What Problem(s) does GAIA-X tackle?

Every initiative, whether domestic or pan-european, exists primarily to solve a problem. GAIA-X is no exception. What makes the European initiative unique is the diversity of interrelated problems that it aims to solve all at once. This makes it ambitious and daring, while simultaneously raising expectations and pressure. As such, it is even more important to know concretely what it is and what it is not. And above all: what problems it actually aims to solve. So let’s start there.

The modern world runs on that data, which opens up a world of possibility for government, academia, organisations and SMEs. This is no secret. However, there are a number of obstacles to accessing their innovation value. Most importantly: stakeholders today cannot make entirely self-determined decisions. Why is that, and what really stands in the way?

Let’s take a look at six concrete barriers that exist today.

The unfortunate fact remains that all these barriers continue to persist. They are preventing stakeholders from unlocking the full value of their data. GAIA-X promises to address these obstacles in a manner that is true to European values and standards, and paves the way for a future-ready data infrastructure.

What is GAIA-X in short?

At its core, GAIA-X is a European governance project aimed at building the foundation for a data-driven economy. Therein, it can be interpreted as a ‘proposal’ for the next generation of a federated data infrastructure based on the latest thinking that is in line with European values, namely openness, transparency, and trust. 

How exactly is GAIA-X accomplishing this task? Short Answer: Through guidelines, policies and software frameworks. Indeed, the key deliverables of the initiative are documentation, notably the GAIA-X Policy Rules Document, GAIA-X Architecture Document, and Data Space Principles, which collectively form the de-facto ‘GAIA-X Standard’. The architecture of GAIA-X is based on the principle of decentralisation. GAIA-X is the result of many individual data owners (users) and technology players (providers) – all adopting a common standard of rules and control mechanisms – the GAIA-X standard. 

This GAIA-X Standards has a ‘harmonising’ effect. In this envisioned infrastructure, stakeholders would always be given the “option but not the obligation”. Once adopted, the de-facto standard would allow for self-determined decision making when it comes to data and cloud. The end result is aimed to obtain transparency, controllability, portability and interoperability across data and services, which allows for self-determined decision making and raises the competitiveness of Europe in the digital age. 

How can we conceptualise the GAIA-X framework?

Fortunately for us, it’s in the name. ‘Gaia’ is the Greek goddess of Earth, symbolising a nurturing growing ecosystem, whereas the ‘X’ hints at the framework that is followed to achieve it.

In essence, the intended set of rules and regulations (i.e. the GAIA-X Standard) and the implementation of GAIA-X provide for the linking of data ecosystems and infrastructure ecosystems. As such, in its most abstract form, GAIA-X has three distinct components:

  1. Data Ecosystem (i.e. the upper part of the X). Here, the initiative fosters ontologies for interoperability and API within and across sector-specific data spaces. Why does this matter? It provides Swiss organisations with one additional tool to empower collaborative data spaces and to develop innovative data-driven business models (referred to as Advances Smart Services) via a common framework that is standardised, efficient and self-sovereign (see example below).
  1. Federation Services (i.e. the intersection of the X). Here, the initiative builds on EU policies & code of conducts that already exists to develop a so-called ‘Architecture of Standards’. That said, Federation Services go beyond compliance-supporting elements and will also include identity and  trust services, and a catalogue of GAIA-X compliant services. Why does this matter? It allows Swiss organisations to develop GAIA-X compliant services offering an easier mechanism to be compliant with the European Data Protection Regulation, the ‘Free Flow of Non-Personal Data Regulation’ and the European Cybersecurity Act. It includes the minimum technical requirements and services necessary for security by design and privacy by design.
  1. Infrastructure Ecosystem (i.e. the bottom part of the X). Here, the initiative establishes portability and interoperability between network and interconnection providers. Why does this matter? It allows Swiss organisations, from corporates to SMEs, to have a more transparent view of the cloud offers and the dependencies (‘lock-in effects’) on individual providers would be reduced.

These three components in aggregate constitute the “GAIA-X Standard” in its most abstract form. It needs to be noted that the initiative aims to build this standard, and significant adoption thereof, within five years. The initiative further envisions the EU becoming a significant player in the global economy of data by the end of 2025.

What is GAIA-X NOT?

