Review of 2016

The Economic Summit of the year 2016 embraced the motto of “Decision-making in uncertain times”. Only one week after the US elections, the congress focussed on how to make long-term decisions in these turbulent times, how captains of industry can be a role model for their staff, how companies master the digital transformation and how artificial intelligence will change all businesses. 67 speakers and more than 450 participants discussed these matters at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin at the same time as US President Barack Obama stayed there.


The speeches

The future of Europe – this was the major subject of the speeches at the tenth SZ Economic Summit. In his opening speech, the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls emphatically warned against the old continent breaking apart. “Europe may die.” Numerous crises – from Islamist terror to the refugee problem to weak economic growth – were shaking Europe. This was feeding right-wing populist movements. “The rage of the people is breaking out – yesterday, it was the Brexit in the UK, today it’s the USA, and tomorrow it’s elsewhere“,Valls said.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz, as the dinner speaker at the Night of the European Economy, also warned: “The free society, which has found an important expression in the European union, is under considerable pressure”. Why? Because many people meanwhile felt left behind and were finding it increasingly difficult “to find their bearings in a world that seems to be turning ever faster”. Thus, one needed to demonstrate one’s “political stance” – this was about “the defence of the liberal and tolerant society”.

On the third day of the congress, EU-Commissioner Günther Oettinger called for a stronger fight for Europe: "Europe is not the project of Brussels, but that of Berlin, of Stuttgart and of Chemnitz. We need ambassadors for the European project. Every head of a trade and industry chamber must also advocate Europe instead of just the local bypass. Oettinger demanded: “We should not only export S-Class cars but also peace.”

The debate

Apart from the future of Europe, there were two major areas that that governed the SZ Economic Summit: digitisation and artificial intelligence, Donald Trump and populism. Ten days after the US elections the shock was still deep-rooted among many participants – but not in all. The American Bill McDermott was not afraid of Trump. The CEO of the software company SAP said about the outcome of the elections, met by laughs from the audience: “Everyone was pretty shocked, maybe even Trump himself.” The manager assumes that the new President will pursue a more moderate line than announced during his campaign and will create good business opportunities. BMW is likewise big in the USA. “It is helpful that we are also regarded as a US company over there”, BMW boss Harald Krüger said. But he is also aware of the fact that Trump had advocated more protectionism so far.

The boss of the start-up holding Rocket Internet, Oliver Samwer, said that he did not expect a a significant change in the course detrimental to the internet industry. “I do not believe that the Americans will move away from a pro-internet, a pro-progress policy.” Also the man in charge of Emirates Airline, the Brit Sir Tim Clark, has a positive outlook for the future. “Donald Trump is a businessman.” He will not lead the USA into economic isolation and will not turn back globalisation. “At the end, Trump will not be able to survive without the so-called establishment”, is what the former German Economics and Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg also pointed out. In contrast, US journalist David Cay Johnston, who has written a critical biography of Trump, said that he was convinced that Trump lacked the elementary knowledge that he actually needed for exercising his office. “He is just immature. He is a 13-year-old boy in the body of a 70-year-old man.“

From Trump, the debate led on to digitisation – as artificial intelligence and digitisation cost jobs, especially in the middle layer of society. How should companies and politics deal with this issue? Several speakers, including for instance Vishal Sikka of Infosys and Charles-Édouard Bouée of Roland Berger, pointed out the opportunities that presented themselves with the new technologies. “Artificial intelligence will change everything so fast that the future champions may well come from Europe”, Bouée said.

In order to avail of these opportunities it was, however, necessary for the companies to change and to “focus radically on their customers” said Philipp Depiereux of the digital consultancy etventure. At the same time, the bosses would need to yield power to their staff: “We have to create spaces in which staff members are able to explore areas in which we might not see a viable business within the next five years”, Janina Kugel said, Siemens head of human resources. Tim Höttges, the boss of the German Telekom, put it this way: “Sometimes, innovation needs to be the virus that infects the group”. And he continued to say “And it is my job, as the head of the group, to make sure that there are no allergic reactions but that we are all infected by this new spirit.”

If this were successful, the Germans could win the fight against Silicon Valley, several speakers thought: If the German carmakers learnt to handle software properly, “then there is no reason for the cars of tomorrow to come from California”, the head of Salesforce Germany, Joachim Schreiner, said. This was an issue that BMW boss Krüger, Google Germany boss Philipp Justus and Felix Kuhnert, auto expert of PwC, also discussed on the Adlon stage. The groups had to invest a lot to this end and that is what they were doing, Kuhnert pointed out.

But also the founders in Germany are catching up considerably – as compared to California. The investor Felix Haas and business promoter Stefan Franzke (Berlin Partner) explained that there was a lot happening at the moment and that there was “an excellent start-up culture” in many cities meanwhile, Haas said. The scene in Europa had changed a lot as well, Bernardo Hernandez (eventures) and Gillian Tans (Booking.com) added. One of the big subjects here was: digital health. This is what the founders Christian Stammel, Saskia Biskup and Jörg Land discussed with the Federal German Health Minister Hermann Gröhe and the boss of the health insurance Techniker Krankenkasse Jens Baas. Their conclusion: there are vast opportunities for Germany in this field, but there are also issues with data protection.

But there were also cautionary voices at the SZ Economic Summit warning against a division of society into digital winners and losers. It was foreseeable that "some would be left behind because they could not keep up with the speed of the world”, Siemens boss Joe Kaeser said. Thus, society would have to see to it “that the people were looked after”. That is why “a kind of basic income is absolutely unavoidable”.

A similar view was taken by Yvonne Hofstetter, founder of an AI service provider and bestseller author: “The divide is widening more and more, human labour has less and less share in productivity.” Chris Boos, who also earns his money with highly intelligent machines, seconded: “The unconditional basic income is a way of designing the necessary social change from maintenance to construction in such a way that it becomes socially compatible.” The neurobiologist Gerald Hüther proved less pessimistic, he forecast that those would win in the 21st century “who still had the will to achieve something – as machines did not possess a will”.

The cross-examinations

At the tenth SZ Economic Summit, there were more cross-examinations than ever: a total of six. The following people took to the stage: SAP boss Bill McDermott, the former boss of Deutsche Bank Josef Ackermann, the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, the former German Defence and Economics Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, VW Board Member Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt as well as the American book author David Cay Johnston. Just over a week after the US elections, the cross-examinations were about the question of how Donald Trump would change the world. But also about digitisation and – with a view to VW – the challenges of compliance: “You can only be proud of success if its decent”, Hohmann-Dennhardt said.

The evening programme

The evening talk round at the Adlon Hotel united on stage: Sven Hannawald, Four Hills Tournament winner, Aino Laberenz, stage designer and widow of film and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief, and literary critic Denis Scheck. As different as they may seem, they have many things in common, as the discussion showed: They deal with human transience beyond the normal and unavoidable degree. Laberenz experienced the death of her husband six years ago and is now looking after his legacy. Sven Hannawald pursued a sport for a long time that others regard as life threatening. And for Denis Scheck the value of literature lies in diverting the attention from your own mortality.

The three guests offered unusual perspectives after two days characterised by debates on the entrepreneurial future and that of whole economies. For instance, Sven Hannawald talked about the moment when he noticed his burn-out condition and how he wants to create an awareness for the dangers of professional and private overload in other people during his seminars today. Aino Laberenz explained how difficult it was to continue the legacy of someone who was so disputed and enjoyed boos from the audience as much as Schlingensief. And Denis Scheck explained the whole world, at least. Ski jumping was “nothing else than cancelling out gravity and mortality.”

Speakers 2016