practically all Member States and, for more than ten Member States, in broadband. 

7. Further information


We are REGIO's research, business & digital team. Contact us at:
European Commission, Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, Smart and Sustainable Growth