Meeting creative masterminds and technology enthusiasts


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2016)

Last April, the first Singularity University Germany Summit brought together more than 650 representatives from all industries and German medium-sized businesses in Berlin with the aim of discussing the opportunities and challenges of technological singularity for industry and the environment. The focus was above all on decisive trends and the latest developments relating to mobility, organisation, production, artificial intelligence, robotics, transport, logistics, 3D printing, machine learning and design thinking. Following the summit, our San Francisco correspondent Nicole Kidd talked to organiser Stephan Balzer, who has been entrepreneurially active at the intersection of technology and innovation for more than 25 years.

Mr Balzer, congratulations on the success of your first Singularity University Germany Summit in April at the ‘Palais am Berliner Funkturm’ venue. What type of companies attended?

STEPHAN BALZER: With a total of more than 650 participants from all industries and German medium-sized businesses, the SU Germany Summit event was completely sold out. The guests included representatives of companies such as Volkswagen, Deutsche Telekom, Deloitte, Airbus, Allianz, Daimler and BASF. 

What were your reasons for bringing the Silicon Valley SU education model for executives to Germany? 

S. B.: Silicon Valley stands for global technological progress. Nowhere else are the opportunities and challenges of technological singularity for industry and environment more visible. Our aim is to save German corporate decision-makers from having to travel to the Californian technology hub in the future. There is no institution in Europe that is comparable to the SU Germany Summit, one that zeroes in on the impact of technology on society and business. For this reason, it is fantastic that this high-caliber conference also offered top German managers and medium-sized companies a forum to discuss the future in Berlin in 2016. 

What topics were on the agenda at your event? What elicited the greatest feedback from the audience?

S. B.: The focus was above all on decisive trends and the latest developments relating to mobility, organisation, production, artificial intelligence, robotics, transport, logistics, 3D printing, machine learning and design thinking. The special attraction for the attending guests was particularly the well-conceived mix of different topics, with the topic of transformation and how to successfully move on a company to a new ‘mindset’ both providing plenty of food for thought. 

Innovation often comes from the young managers of new start-ups who inspire their older counterparts with their ideas. How do you best enable that both world views successfully cross pollinate? 

S. B.: Interesting topics of discussion and the adequate framework for inspiring exchange of ideas are of fundamental importance here. The SU Summit Germany immediately developed into a meeting place for networking and became an inspiration for local communities while offering the opportunity for people to become familiar with trailblazing technologies, start-ups and ideas. Correspondingly, the attendees comprised government representatives, entrepreneurs, investors, NGOs, teachers and students. We had consciously invited these young entrepreneurs to attend and integrate them into the dialogue – and it worked out really well. 

How do you envisage the implementation of the developments discussed at the summit in German companies? 

S. B.: We should clearly differentiate here, as there is not one definitive answer. Each company has its very own culture, a very specific way of promoting and implementing ideas and innovations. Our primary focus was above all on ‘digital mindsets’ and how to get managers in Germany to embrace that type of thinking. Here, we still have some catching up to do in Germany, something that has also been unearthed in the most recent studies. 

What conclusions have you drawn from this event? Will there be further meetings? 

S. B.: The SU Germany Summit was a complete success, confirming its already planned continuation next year. 

Why are such events a veritable magnet for industry?

S. B.: Condensed and at the very highest level, the innovators, technology enthusiasts and decision-makers from German business acquire invaluable inspiration, completely new ways of thinking and a comprehensive insight into what opportunities and challenges relating to technological singularity await industry, society and the environment. This combination is compelling.

What appeal does public speaking on specific topics hold for you personally? 

S. B.: Above all, you should thoroughly enjoy enthralling others and inspiring them with ideas. I personally have been doing this in the area of technology and innovation for 25 years now. Making a positive contribution, one that provides impetus for others to improve something on the planet – that's what motivates me. 

What benefits does this kind of communication offer? 

S. B.: It permits direct contact, direct feedback – and nothing is more exhilarating than listening to an exciting idea presented with passion by a speaker in a room with hundreds of people! 

In this regard, how does the feedback from German business attendees differ from that of their U.S.-American counterparts? 

S. B.: The German representatives have in certain areas a more critical perception of many topics, while U.S. representatives are usually more likely to identify an ‘opportunity’. In the area of technology, we frequently also identify a knowledge edge among U.S. attendees compared to their German counterparts. 

What distinctions do you make with regards to the selection of the respective content and your ‘artistic offering’ when planning events for different countries? 

S. B.: We start with the local environment first, for example, involving local artists active in the cities where we are hosting the events. 

Your daughter will turn 14 in the Year of the Singularity, 2030. What is she likely to be learning? What range of possibilities for creative evolvement could she expect? 

S. B.: She will most likely already be learning with a personal ‘agent’ and not merely be attending class where teachers ‘teach’ from the front of the room. And she will perceive knowledge as something naturally ubiquitous – available everywhere and at all times. Learning will, I really hope, then predominantly focus on answering questions and solving problems. 

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Stephan Balzer is Managing Director of the red onion GmbH innovation agency, which – on the interface between culture and business – develops ideas and concepts for brands and companies. The trained media consultant is one of the pioneers of the German new media scene. In 2009, he was – with red onion – the first German TEDx conference license partner. In 2015, he launched his partnership with the Silicon Valley-based Singularity University, since when he has been its Ambassador for Germany and the head of the first German SU chapter in Berlin.

Picture credits © Jeremy Thomas

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