Despite the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, the European Patent Office (EPO) continued to make progress with its Strategic Plan 2023 (SP2023) in the course of 2021. Expressed in figures, around 71% of the EPO's four-year plan had already been implemented by the end of December, just two and a half years after its launch. This progress - ahead of schedule in many cases - was largely due to the commitment of EPO staff.
In an uncertain business environment, the EPO continued to promote internal job mobility under goal 1 of SP2023 to build an engaged, knowledgeable and collaborative organisation. Development programmes were set up for colleagues in our corporate services. Thanks to a new employer branding campaign and external talent pipelines, the EPO also remained flexible and ready to respond to workload fluctuations by recruiting externally.
Looking at the bigger picture, the EPO began envisioning tomorrow's hybrid workplace in 2021 with its new ways of working framework. Designed to offer colleagues maximum flexibility in when and where they work, a draft Circular on the new framework was submitted to the European Patent Organisation's Administrative Council in December. In parallel, work began both on the Isar daylight project to turn the EPO headquarters into a more energising and transparent workspace and on plans to completely redevelop the EPO's office in Vienna to become a carbon-neutral flagship building.
With digital transformation gathering momentum, 2021 also witnessed major achievements in goal 2 projects to simplify and modernise IT systems. By the end of the year, the Patent Workbench platform covered over 99% of workflows in the European patent procedure. On top of upgrading tools for examiners, a six-month pilot for a new online user area for parties to proceedings before the EPO was also launched. Harnessing the benefits of digitalisation for users, this platform allows them to view their application portfolio, perform tasks, file procedural requests and, importantly, to reduce formal errors in their application with real-time quality checks.
Another digital transformation milestone was reached towards the end of 2021 when the EPO completed the first two phases of the project to decommission its mainframe and replace it with a new Linux platform. Given that this new IT infrastructure is crucial to supporting the EPO's latest high-performance digital patent granting process tools, progress with decommissioning marked a huge step forward.
2021 also saw solid results in key metrics such as timeliness and new initiatives to improve quality under goal 3 of SP2023, which focuses on delivering high-quality products and services.
Maintaining exchanges with users on a broad range of topics remained a top priority for the EPO in 2021. In addition to regular virtual meetings with user associations and the enlarged Standing Advisory Committee before the EPO (SACEPO), the EPO also organised a series of informal meetings with applicants in 2021, creating a valuable new channel for direct feedback on its products and services.
2021 also saw a spate of improvements to the EPO's digital tools. In July 2021, the EPO launched an AI-based pre-classification engine built in-house, giving it full control over a crucial core activity. The new engine was used to allocate over 50 000 EP and PCT applications to EPO examiners in the second half of the year.
Another digital service that remained crucial in 2021 was the pilot on conducting oral proceedings in opposition via videoconferencing (VICO). Two thirds of the 700 respondents assessed the provision of oral proceedings in opposition by VICO as good or very good. Solid headway was also made in tackling the backlog of old examination files, with over 84% of stock consisting of files that can still be produced "on time" by the end of the year. This is clearly good news for applicants seeking consistency of timeliness across the EPO's services.
There were also improvements to the EPO's search quality audit as a first step towards addressing the difference between search and grant audit results. In response to user feedback, the audit now covers both the quality of the written opinion on the patentability of the invention and the search report. Tracing developments back to early stages in the patent granting process will hopefully help us understand the root causes of our grant audit results, while enhancing the completeness, correctness and consistency of searches.
Potential improvements were also identified in partnership with our users via Stakeholder Quality Assurance Panels (SQAPs). These deep-dive online sessions bring patent experts together to discuss EPO practices and suggest improvements. In 2021, they focused on inventive step and clarity, giving EPO experts a greater understanding of how our users perceive our work and what matters to them.
2021 was another strong year for the EPO in terms of its goal 4 commitment to build a European patent network with a global impact. A total of 24 bilateral co-operation agreements were also signed in 2021, 22 with member states and two with extension states, reflecting their shared commitment to building a stronger global patent system. Thanks to close collaboration with national patent offices in the European Patent Organisation member states, IT co-operation within the European Patent Network (EPN) also accelerated. In addition to the launch of an eagerly awaited pilot search tool, 2021 saw the roll-out of a new bilateral agreement builder, a new collaboration platform for the patent information centre (PATLIB) network and the set-up of an IT security working group
It was also a momentous year for the Unitary Patent package, which is set to mark the biggest change to the patent system in Europe in the EPO's history. More importantly, it offers significant potential for innovation, investment and technology transfer at a time when they are needed more than ever. In October 2021 the Select Committee resumed its work and adopted an ambitious work plan for 2022. Preparations for the Unitary Patent (UP) continued across the Office in 2021 and every effort will be made to promote its early uptake.
The EPO's geographical reach continued to expand in 2021 with the signature of a Reinforced Partnership agreement with the Saudi Agency of Intellectual Property (SAIP) in November. Overall, the geographical coverage of EPO products increased substantially in 2021, reaching a total of 2.020 billion inhabitants by the end of the year.
As we continue our move from patent information to patent knowledge, and based on the principles of digitalisation and co-operation, the European Patent Academy's framework was completely overhauled. Reflecting changes in the professional education landscape, the Academy started offering modular intellectual property (IP) training and certification delivered digitally.
The EPO also held its first-ever electronic European qualifying examination (e-EQE) in 2021. As the examination was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, almost 3 800 candidates enrolled for the e-EQE. Judging by their feedback, the e-EQE was a success. Going digital also helped the EPO achieve its goal of providing accessible certification to patent professionals across Europe in a convenient, cost-effective manner.
Lastly, 2021 saw major strides towards goal 5 of SP2023, which covers all aspects of the EPO's long-term sustainability. Solid progress was made towards securing the Office's financial position. Benefits from the six measures adopted to address the coverage gap in the EPO's financing identified by the Financial Study of 2019 started to materialise. In particular, the EPO's investment and pension funds performed strongly in 2021, while its new salary adjustment method also achieved significant savings.
In terms of environmental sustainability, the digital transformation continued to have a positive impact on the EPO's footprint in 2021. On top of a 60% reduction in annual paper consumption, which fell to a record low of 24.3 million sheets, the EPO's CO2 emissions from heating also plunged by over 1 300 tonnes after its switch to biomethane gas to heat buildings in The Hague. Moving beyond compliance, the EPO also aligned its emissions reporting with the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol Corporate standard for the first time in 2021, as part of its plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030.
Last but not least, 2021 was also a landmark year for data protection, culminating in the Administrative Council adopting new legislation that is aligned with the highest global standards. In response to user feedback, the EPO also set up an Ombuds Office in February 2021. As a confidential, neutral partner, the Ombuds Office will help build even healthier and more effective working relationships, both within the Office and with external partners.
Despite the challenges created by the ongoing pandemic, a brighter future started to take shape in 2021 for the EPO. Both the EPO and its stakeholders began reaping the rewards of digital transformation, setting a clear course towards a more sustainable global patent system.