Innovation in Germany

Germany is still often referred to as the “land of poets and thinkers”. The fact that, according to the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, there are over seven million so-called functional illiterates in this country somehow doesn’t really fit the picture. But the Germans themselves still prefer to call themselves also the “land of inventors and engineers”. Based on research budgets and possibly even based on the number of engineers, this may still be appropriate. But which innovation, especially in the field of technology, have really been driven out of Germany in recent decades?

It starts with the basics

Willingness to innovate and innovative thinking must be encouraged already in school. It starts with the environment in which children and young people learn. A few months ago I took part in a parents’ meeting at a Bavarian school. When I entered the classroom, I suddenly felt like I was taken back forty years. Not only there was the same blackboard still hanging on the wall. But when the teacher started his introductory presentation, he put an overhead projector on the table and placed handwritten slides on it. If one of the younger readers doesn’t know anymore what an overhead projector is, please find more about it here. This example might perhaps sound a bit exaggerated, but for me it is symbolic for our lack of honest willingness to really invest in the education of our next generation. I also don’t see any major differences in today’s teaching and curriculum compared to my time in school. How do you want to develop a creative generation which should drive innovation this way?

We were overtaken…

We have completely missed the chance to lead the digital revolution. In the beginning of it, companies like Siemens tried to keep up with the top dogs from Silicon Valley or also Japan at that time, even in the semiconductor technology sector. There was the German success story of Heinz Nixdorf with the company named after him. But this success story also ended abruptly, because they enjoyed their success so much that they forgot to constantly drive innovation. I have already briefly described this in my blog “Agile work environments“. To be fair, one positive example from Germany is SAP, still today a global leader and successful in its field, because they haven’t missed the big trends and have reinvented themselves over and over again. Of course, there are many medium-sized companies and also successful start-ups in the German technology sector. But to be honest, they (still) don’t really play a role on the world stage. Israel for example is mentioned much more often than Germany when it comes to innovation and successful start-ups.

… but we are standing in our own way

In my humble opinion, the example of the planned Tesla factory in Brandenburg perfectly demonstrates where Germany stands today. Of course, it is obvious that Elon Musk is not investing in Germany because everything here is so unbureaucratic and cost-effective. He reveals in a painful way how Germany’s former flagship industry is now being left behind. Instead of investing in real innovation, in research and development for electric mobility and new battery technologies, German manufacturers pushed the further development of the combustion engine. When it later became obvious that it is impossible to achieve the specified emissions targets, they decided to “cheat”. This may be a bit sarcastic now, but at least in this case the German car industry was quite innovative. What is happening to Tesla and Elon Musk here in Germany at the moment is just embarrassing in my view. You can very clearly feel a lot of envy and resentment in many public statements. Why didn’t one of Germany’s top automotive players invest in a factory for electric vehicles in Brandenburg? And of course, in the end people like to play the environmental card. Because the factory requires the clearance of a part of a forest that is actually not even a natural forest, people are now going on the streets to protest against the planned project. The fact that entire villages and landscapes in Germany are still being destroyed for the “future industry” of brown coal appears in that context in a completely different light.

An example: the Tesla factory in Germany

We need to rethink fast…

It is not too late yet for Germany. I am still firmly convinced that we have all the fundamentals to get back on track in many areas. In particular the challenges regarding environmental and climate protection can be excellently combined with innovation in technology. The biggest problem, however, which I am unfortunately regularly confronted with by myself in Germany, is the lack of willingness to take risks. A very often quoted example is still that of the failed start-up founder, who enjoys great respect in the USA despite or just because of his failure, while here in Germany he is stamped forever as a loser. That may be true, but it can be changed, primarily with an education system that already promotes a different attitude towards this. We must have much more courage to fail. There is so much talk about agility. But are we really agile in Germany? Unfortunately, I still meet a lot of people for whom the glass is always half empty, who start every sentence with “yes, but…”, who don’t want to leave their comfort zone (“we’ve never done that before”) and who are not prepared to fail. What do you learn most from? From defeats, of course. Because you simply know next time what you shouldn’t do or how you shouldn’t do it.

… and we are still waiting for the jolt

In 1997 on April 26th the former German President Roman Herzog gave his famous “jolt speech“. He implored a vision of the future for Germany in the year 2020. The speech dealt with anxiety, innovation bottlenecks and bureaucracy. We are now in 2020 and at least I have not yet felt any jolt. That jolt can only happen with people who are a bit provocative, who may have completely unrealistic ideas in the eyes of others. Like Elon Musk with Tesla, with SpaceX or with Hyperloop. Here is a another quote from Roman Herzog: “If everyone agrees with you, they have either misunderstood you or you have not really said anything at all”. Always in perfect harmony, always floating with the current and with the goal to always please everybody, we will not make any step forward. For the big jolt we need pioneers and people who are not afraid of headwinds and criticism. Then Germany will maybe again deserve the title “Land of Inventors and Engineers“.

Stimulate innovation instead of killing it

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