The importance of standards for the global economy and how the EU should utilize them

This article argues that through supporting and leading the development of industrial standards for emerging technologies, the EU could help build a competitive edge for the European economy in the global market.

When one hears the phrase “international standard”, death by bureaucracy and other unpleasant phrases come to mind; which is a shame as standards were supposed to be and still are god send for industry. To understand the true value of international standards one must understand how they came to be and how they have developed to the complex set of information that they are now.

The world’s first national standards body (BSI) was founded in 1901 by Sir John Wolfe Barry – Lead architect of London Tower Bridge. This body then lead on to create the first international standards body the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). This body had since then lead the way in creating internationally adopted standards by mobilising end-users, academia and everyone else that had a stake in the development of electrotechnical standards. BSI with its international counterparts then lead on to the creation of the International organisation for standardisation (ISO) after a resolution was passed during a 12-day conference organised by the short lived United Nation Standards committee. Which brings us on to the way that standards are currently managed in the world. A key point to notice is that throughout this entire history of standards the drivers of standardisation stemmed mainly from industry and not government.

Upon the first ISO meeting in 1946, lord Woolton started the internationally attended meeting by saying “we have been working on this for some time, but during the war it was brought to our attention that the lack of productivity could have easily been met if standards were utilised during this era”

This sentence illustrates the value of standards. Standards are built on consensus knowledge, and that means it is the pooling of resources, knowledge and innovations across industries and sectors to develop a set of reference specifications and best practices which can allow businesses and consumers to compare against each other.


There are many examples of products that could only be developed after a set of standards were developed. A key example of this is the WIFI standard. In 1997 the IEEE released a set of standards called 802.11 which detailed specifications on implementing wireless networks. The Standard allowed businesses to focus on building new products and services which work on the protocol which through subsequent revisions has led to the current ecosystem which consumers enjoy a competitive marketplace of software and hardware offerings from multiple vendors with almost complete interoperability. For the applications that could not be covered under this specific standard had other standards developed suited for those niche fields and this has allowed the development of multiple competing platforms, ecosystems, and standards ensuring that the entire marketplace is catered for.

The reason why wireless networks are good example to illustrate the importance of standards is that the 802.11 set of protocols started being developed in 1985 through a ruling by the U.S federal communication commissions. The technology for wireless networks existed for 12 years but was only utilised once a suitable standard was developed. Current innovation cycles are much shorter in comparison to 1985 and businesses are under pressure to market new technologies as early as possible. These kinds of delays can lead to business failure.

Standards are also susceptible to manipulation by commercial entities. Large corporations can and have used their large reach to have an unhealthy influence over the development of industry standards. While most Industry standards are not enforced by legislation, they are often the backbone for entire platforms and ecosystems. Given that some of the most disruptive innovations have come from SME’s it is in the industry and the end users best interest that SME’s are given an equal opportunity to influence the development of standards.

To maintain competitiveness in the global market, Europe needs to become a hotspot for emerging technologies. The European Union already has a successful programme that supports the innovation process through collaborative projects funded through the Interreg and Horizon2020 programme and these have yielded relatively successful results. These programmes have regular calls for solutions to key challenges identified by the EU.

While these programs have been used to successfully propel the development of networks and standards, it is a very reactive measure in which businesses apply for support. The application for funds can take up to a year, which is then followed by project development and implementation. A proactive approach by the EU can further increase the impact of these programmes. A key point of development is continuous benchmarking of technologies and their readiness to enter the market. By identifying disruptive technologies at early stages, the EU can begin to support the creation of networks and clusters.

In conclusion, Industrial standards are not pointless acts of bureaucracy but a driver for improving productivity and consequent economic development. The EU has the political and economic capacity as well as the financial incentive to act as a neutral facilitator for development in Europe.



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