The future and the trends

Ruth Spiller: You are an innovation researcher – What in your opinion will be the biggest trends in the next 10 years?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: At Fraunhofer ISI we often deal with the issue what trends could significantly shape Germany, Europe and the world in the next few years and decades.The institute played a decisive role in the foresight cycle of the Federal Ministry for Education and Research and together with other research partners investigated possible societal change and technical trends until 2030.  We came to the conclusion that digitalization will greatly influence both our private and professional life.  For example in an increasingly digital society there could be a trend towards making things yourself which is favored by technologies such as the 3 D print. In addition a new bartering culture could establish itself which would organize trading second hand goods via commercial online exchanges. Also industrial enterprises could enter profitable bartering relationships among each other and for example offer on online leasing exchanges their own machinery and tools or entire production lines to other companies against payment. These economic trends would naturally entail corresponding developments in the entire society and politics as for example pressure to acquire digital competence which politics has to understand and meet as an organizational task for society as a whole.

Ruth Spiller: What will be the biggest challenges?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: A central challenge in the next few years will certainly be that digitalization will radically change the job market as we know it today. However, our studies show that using digital tools such as robots in industry do not necessarily mean job losses. Rather this can increase efficiency and productivity of job and production processes  – and accordingly companies‘ competitively. Also the use of robots can create new jobs with corresponding skills requirements and prevent that companies move production capacities abroad because wages are lower there.  Another challenge is data protection and protecting our private sphere which must naturally be a special priority in a digital and data-driven age.

Ruth Spiller: In your opinion who should look after this?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: First of all it is the politicians‘ job to create the right framework conditions, for example in education. But also companies should keep an eye on the economic, technological and social developments in order to be well prepared for the future.

Ruth Spiller: In your opinion do we all have to take on more responsibility for the development? (If this question is answered in the affirmative): How is everybody committed?  

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: In  the course of progressive digitalization education certainly has a key function  as it can be a connecting element. Only if the right framework conditions are set early enough in school, the workplace and academia the opportunities which present themselves with digitalization can be used successfully. If this is not successful Germany would not be prepared sufficiently which could lead to problems with international competitively and even social conflicts in the long run: If social inequality increases and winners and losers of digitalization confront each other. Therefore education has to respond and people have to increasingly be equipped with basic digital competences. This way enormous  job losses due to non-existing digital competences can be prevented.

But it is also everybody’s job to become involved in societal  and technological  developments and to actively take part in shaping them depending on our respective options and creative scope.

It is, however, certainly also our job to become involved in social and technological developments, depending on our possibilities and creative scope. For example employees should participate in targeted training courses in order to strengthen their digital competence. And employers should not only facilitate this but should themselves actively steer their training programs in this direction. This could help them to circumvent future problems due to the skills shortage.

Ruth Spiller: Everybody is looking at the Silicon Valley – you investigated this hype for the Handelsblatt. What was the outcome? (What can we learn from there, what do we do better?)

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The success of the Silicon Valley is unique, which also means that  this winning formula can not simply be transferred on to other countries – however, exactly this is often demanded.
On the other hand we can also learn certain things from the Silicon Valley. The success is chiefly attributable to the fact in one place outstanding research and development , financial support and entrepreneurial know-how and a specific innovation and work culture come together in one place. Yet  one has to bear in mind  that such structures only evolve over a longer period of time, in the case of the Silicon Valley the developments go back to the 1950s.

But Germany definitely does not have to hide from the Silicon Valley as it is very well positioned. The science and innovation system in Germany is not focussed on a few elite institutions as this is the case in the USA, with Harvard, MIT or Stanford. Instead, in addition to a lot of excellent universities for applied sciences non- university research institutions such as Fraunhofer, Max-Planck, Leibniz and Helmholtz make significant innovation contributions. Unlike any other institution the  Fraunhofer Gesellschaft links scientific  research with its application and is the largest organization for application-oriented research in Europe. The successful Fraunhofer model even inspired Ex-US President Obama to declare that in the US an institution like the  Fraunhofer who intermeshes research and application on a national and  international level is missing.

Ruth Spiller: Are countries who are not yet on our radar who might surprise us in the next few years as far as innovations are concerned?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: In regular intervals we at Fraunhofer ISI together with Mannheim ZEW and  on behalf of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and acatech carry out the so-called innovation indicator which this year investigated 35 economies regarding their innovation capabilities. Germany was in fourth place – behind Switzerland, Singapore and Belgium which lead the ranking. In this respect it would not be surprising if strong innovation impulses came from these countries. This does, however, also apply to countries such as Finland, Great Britain and Denmark which are immediately behind Germany in the innovation indicator 2017.

Ruth Spiller: As far as innovations are concerned do you think Germany is prepared for the fut ure? Or do we have different strengths which are needed in the future?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: As  the innovation indicator 2017 emphasizes Germany is currently well positioned in the international innovation process.. On the other hand the innovation indicator shows clear weaknesses which are rather worrying. Regarding digitalization Germany is in a disappointing 17th place. In many digital areas such as the digital economy and digital technologies Germany is far behind in comparison with other industrial nations such as Great Britain or the USA. Here we have to catch up rapidly if we do not want to fall behind. On the other hand, well trained skilled workers, innovative companies and  comparatively many patent applications per inhabitant are among Germany’s strengths which will certainly be needed in the future..

Ruth Spiller: In your opinion what has to be changed in the areas education and new technologies? What in the area start up culture? 

