Finally, departure! Finally, confidence! This is how a participant, who has experienced all twelve SZ economic summits so far, summarised the meeting in 2018.
Once again, 450 decision-makers came together for the SZ Economic Summit to take measure of the world of today for three days with more than 60 top-class speakers in the heart of the capital, at the Hotel Adlon close to the Brandenburg Gate, at the German Historical Museum and at the Factory.
On stage, the CEOs of German corporations spoke, including Christian Sewing of Deutsche Bank and Joe Kaeser of Siemens, but also international corporate leaders such as Sir Tim Clark (Emirates), Gillian Tans (Booking.com) and Thomas Buberl (Axa), renowned economists such as Achim Wambach and Christoph Schmidt, and leading philosophers such as Markus Gabriel and Julian Nida-Rümelin.
In addition, 2018 saw more renowned politicians than ever before: from EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Chancellor Angela Merkel and four members of the Federal Cabinet, the ministers Peter Altmaier (Economics), Andreas Scheuer (Transport) and Olaf Scholz (Finance) as well as the digital Minister of State Dorothee Bär. A total of five heads of state and government spoke at the SZ Economic Summit, four of them women: Besides Merkel, these were the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and the Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. The party leaders of two opposition parties in Germany, Christian Lindner (FDP) and Katja Kipping (Die Linke), also answered questions on the Adlon stage.
As in previous years, the SZ Economic Summit has become even younger and more digital. The founders of numerous successful start-ups, including Frederik Brantner from Magazino, Günther Schuh from E.go mobile and Miriam Wohlfarth from Ratepay, enriched the discussion. There were also three robots on stage that provided a wonderful explanation of how machines will change our lives and work in the future – and why, in many cases, they will not displace humans, but rather support them and cooperate with them. Toru from Munich-based Start-up Magazino, David from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and i-do from Augsburg-based robot manufacturer Kuka were brought to the Hotel Adlon with great effort and were undoubtedly among the stars of the SZ Economic Summit.
"Building trust" was the motto of this year's event, and this was related to the palpable uncertainty in the country in view of political mildew after 13 years with Merkel governments, and to the growing division of society into wealthy and non-wealthy, normal employees and capital owners, permanent employees and job hoppers. At the beginning of her speech, Angela Merkel casually remarked that "building trust" is a surprising motto for a meeting organised by journalists, when journalists tend to view the world with suspicion.
The Chancellor herself was at the forefront when it came to setting a new tone. During the "Night of the European Economy" at the German Historical Museum, the festive highlight of the congress, the 450 summit participants experienced her as relaxed as seldom, thoughtful and humorous, but also: wise. The announcement of the retreat in stages had given Angela Merkel, a politician who otherwise seems so controlled and lacking in emotion, a chance to relax; the enthusiastic response of the otherwise so critical audience showed that it was a relief for everyone.
A small announcement that, after 18 years, she would yield the leadership of the largest people's party in Germany as well as the ensuing competition of three successor candidates does not only delight journalists but the public at large. At last there is discussion again, not only about people, but also about content. One of the candidate trio, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, spontaneously took part in a cross-examination at the SZ Economic Summit – and discreetly set herself apart from the Chancellor in questions of migration, tax or industrial policy. Last year, Friedrich Merz had already sat on the economic summit stage – and even then he had indicated that he was ready to return to politics.
The debate has come at the right time. It is true that Germany is not doing badly, even if this is often claimed. At the SZ Economic Summit, representatives of established companies and start-ups, academics and employees made it clear that the long upswing had done the country good overall. But it is also clear that it will not stay that way and that globalisation and digitisation will challenge the successful German economy to the extreme.
But the good news is that politics and business have understood that. The two-day special meeting of the Federal Government held directly after the SZ Economic Summit on the question of how the country has to react to the challenge of the digital revolution may only have been an imperfect beginning, but it was after all that: a beginning. Dorothee Bär, Minister of State for Digital Affairs, promised it at the SZ Economic Summit, as did Economics Minister Peter Altmaier.
Under the title of "Europe digital", the heads of government of Estonia, Serbia and Iceland, two women, one man – representatives from small but incredibly dynamic countries – showed that things can be changed if only one is willing to do so. Their recipes for digitising public administration and changing the framework conditions cannot be implemented overnight in such a large society as Germany. But perhaps until the day after tomorrow?
In the end, that was the lesson of the presentations of Ana Brnabić, Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Jüri Ratas: the right leadership, a vision, a clear message that shows the citizens the way is what counts. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić summed up this vision in one sentence: "We missed the third industrial revolution in our country, so we now want to be at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution".
Three women, who normally do not deal with business, took a different look at this world of leadership at the Talk Evening, which took place at the Hotel Adlon on the first day of the congress: film producer Lisa Blumenberg, who created the great ZDF series "Bad Banks", canoeist Birgit Fischer, Germany's most successful Olympian, and entertainer Ina Müller, who is known for her stage appearances and her own TV show. The call of the three power women: You have to take a break once in a while if you want to be successful as a manager. Or as the canoeist Birgit Fischer put it: "Sometimes, the muscle also needs a time out".