Many people see a huge opportunity in the “green transformation” in particular. Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, has said that the next thousand unicorns – meaning startups with a pre-IPO market valuation of over $1 billion – will come from green tech. The question is: will German and European companies be in the mix?
Now I’m not a prophet, but there’s definitely a chance, and I’m actually quite confident about it. We’re ultimately talking about a huge field in which European companies are very well positioned overall. That’s especially true for Germany, where there’s such a strong political demand for environmental action.
So hats off to Fridays for Future, which can definitely be seen as a driving force behind this movement?
It’s undoubtedly commendable how the young generation has taken to the streets and demanded a change in mindset. In my opinion, though, it’s not enough to say where the journey should end. We also need to know how to get there. We can’t just say goodbye to fossil fuels overnight, even if we all know the future will be electric. Rather, we need a smart strategy to arrive in that future, and I’m convinced that the combustion engine will continue to play a role for quite a while for economic reasons alone. At some point, though, it won’t run on fossil fuels anymore, but on synthetic fuels.
All the same, we can’t afford to postpone action on global warming any longer. That doesn’t mean making hasty decisions, but we still need ambitious goals. Or do you see things differently?
No, not at all! We absolutely need very ambitious goals, and in order to achieve them, we need to learn to think outside the box again and be disruptive. This means doing things differently than we have been for the last 20, 50 or 100 years. Above all, we need to formulate a smart strategy and then implement it step by step with total consistency. That’s one of the reasons why I’m calling for a master plan for Germany and Europe. This plan needs to guide us toward achieving not only our environmental goals, but also our economic policy objectives. If we’re committed to being globally competitive in the future, we also need to assume responsibility for the generations to come.
What could a master plan like the one you propose look like?
It would be presumptuous of me to get into all the details here. Like at a well-functioning company, an overall strategy like this would have to be developed at the management level – while involving all the relevant experts and considering related assessments, of course. I’m not talking about some paper that’s written up only to disappear into a drawer. I’m talking about a very concrete master plan, with interim goals, milestones and clearly assigned responsibilities. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a three-year or a five-year plan. The important thing is to provide clear guidelines that everyone is held accountable to.
That may work in China, but is it also possible here in Germany?
It has to be! In the democratic federal system in which we’re fortunate enough to live, our politicians have to be able to set a strategic course, even if that sometimes involves making unpopular decisions. To that end, we need courageous, experienced and qualified people in politics who move things forward in our country instead of getting in the way. At the risk of ruffling some feathers: the bureaucrat must become the enabler!
But don’t regulations – on data protection, for instance – inevitably entail bureaucracy?
An American would say “secure it, but enable it.” In other words, data protection and other regulations can’t just be government-mandated shackles. We need to strike a balance and ensure the optimum level of safety without strangling innovation and technologies right from the start. If we can manage to limit ourselves to a sensible and necessary regulatory system that’s pragmatic and unbureaucratic, it might also become our next big export. Safety, security and sustainability are not inherently hurdles and barriers. They also present opportunities for our country.
Back to the master plan: it’s ultimately the companies that will have to implement this strategy, right?
Exactly. And that will only work if they succeed at another balancing act. On the one hand, the focus remains on short-term profitability; all this upheaval and change won’t pay for itself. On the other hand, however, companies also have to implement the objectives set by the government in the medium and long term. This is partially about the plan to make Germany and Europe climate-neutral, but it’s also a matter of building up comprehensive value chain expertise in this country again in order to counter the industrial production power of China.
You just mentioned unpopular decisions that also have to be made. We still have to try to get people on board with all these projects, don’t we?
That’s certainly true. However, we clearly also need to change the way we think about this as a society. We all need to get out of the comfort zone that has allowed us to rest maybe a bit too easy for the last 70 years. If you look at China, it’s not just the form of government that sets them apart. The mindset is also quite different. That’s why I think it’s time to shake off our complacency and start tackling our problems head-on!
You’ve addressed politics, business and society...
Right – for me, it’s about three main aspects: political responsibility, industrial responsibility and social responsibility.
...Now we should talk about education and training.
Some things apply here in more or less the same way. We’re still very stuck in tried-and-tested curricula, didactics and teaching methods that reflect neither the subject matter nor the speed we see in the market. At the same time, I don’t want to criticize everything. The current generation of students is certainly more reflective and confident than we were at that age. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that our education system – our ways of imparting knowledge – must fundamentally change. For example, I was just talking about value chain expertise. The fact is, we would no longer be able to establish high-volume chip production here in Germany working solely with German expertise. The skills are simply elsewhere, especially in Taiwan. And the problem doesn’t rear its head at universities; it already starts in our schools.
How do you mean?
A lot of concepts in the STEM fields are just too abstract and may seem “uncool” at first. We need to make the complex world of electrical and information technology tangible again and transform it from the abstract into reality – into daily life. I’ll give you an example: the children’s TV show “Sendung mit der Maus” recently visited our testing institute with some children, who were given a tour and the chance try out some things and tinker around themselves. Towards the end, I noticed a set of twins telling their parents that they’d had a great time and this was what they wanted to do when they grew up. That’s the way it should be!
Instead, the subject of electrical engineering is becoming increasingly unpopular (see the article on page 30). Could we maybe use an image campaign – like the one for trade professions about “the economic powerhouse from next door”?
It could put the focus on what electrical technicians are capable of, and the fact that we absolutely need them in order to cope with all these challenges. The shortage of skilled workers is clearly one of the main problems of our time. Without the appropriate manpower – and especially womanpower – even the best master plan for the industrial transformation won’t be of any use.
is a freelance author from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and an editor of VDE dialog.