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: As already mentioned, the education system has to teach more universal digital basic competences and adjust to the demands  of a digital world of employment. The advantages of our current education system such as good professional training and a high share of graduates with top qualifications should remain but the respective training areas should be complemented by digital competences. We have to develop the area of digital technologies further for all kinds of objects and systems. This includes physical objects as well as production processes or personal mobility patterns. Precisely because more and more processes in commerce and industry take place data-related which produce virtual images of physical processes in form of data, intelligent data linkages are attested great growth potential. Due to the data drive this also applies to areas such as protecting the private sphere and IT security which will become more important in future.

Regarding start ups and medium-sized companies we have to watch in future even more that internal and external impulse sources for innovations are better coordinated. In a study on “Open Innovation“ we asked 1600 companies and came to the conclusion that for the development of market innovations  with a high degree of innovation internal innovation sources and ideas still play an outstanding role. It is, however, crucial that the companies in the sense of the “Open Innovation“ idea also open up towards external impulses and in turn bring them together with internal impulses. Or put differently: The right balance of internal and external ideas and exchange of experiences promises the biggest innovation success. In any case, the company success does not proportionally increase with the number of external impulse sources – in the worst case scenario the positive effect which has been created by external innovation knowledge can be reversed into a dependency on certain providers of ideas as for example key customers.

Ruth Spiller: How do you perceive the new gold digger atmosphere in the Fintech scene? More opportunities or more risks?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The Fintech is currently really booming, a lot of start ups are active here. Digitalization also plays a key role here as many start ups increasingly  specialize in digitalizing cash flows. They are attacking traditional banks who are just realizing the potential of digitalization and are integrating the new possibilities into their established business models. We therefore have to wait how the financially strong players from the banking sector deal with the market innovations and the attacks from the start up scene. The developments therefore represent opportunities as well as risks.

Ruth Spiller: Have you noticed groundbreaking new social or societal innovations among the new innovations? If yes, what are they?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: The changes in social conditions and needs obviously lead to a totally different kind of innovation. We notice here that currently  there is a lot interest in  social and frugal innovations in applied research and economic practice.  They are in tune with the times as they are based on limited resources in order to create technically simple, cheap and robust products. And these are not only in increasing demand in developing countries but also in developed industrial countries. Not everybody wants to follow the trend of increasingly technologically more complex and therefore more expensive and resource-intensive appliances and products. Therefore we intensively deal with frugal innovations in innovation research.

Ruth Spiller: If you could draw up a vision of Germany in 20 years‘ time, what would it look like? 

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: I wish that in 20 years‘ time we are among the world‘s best in many areas and especially in digitalization and that the many successful small and medium-sized enterprises as well as the major companies in Germany have made good use of the opportunities of digitalization. Because these are indisputable, we just have to emphasize them more and not primarily see the risks which of course also exist. In addition we should orientate our future economic and social lives more towards sustainability as this is becoming more and more important. This goes hand in hand with the changes in social values towards a more post materialistic oriented way of life which in 20 years‘ time will probably carry more weight than today. We should also bear in mind that this change in values also has an impact on our way of consumption and for example people want to know how sustainable products are and/or how sustainable the companies behind them are. Exactly for this reason much more attention is paid to sustainable innovations in innovation research than before. For example there is a dedicated science platform “Sustainability 2030“ which was created by the Chancellor’s Office, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. I was recently appointed to its steering committee. The task of the sustainability platform is to scientifically accompany the implementation of the new German sustainability strategy. This alone shows how important the topic sustainability is for politicians at the moment and how important it will be in the coming years and decades.

Ruth Spiller: What advice would you give the GenY and GenZ for the future?

Marion Weissenberger-Eibl: First of all it is important to stress that classic characteristics such as curiosity and thirst for knowledge, commitment to success and determination will pay off in the future. But these alone are not enough in order to be really successful in the end.  I therefore tell Generations Y and Z regarding their career that on the future labor market it will become more important to market  one’s working power in order to be interesting for companies. In a study for the Vodafone Foundation we arrived at the conclusion that in the course of digital change employment relations in 2030 will be significantly more homogeneous than today and the share of “Ad-hoc click-workers“ could increase enormously – this applies both to high and low skilled workers. In addition to good self marketing efficient self organization, “digital reputation“, practical experience and the capability to network will become more important for professional success. The situation that in future  competences have to be proven by certificates and put online with other training and performance data in for example professional networks could also arrive. Young people should be confronted with these possible developments already while they are training so  they can later make the most of the opportunities on the job market. .


Professor Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl is head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI. As well as directing the Fraunhofer ISI, she also holds the Chair Innovation and Technology Management at the Institute for Entrepreneurship, Technology Management and Innovation (ENTECHNON) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

She works on the conditions conducive to innovations and their impacts. Her main research focuses are the management of innovations and technology, roadmapping, strategic technology foresight and planning, enterprise networks and knowledge management.

Professor Weissenberger-Eibl, who was recently named as one of the “most influential women engineers in Germany”, studied clothing technology and business administration. She obtained her doctorate and wrote her habilitation thesis at the Technische Universität München.

Professor Weissenberger-Eibl was also a member of the group of experts in the Chancellor’s Dialogue on Germany’s Future where she led the working group Innovation Culture as one of the experts and advised the Chancellor on the future design of society and the economy in Germany. The idea for the International German Forum (IGF) came from the Federal Chancellor’s Dialogue on Germany’s Future. The IGF is a format for the interdisciplinary exchange of views on globally relevant issues of the future. At the IGF, Professor Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl moderated the discussion of the topic “The future needs holistic solutions”.*

Thank you very much Marion  for that #ymazing interview!

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#YmazingPeople: Marion Weissenberger-Eibl PART II
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