Innovation: Lip Service Is Not Enough

Germany alone has 1,000 publicly financed research institutes, not to mention numerous companies and organizations that operate their own research and development centers. So is Germany a paradise for researchers and innovators? We certainly are research champions in many areas, beginning with the automotive industry and the entire high-tech industry, and including some seemingly inconspicuous sectors such as sensor technology. And the federal government continues to promote these efforts: The ‘High-Tech Strategy 2025’ is centered on the ambitious goal of raising spending for research and development from under 3 percent to 3.5 percent of the country’s gross national product.

Education That Makes the Connection

As might be expected, education is the top priority for Germany’s Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek. She sees it as the key to ensuring that Germany’s innovation heyday carries on into the future. In the concept paper issued by the federal government, she equates education with higher education and advanced training. There is of course nothing wrong with this per se, but I think it takes a rather narrow view of the subject. High-tech education needs to start much earlier. Along with many others, I am advocating that computer science courses should be mandatory starting at the elementary level. This shouldn’t be difficult in the age of smartphones, in which even the youngest children are able to master mobile devices and grasp the logic of apps. I am certain that even younger students would be interested in learning about programming and in understanding how the Internet is constructed or how databases work. And they will naturally be interested in the potential of robots and future of AI. At the same time, we could imbue them with an appreciation of data protection, a topic that will certainly play an increasingly important role for them in later life.

The demystification of the digital world that would inevitably follow is the best basis for logical and innovation-driven thinking. But it’s natural that there is resistance. In this case, it takes the form of myopic educators who allow their inexperience to prevent them from coming to the ‘tablet’ on this issue. In addition, there is the fact that education is governed by the states, so a centralized ‘digital offensive’ is out of the question for that reason alone. Each state plans curricula from its own ivory tower and the federal government is forced to keep its distance. Countless schools in need of renovation are left to their own devices because the states choose to ignore the billion-euro federal program designed to rehabilitate school infrastructure, claiming that the application process is too complicated.

Meanwhile, the state and federal governments have launched the ‘Digital Pact for Schools’ initiative: At some point in the next five years, schools will receive ‘better digital equipment,’ allowing students to ‘confidently and self-sufficiently’ navigate the world of digital media. Tablets in the classroom – that’s the politicians’ idea of a digital offensive.

A mandatory course in computer science would also motivate students to pursue a degree in a STEM subject – and that is the best way to ensure that Germany’s spirit of innovation continues to succeed. Unfortunately, there is still a significant shortage of specialists in technical fields, due in no small part to the rapid structural changes taking place in the economy. Demographic changes are deepening that discrepancy. In Germany, these changes mean that the number of people of working age continues to decline. Today, many companies are already complaining that they are unable to find enough IT security experts or AI programmers. On top of that, most professions will be completely new in the very near future: Four out of five jobs that are expected to exist on the market in 2030 don’t even exist yet. The best way to prepare for that scenario is to focus on early computer science education courses and STEM degrees – that will keep us as flexible as possible.

Visions That Last

Yes, Germany is innovative and driven by research, but a lot of lip service is currently being paid to important topics as well. Take broadband, for example. Both the most recent coalition agreement and the agreement of 2014 featured enthusiastic promises for a country-wide expansion of high-speed networks. Almost nothing has happened since. In Japan, three quarters of households are covered by fiber-optics, while in Germany that number remains just a small percent. The same goes for mobile coverage. The current discourse surrounding the 5G standard (the prerequisite for IoT or autonomous vehicles) is truly sobering. Here, a country-wide expansion is basically impossible, because, according to Head of the Federal Chancellery Helge Braun, it would be “inconceivably expensive.” Politicians claim that we first need to establish “country-wide coverage of the predecessor technology, 4G.” That’s optimism for you. In many towns outside of the major cities, citizens complain about slow connections. Often they don’t even have access to 2G connections, and the line is just dead. Let’s not forget the announcement from Federal Minister of Transport Andreas Scheuer earlier this year, when he reported that an app was being developed to help citizens report service dead spots “simply and without bureaucratic restrictions.” Of course, the major providers already have a detailed awareness of all these dead spots and have been publishing them on their websites for years. In the meantime, while we carry on this absurd discussion, the tiny African country of Lesotho is busy implementing the 5G standard for itself.

Meanwhile, Federal Minister for Digitalization Dorothee Bär, whose ability to act is hampered by interference from both the states and the federal ministries, is getting some reinforcement in the form of Katrin Suder, who was named head of the newly-inaugurated Digital Council, another governmental body eager to discuss the expansion of broadband and mobile coverage, the ‘Digital Pact for Schools,’ and artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence? We recall that AI played an integral role in the coalition agreement, and in July, ‘Key points for a Federal Government Strategy on Artificial Intelligence’ was published. This paper introduces a range of ideas as well as the aim to build upon Germany’s AI technology to make it a “world leader in this area.” However, we will have to wait until the end of the year for a real strategy with concrete steps. That’s over two years after the market leader, the U.S., released its strategic research and development plan for AI. Let’s see how far we get.

This demonstrates that there are many ideas which are initially heralded as fantastic solutions but ultimately come to nothing due to the machinations of party politics, legislation, and the lobbying activities of the industry – which are completely understandable in themselves. For instance, the ‘High-Tech Strategy 2025’ aims to advance the ‘National Reduction and Innovation Strategy for Sugar, Fats, and Salt in Processed Foods’ and to “work together with trade associations and specialist societies and associations” to this end. I wish I could explain to the federal government that it’s a nice idea but really not worth the trouble. We could have implemented the food traffic light rating system 15 years ago. Consumer groups, individual consumers, scientists, insurance companies, doctors, and even the Bundestag have been loyal supporters of the idea. But thanks to lobbying from the food industry, it has yet to see the light of day.

Equally disappointing is our failure to meet climate targets. By 2020, we promised to reduce our CO2 emissions by 40 percent over 1990 values. As if. We’ll hit 30 percent if we’re lucky. So who’s to blame? Certainly not the politicians and their executive freedoms – it’s the fault of the industry and the populace. Now a new law is in the works.

Equally abysmal are the prospects of meeting the federal government’s goal of approving one million electric cars by 2020. With a little luck, we’ll manage it by 2022.  We have neither the infrastructure nor the political will to achieve the goal as it stands. Other countries, such as China and Norway, are providing strong, effective support in the field of electromobility. The same cannot be said for Germany.

Germany is still the world champion of research – of course, that is not without its drawbacks. Legal, structural, and institutional hurdles stand in the way of innovative ideas far too often. Unfortunately, it’s too often the case that politicians are all bark and no bite when it comes to innovation and turning visions into reality. Germany has to improve – and the way forward is with a pragmatic ‘innovation offensive.’

This post was originally published on Direct2DellEMC Germany.