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Two weeks ago, the IFA circus landed in Berlin once more. The largest consumer electronics fair in Europe. The major internationally operating companies are bringing their latest innovations to the capital of the world’s most innovative country – at least according to the WEF (October 2018). The e-scooters raced in, as the savvy and the not-so-savvy crowd marveled at drones, smartphones, headphones and smart homes.

It would seem that Germany is a paradise for developing and marketing innovations. Yes, major global players such as BMW, MHP, Bosch, Siemens and SAP are all hard at work doing their thing. It’s full of start-ups in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Frankfurt. Zalando is a global player, autonomous driving is being further developed, e-sharing  is booming, but in the meantime …

Nothing is what it seems

As is almost always the case in Germany, nothing is what it seems. The government and society are cumbersome and slow. And Germany is lagging behind many global innovative developments. Take electric driving. Most European countries, e.g. Norway and the Netherlands, are well ahead of Germany. Digitizing the government is an enormous task. A new approach to urban space which would ease traffic issues? It’s all very complicated.

On one side you have a country and a capital like Berlin full of innovative start-ups, ShareNow and WeShare – or N26 for instance, the new Berlin Fintech bank that is going completely digital. On the other side, the cities are still geared towards cars, in many places you can only pay cash, you have to pay for your debit card transaction at another bank and then it turns out that they don’t work with Tikkie. Siemens can do almost anything, except that the traffic lights in German cities belong to them and are calibrated in the same way as they were 20 years ago. And where are all the charging stations?

Where it mainly goes wrong in Germany has to do with the lack of focus on the end user. Many things are being developed with an engineering mind, but the question of whether and in what ways the citizen really wants them is of secondary importance. Top-down development is the rule, user-friendliness is the exception. Procedures are tricky and the legal reality often takes precedence. Innovation is then difficult.

Intractable innovation engine

The Netherlands is “what you see is what you get.” (And occasionally less than that, we are … ahem … gifted marketeers after all). User friendliness is our top priority. In Germany, and especially in Berlin, where I live, there are often different realities that frequently coexist completely parallel to each other. The reality of the German Innovation Engine is intractable.

The cliché associated with Germany is that it’s an industrial nation with a powerful lobby that wants to milk its own business model for as long as possible, take the automobile industry and the combustion engine as examples. It has also been quite successful economically and has provided employment for so many people. Politicians allow themselves to be swayed by this and, often under pressure from the powerful lobbies, do not come up with the innovation that e.g. German cities are in need of. According to a lot of people, the new Klimatpaket (climate policy of the Federal Government) does not go far enough.

Courage and creativity

Obviously, a lot of it works quite well, but a lack of courage and a lack of creativity are hampering Germany when it comes to innovation. The will is there, but the question that is often asked is – how? This is exactly what Dutch people in Germany have to offer in terms of a successful collaboration: understanding German Angst, coming up with cross-over user-friendly solutions. Whether it’s within electromobility, government or healthcare. Far less bothered by ‘legalese,’ accustomed to the sheer success of a service-based society without any desire to return to the predominance of industry, the Dutch in Germany are able to come up with solutions that can actually help German society and the lives of its residents to move forward and flourish.

However, make no mistake, there are a lot of self-employed people, small businesses, designers, start-ups and especially residents in Germany who are eager for more of a Dutch mentality in their approach to social challenges. They really want to work with the Dutch.

World champions together

It is the government in particular who is in a position to take action if it doesn’t want Germany to fall behind. The Dutch can give them a few pushes in the right direction. Rutte and Merkel have indicated that both countries will work more closely together on sustainability. Let that be a good start towards becoming world champions together and consequently avoiding a crisis together as well.


About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Floris Beemster, Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels en Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.