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2024-01-01 VDE dialog

Experts knowledge

Exactly 70 years ago, the first academic technical society was founded under the auspices of VDE in 1954. The Information Technology Society within VDE (ITG) is the epitome of an independent and technically sound network of experts. Whereas the focus was originally “only” on telecommunications, the entire breadth of information technology is now on the agenda.

By Martin Schmitz-Kuhl

When VDE was founded over 130 years ago, the world of electrical engineering was still straightforward. The new association's primary focus was on electrical energy and high-voltage technology. There was no mention of information, automation or biomedical technology, or other topics of our time like microelectronics, digitalization or robotics – let alone artificial intelligence.

However, that rather manageable range of subjects soon became a thing of the past. In the 20th century, electrical engineering rapidly developed in a wide range of different directions; at some point, low-voltage technology in particular (and later, telecommunications) no longer seemed adequately represented at VDE. “In the 1950s, the initial plan was to found a separate telecommunications association which would then be incorporated into VDE,” explains Dr. Norbert Gilson, acting chairman of the VDE committee “History of Electrical Engineering”. However, this idea met with strong reservations because it was feared that it would lead to a split, resulting in a kind of ancillary organization outside VDE itself. “On the other hand, there was great concern that the telecommunications experts would break away entirely at some point if VDE didn’t seek a compromise,” Dr. Gilson explains. Finally, an agreement to found a technical association under the auspices of VDE was reached in 1954. This Telecommunications Society, which then developed into the Information Technology Society in the 1980s, was not a separate association, but an arm of VDE that had a great deal of independence despite still being embedded in the organization. “In this way, the association initially managed to regain control over the centrifugal forces in the field of electrical engineering, which was becoming more and more diverse,” the historian continues. However, this ultimately failed 15 years later with the founding of the Society for Information Technology – a technical society outside the VDE ecosystem. “The question of where exactly electrical engineering begins and ends keeps on cropping up. Back in those days, they didn’t succeed in keeping information technology in their own ranks,” says Dr. Gilson, who himself experienced the competition among the different faculties involved while working toward his own electrical engineering degree in the early 1970s.

Technical societies: the academic foundation of VDE

Experiences like this were perhaps also the reason why VDE was more open in the following years and not only permitted further technical societies, but even encouraged them. In some cases, this happened in collaboration with the Association of German Engineers (VDI) – as in the case of measurement and control or automation technology (VDI/VDE GMA; see page 22) and microelectronics, microsystems and precision engineering (VDE/VDI GMM; see page 27). Sometimes, an organization was spun off from the ranks of VDE – first in information technology, and then later in energy technology (VDE ETG; see page 18). In other instances, as in the case of biomedical technology, a society was founded outside VDE and then simply joined the association at a later date (VDE DGBMT; see page 24). “The common denominator among all five technical societies is that they constitute the academic foundations of VDE,” declares Dr. Martin Hieber, CTO of the VDE Group. “Together, they form a unique network of experts that is simply peerless on the international level.”

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The benefits are very much mutual: “VDE profits greatly from the academic expertise under its own roof,” explains Dr. Hieber, who is responsible for technology and networks on the three-person VDE management board. For example, he points to the interaction between the recommendations for action and the position papers of the technical societies on the one hand, and the work of the DKE as the standardization organization on the other. “Meanwhile, the technical societies have a strong partner on their side in VDE, which can help them gain much more attention and assertive power,” Dr. Hieber declares. This is also thanks to the professionalism of VDE’s back office, which is able, for instance, to organize all the minor and major academic meetings and conferences that are so important for the work of its technical societies. “It’s a classic win-win situation.”

Information technology in demand in almost every sector

That brings us up to the present – and to the latest activities of the Information Technology Society, which has been shaped decisively in the last six years by Prof. Hans D. Schotten. An electrical engineer born in Aachen, Germany, Prof. Schotten is not only the incumbent in the Chair for Radio Communications and Navigation at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern and the academic director at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, where he is responsible for research on intelligent networks; he was also the chairman of the ITG management board until the end of last year, which made him a member of the VDE supervisory board. After two three-year terms, he is not permitted by the charter to stand for election again, and so the 58-year-old has now been replaced by his previous deputy, Dr. Volker Ziegler. For Prof. Schotten, there was no need for tears at his departure. “I think it’s very important to limit these terms,” he says before adding with a smile: “There are other responsibilities that probably ought to have time limits, too.”