While it is important to understand what GAIA-X is, it is equally critical to comprehend what the initiative does not do. At minimum, there are two elements that are frequently misunderstood or misinterpreted: 

First, some people suggest that GAIA-X builds infrastructure that stands in competition to existing cloud providers. This is not true. The initiative does not build any infrastructure itself. It fundamentally aims to connect and harmonise (i.e. through guidelines, policies and software frameworks) based on the principles of decentralisation. As such, GAIA-X is not an infrastructure itself but more a multitude of individual platforms that all follow a common standard – the GAIA-X standard. 

Second, other critics may suggest that GAIA-X intends to form a new digital oligopoly with exclusive access. This is also not true. The initiative is open to all organisations (from small Swiss SME to international cloud providers). Further, the GAIA-X European Association for Data and Cloud AISBL is a non-profit association that ensures the equal contribution possibility of all members. This, coupled with its ‘harmonising effect’, paves the way for fairer competition instead of a novel oligopoly. 

Why should Swiss companies care about GAIA-X?

Let’s start at the problem: despite its potential, effective cross-organisational data collaboration doesn’t happen. But what exactly is the root cause of that? 

First, there are technological barriers that impede data collaboration. At present there are multiple technology stacks, unclear and inconsistent standards, a lack of APIs and limited interoperability. This, in aggregate, results in additional coordination efforts on both technical teams, and a prominent reason why you could not engage in cross-organisational data collaboration. Secondly, there are governance considerations that need to be taken into account which, even if you could, cast doubt on whether you should. There has been limited transparency on how the data exactly behaves once it is shared. 

Specifically, who gets which data under what conditions. The inability to make self-determined decisions regarding shared data further hinders effective cross-organisational data collaboration.

It is precisely here, where GAIA-X, and specifically the de-facto standard, provides one part of the solution. The common governance specifically helps companies that intend to create data rooms in their respective sector/industry. This has three concrete benefits: 

  1. The GAIA-X Standard helps with regulatory compliance at an EU level, while setting out clear APIs/Standards for interoperability and portability.
  1. The GAIA-X Standard provides clarity about terms of engagement via a single ‘agreement’ between organisations, which has been validated through the EU working groups.
  1. The GAIA-X Standard sets out a framework for data collaboration wherein decision-making is possible on how, where and with whom data is shared – always on the basis of having the option (but not the obligation).

This has a very concrete impact as it paves the way for national and international data spaces for trustworthy and autonomous collaboration between organisations. 

According to a survey by Bitkom, the digital industry association in Germany, one in seven companies wants to build its core business on data in the foreseeable future while 75 percent of companies lag behind in the development of data-driven business models. Many organisations see part of the solution in GAIA-X. Indeed, 46 percent of German companies are interested in European cloud and data infrastructure according to a survey in June 2022. Some organisations are actively investing in GAIA-X initiatives. Consider, for instance, the Catena-X Consortium, focusing on the automotive industry in Germany. 

Through an open data ecosystem, governed by the GAIA-X Standard, it connects all players to end-to-end value chains. This allows for radically different business models, specifically traceability of CO2 footprint across the supply chain. Its ecosystem approach, alongside the ability to make self-determined decisions about data, has incentivised even long-standing competitors to come together. In the case of Catena-X, several staunch automotive competitors are collaborating including BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen. As this example indicates, GAIA-X remains part of the solutions (via the GAIA-X Standard), while the implementation of such consortia are usually led within the industry itself.  

More interestingly still: countries seem to be focusing on their nationally relevant industries: automotive in Germany, finance in Luxembourg, tourism in Italy. The reason for this is simple: Data ecosystems have an economic gravitas and are forming an inimitable competitive advantage. Such ecosystems aim to become local focal points for digital value creation via data collaborations. They further safeguard and expand the industrial competitiveness of many European economies.

The question becomes, where does Switzerland want to focus? At present, there are several important national initiatives underway: 

Further, there are two GAIA-X use cases that have been put forward by Roche. Namely, the “Framework of medical records in Europe” and the “Patient Empowered, Privacy Secured”. More will likely follow across different industries. 

How to connect to the GAIA-X initiative?

There are multiple ways to connect to the Gaia-X Initiative. It is possible to connect existing organisations directly to the data-spaces which are currently forming abroad via the local coordinators (see summary of European data spaces above).

