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Have we slept through digitalisation because things are going too well for us?

A stumbling start in the economic boom: how the digital evolution must now be supported in Germany.

10/23/2018 Editor Martin Frommhold Reading time: 3 Minutes
The Hamburg Institute of World Economics (HWWI) concerns itself with questions about the future in an increasingly globally functioning society. How do markets develop? Which risks does the increasing national debt present? Or how does digitalisation affect our society and businesses? A big subject that nevertheless seems not to be gaining such big momentum in Germany. A short chat with Prof. Dr. Henning Vöpel, Director of the HWWI, on the pitfalls of the digital transformation - and how these can be confronted.

How is Germany’s progress in the field of digitalisation in comparison to the other big trade and industrial nations?

We are not particularly far through the digital transformation. One reason for this is the economic situation here, which has been very good for many years and doesn’t put a lot of pressure on the economy and society to change. And - put bluntly - it is still going too well. So in this respect we must first break through the illusion of fortune, as I always call it, to become more agile. Because the digital future works according to completely different organisational principles. Today we are already seeing that industries must grow together and work collaboratively. In just five years, however, this may mean that the competitiveness of currently independently acting economic sectors is at stake. This may have consequences for working relationships, perhaps lead to another kind of value creation or even prosperity gaps - and it is important to anticipate these risks early to minimise them as much as possible. So we must pick up speed and develop measures now, while things are going well. Of course this isn’t easy, but policy must apply the corresponding pressure. The companies themselves must also recognise that the foundation stones of competitiveness must be laid now and not in a few years for the next 20 to 30 years.

"Prosperity and competitiveness in individual industries are at stake if we don’t pick up speed when it comes to the digital transformation."

Henning Vöpel

With what you are saying it also sounds like digitalisation will change society. How will that look?

On the one hand we are talking about technological changes, which disrupt traditional business models. On the other hand the associated cultural change must progress and be shaped. And this applies to society in general. But today we already work and communicate differently with one another than just 15 years ago, which also affects human relationships. In this way, we must learn how to deal with continued digitalisation again and again, which is how we have found ourselves in the field of education and training. The speed of the digital revolution is so fast that whole job descriptions are completely changing. To be able to keep up, as well as efficient technical infrastructure we need to adapt our education systems to train people in how to deal with digital media and develop future skills. Knowing about how algorithms influence our life or how social networks work is not trivial, it is actually fundamental in digital day-to-day life.

Digital change can be fun - and we must show that

Henning Vöpel

How can traditional companies like OTTO bring all their employees along on the road of digital transformation?

Digital transformation is a road that everyone already has to follow, but which in a great way is definitely getting easier. This means a “desire for change” in companies to sustainably motivate people and bring people into this. Digitalisation should not be seen as a danger, which needs to be fended off or that causes a threat. Instead, the opportunities must be put in focus. We must use digitalisation as a tool to make products and services better, more attractive and easier to use. Working life itself can also make digitalisation a lot easier. Change can even be fun for creatures of habit if the conditions are right. And being able to contribute to this and shape the future is a privilege. We have to show this again and again.

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