What’s more, this sort of voluntary involvement involves plenty of work. If you ask Prof. Schotten what the key issues were at ITG in the last six years, he doesn’t know where to start – or stop. After all, there are hardly any areas of technology that are not influenced by information and communication technology. ITG is currently trying to master the flood of topics in 87 technical committees, which are divided into eight technical areas that range from technical information technology to high-frequency technology and even micro- and nanoelectronics. All these technical areas at ITG are focusing on the transformation of industry, the economy and society itself. However, what that actually means only becomes clear when you take a closer look at the work of the individual expert groups. Their discussion topics include 6G communications, smart cities, green IT, Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things, autonomous driving, robotics and of course, artificial intelligence. Think of any of the big, important subjects that’s currently being debated, and it’s sure to be on the agenda. All the currently relevant issues in the high-tech strategy of the German federal government are being investigated at ITG.

Portrait photo of Prof. Hans D. Schotten, ITG Chair 2018-2023

Prof. Hans D. Schotten, ITG Chair 2018-2023

| Hannibal / VDE

However, this kind of influence on political decision-makers tends to be the exception rather than the rule. While it’s generally possible to persuade experts and specialists to listen, doing so in political, media and social circles is getting harder and harder. “We’ve realized that the term ‘scientific’ is unfortunately being abused by a number of activist NGOs at the moment, which are actually just lobby groups at the end of the day,” Prof. Schotten says with some irritation. And then, he explains, people criticize ITG for not being neutral and independent because industry representatives are involved. In Prof. Schotten’s eyes, this is absurd: the great advantage of the VDE technical societies is precisely that they don’t just argue from some ivory tower, but provide a comprehensive view of topics from both a scientific and an industrial perspective. “What’s more, the industrial representatives at ITG are all technical experts who focus solely on the topic at hand and not on representing any corporate interests,” he insists. Whether it’s the Buildings Energy Act, the development of renewable energies and the necessary infrastructure or the digital transformation, Prof. Schotten says that ITG experts regularly end up discovering that implementing something is rather more complicated than was originally claimed. “When it comes to our goals, we all agree,” he emphasizes. “We simply have to plan it out so it all works. And for that to happen, we need to talk to everyone!”

Attracting and supporting young talent, networking female experts

Speaking of things working, a crucial aspect of that is the people involved. More precisely, that means engineers in the fields of electrical and information technology, which we will need more of in the future in order to actually implement all the desired changes and transformations. Unfortunately, things are trending in the wrong direction in this regard. The number of corresponding students has been falling for years, and the situation is now dramatic. Dr. Damian Dudek has made it his mission to change this. In the middle of last year, the 47-year-old replaced Dr. Volker Schanz, who had previously been the managing director of ITG for 33 years. His career has taken him to various research institutions. “In my professional life, I’ve built up a large network I now want to use to inspire young people to choose electrical and information technology,” says Dr. Dudek. Winning over new talent is the order of the day, he stresses, and also a personal concern. Among other things, he has proved this with a VDE position paper he initiated even before taking office. The paper, titled “A Lack of Young Talent in Electrical Engineering and Information Technology? – We’re Tackling It!”, shows what needs to be done to counteract the lack of experts and convert more young talent again. It also makes specific suggestions, such as for a national, multi-stage action plan to launch the image update these degree subjects urgently need.

Dr. Dudek believes there is a great deal of catching up to do – particularly in supporting women (“The percentage of females in our field is catastrophic,” he laments), which is why he has already co-founded a networking group for female experts called “Women in ITG”. His aim is to bring more women on to the committees, as well. “We need more female role models so that women become more visible in electrical engineering and information technology,” he points out, citing ITG management board members Dr. Yvonne Weitsch from Rohde & Schwarz as an example. There's also Dr. Britta Buchholz, chair of the ETG management board, and Prof. Amelie Hagelauer, deputy chair of the management board of GMM.

Individually strong – but even stronger together

ITG is engaged in lively ongoing discussions with both of these technical societies. That said, they talk about more than the lack of experts and gaining new talent because there is plenty of overlap in technical terms, too. They produce studies and organize events together, and even have joint technical groups. “We actually work well with all the other technical societies,” Dr. Dudek affirms. He goes on to explain that information technology is vital everywhere, whether it’s in energy networks, medical technology, Industry 4.0 or microelectronics. This is why it’s such a crucial advantage for the various specialist areas to be able to ultimately reunite under the umbrella of VDE, in spite of their different technical orientations.

Martin Schmitz-Kuhl is a freelance author from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and an editor of VDE dialog.

Cover pages of ITG studies

The work of the ITG - or at least what comes out of it - essentially consists of scientific studies, position papers and recommendations for action. Some of these are also developed together with other specialist associations.

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