Another possible avenue is the creation of a local GAIA-X Hub, specifically targeted to the needs of Switzerland and its organisations. GAIA-X Hubs are the central contact points for companies, stakeholders, initiatives, associations, and public sector bodies in each country contributing to the GAIA-X and its standard. Internationally, the role of the hub is to nurture a dynamic, grassroots ecosystem that will help to conceptualise use cases that can be joined or replicated, and to shape the “GAIA-X Standard” at a European level. Domestically, the focus is to bundle national initiatives in alignment with the GAIA-X Standard, while creating use cases as part of working groups to shape an innovation-friendly data ecosystem. GAIA-X Germany, for instance, features the following domain working groups: Agriculture, Energy, Finance, Geoinformation, Health. Industry 4.0/SME. Mobility, Public Sector, Smart City/Smart Region. Smart Living.

As of June 2022, there are 15 GAIA-X Hubs either established in Europe, while others are in the process of setting up their local Hub. Japan and South Korea, despite not being in Europe, have also set up their Hubs. This underscores the critical point that GAIA-X builds a future-ready infrastructure on European principles, which resonate far beyond Europe.

What has happened? What’s to come?

In the fall of 2021, several digitalswitzerland members raised the importance of GAIA-X for Switzerland. Ever since, digitalswitzerland has worked towards establishing a connection between the European initiative and Switzerland and representing the view of the private sector in the dialogue. We connected with the GAIA-X CEO Francesco Bonfiglio, and with representatives of the German GAIA-X Hub. In parallel, Swico surveyed its members, which revealed that 77 % of organisations believe that a connection to the Gaia-X initiative can bring advantages to the industry.

Based on these findings, digitalswitzerland launched broad outreach to 10 European hubs in order to learn from their experience about the formation and operation of the Hubs. The purpose was to understand what we, as Switzerland, could learn from our European neighbours. The table below summarises the most important statements given by representatives of the associations that are leading the GAIA-X Hubs. The statements have been anonymised.

Armed with a better understanding of the exact nature of GAIA-X Hubs, digitalswitzerland prepared a workshop with representatives from governance, academic and industry associations to jointly develop an understanding of the scope/role of a potential Swiss GAIA-X Hub. On December 1st 2021, the workshop took place in Bern with the following participants: FDFA, Federal Chancellery, Swico, Swiss Data Science Centre (ETH, EPFL), SATW, and Swiss Data Alliance. The workshop included a Q&A session with representatives from GAIA-X Germany. 

The workshop came to two conclusions: First, there is consensus about the importance of advancing data spaces in Switzerland among all participants. This means that the existing data spaces need to be examined and that GAIA-X, as an enabler, should be closely monitored. Second, there seems to be interest to further explore a vehicle (called a “Swiss Data Hub”) that has the task of empowering and connecting the currently fragmented national data spaces. Here GAIA-X could be “one tool in the toolbox”.

In January and February, representatives from digitalswitzerland and the FDFA, jointly refined the concept of a so-called Swiss Data Hub, including its vision and underlying objectives. In March, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Office of Communications published the “Report: Promotion of trustworthy data spaces and digital self-determination”, which includes various measures to promote trustworthy data spaces and digital self-determination in Switzerland and abroad. Therein, an official recommendation for action is the investigation of a possible “Swiss Data Hub”. This hub should act as a central point of contact for data rooms and empower them. The report further calls for the development of a voluntary “Code of Conduct” for Swiss data rooms. 

The Digital Self-Determination Network, which has been designated as the vehicle for further developments. The next concrete steps will be the development of a voluntary national code of conduct for the operation of trusted data rooms. This should happen by June 2023 with the involvement of all relevant actors. Interested parties can become a member of the network here

What’s the position of digitalswitzerland?

digitalswitzerland is a Swiss-wide, cross-sector initiative that aims to strengthen and anchor Switzerland as a leading digital research and innovation location. Herein, supranational efforts are relevant in positioning Switzerland as a leading digital nation. In addition, digitalswitzerland shares the underlying value of the GAIA-X initiative, namely openness, transparency, and trust. 

digitalswitzerland welcomes this development and wants to continue the discussion. In principle, we are prepared to support such a data hub in cooperation with other associations, provided that the Swiss government ‘matches’ the joint investments from the private sector (i.e. 50/50 split). We see this as the most sensible option given that the GAIA-X has advantages for both the Swiss private sectors (via data rooms) and for all of Switzerland (via digital sovereignty). In the interim, digitalswitzerland will continue to advocate for maintaining a connection to the GAIA-X initiative, support national data rooms and liaise between international data rooms and national organisations.