The challenges of the digital world: Interview with trend researcher Jörg Heynkes
Humanoid robots, drones, electric cars, carbon-neutral energy supplies and artificial intelligence will change our daily lives for good in the next five years. What does that mean for society, the economy and politics in general, and for customer communication in particular? A conversation with Jörg Heynkes, trend researcher and managing director of Innovationszentrum NRW, an event location in North Rhine-Westphalia dedicated to innovation.
What are the biggest challenges of the digital world?
Heynkes: They are very diverse. The biggest challenge is definitely getting people on board. If we don’t manage that, people will be left out in the cold, and the digitization we’d like to see will come to a halt. In order for us to understand and use the opportunities that digitization brings, many things have to change.
Heynkes: Our entire education system, for example; it has already reached the limits of what is feasible. It’s far from producing the quality that we need. In other words, our education system is not at all prepared for the demands of the next ten or twenty years. We have to change that quickly. In particular, we need to educate millions of people in a way that will give them a passion for the digital world. Otherwise, there’s no way we can tell a bus driver who has lost his job, for example, that it could possibly be a stroke of luck, since the digital world offers him many more opportunities.
So do we need a new culture?
Heynkes: Of course! Unfortunately, Germany doesn’t have a culture of change. But we urgently need new values and structures that will create a desire for change. That’s because, in the next 20 years, we will have to let go of our meritocratic values and enter a new phase in which people no longer work for money and value is instead created by robots and algorithms. But this value that’s created has to be distributed differently than before. In other words, we need to completely reinvent our social systems. That is an enormous task.
Is that the view in business and politics too?
Heynkes: Although we’re only at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution, it is already clear that it will be more extensive, more global and faster than any other previous industrial revolution. As a result, people in politics and business must be ready to do everything differently tomorrow. But I haven’t seen this readiness yet.
Why aren’t we ready for this in Germany?
Heynkes: Unfortunately, we aren’t really movers and shakers in digitization, because we also have big fears of digital technology. In Japan, housewives can program their household robots themselves, while in Germany programming isn’t even a school subject. Yet digitization will do us more good than harm in the long term.
How will it be good for us?
Heynkes: Basically, I see more opportunities than risks in the coming years. Take our energy supply, for example. With digitization, we’ll be able to meet the global demand for energy entirely through renewable sources of energy in a few decades. All the technologies are available. They’re getting cheaper every day, and intelligent networking is the key to success. On top of this, digitization creates huge opportunities for resource efficiency, because there are many things we would no longer need to produce and transport. Changes in mobility alone, with the move toward “swarm mobility,” will at some point reduce primary energy consumption in this sector by as much as 80 percent.
Will digitization also change our communication patterns?
Heynkes: Of course. The world of communication will experience incredible upheavals in the coming years. Traditional TV with the news at 8 PM will disappear in ten or fifteen years. Instead, media consumers will put together their favorite programs from what’s available via online services and streaming. Furthermore, a completely new dimension of the media world will open up with augmented reality, where you can interact with things and become part of the action yourself. So digitization will affect the world of communication in many ways. How will it affect media producers? There will be enormous potential for them to develop even more products. But that will no longer be conventional media, like TV or newspapers. Communication will also change at our own workplaces. Intelligent computers will take care of tedious chores like answering e-mails, arranging meetings or organizing travel plans. Then we will have much more time to focus on the truly important things at work.
And what does this mean for businesses? How will they communicate with their customers in the future?
Heynkes: Today, the Internet shows us commercials for products that we were interested in yesterday. If, say, they were rubber boots, then maybe next week I really wouldn’t be interested in them anymore, because it’s stopped raining. In the future, the algorithms will be intelligent enough to know that, and they’ll only show me offers that are relevant to the weather in my area. The algorithms will become even more intelligent in the future, offering us products before we even know that we could use them and want to buy them. There are even rumors that Amazon will send these things to us without being asked, based on our previous orders.
What response do traditional companies even have to the dominance of Internet giants like Amazon in digital customer communications?
Heynkes: Let’s take the example of insurance companies. They could position themselves as attractively as Amazon does in their digital communication with customers. Some are doing that, but most of them are doing it too late, too slowly or too timidly, because they generally don’t have sufficient IT skills. So for most of them, it will be difficult to catch up and close the gap in digital communication. They will have to focus on their key skills and products that Amazon has no interest in: in other words, anything that requires detailed guidance and can’t be taken care of with just three mouse clicks. At the same time, insurance companies have to give more thought to the wealth of data they possess. They know so much about their customers, but they don’t use it to develop any new added value or services. That requires a lot of courage, and even more creativity. Some companies will manage it, many won’t.
And where else will digitization lead us?
Heynkes: I hope it doesn’t make people immortal, like some futurologists are already predicting. But with digitization, medicine will be able to accomplish more, so we’ll definitely have much longer and much healthier lives.
Biographical note: Since 1985, Jörg Heynkes (b. 1962) has been engaged in media, event-marketing and project development business, in addition to being managing director of Innovationszentrum NRW and “VillaMedia” in Wuppertal. Since 2013, he has also been Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Wuppertal-Solingen-Remscheid.
Author: Editorial team Future. Customer.
Image: Konstantin Hermann – AdobeStock