“In the past, 90 percent of my appointments were analogue, 10 percent digital. Now it’s the other way around. If we settle at 50/50, a lot has been achieved.”
Interview with State Minister Dorothee Bär (CSU)
State Minister Dorothee Bär (CSU) is the Federal Government Commissioner for Digitization. In an interview she talks about obstacles regarding broadband expansion, mobility during corona times and the demand for a right to home office. Photo: Paul Blau
How has corona changed your mobility?
Like most people, I spent less time traveling. Political committee group and national committee group meetings were all organized as video conferences. Only gradually are we moving towards other solutions. So far, I have only traveled to Berlin every time I have been to a Cabinet meeting – by car instead of by train. This long journey back and forth, just by myself, is of course quite exhausting. I miss the train journeys because that’s time I usually have for myself. I can work through documents, read or listen to podcasts.
Will the new digital solutions also replace many trips following corona?
Many solutions are not that new – they are only finally being implemented. Many colleagues used to say: we don’t have the hardware, we don’t have the software. That has changed. Everyone has tried online meetings and noticed that it doesn’t hurt. I hope that we can achieve a healthier mix in the long term. In the past, 90 percent of my meetings were analog, 10 percent digital. Now it’s the other way around. If we settle at 50/50, a lot has been achieved.
The Digital Minister does not demand complete digitization?
No, on many occasions a physical presence is important. During long video conferences it is also difficult for me to constantly put on an intelligent face (laughs). All jokes aside, we realize that we don’t have to travel for every appointment. For a 15-minute welcoming speech, nobody has to sit in the car or on the train for five hours. You can also send a video message. I think we will see a movement towards using fewer resources. By this, I mean environmental resources – the keywords being CO₂ and nitrogen oxide – but also human resources.
What do you think of a right to home office?
I wonder if you always have to legislate everything? A legal claim is a strong encroachment on entrepreneurial freedom and is not feasible in every company. I would prefer to offer companies the greatest possible freedom to survive the consequences of the pandemic. The home office model will be used more, even without regulations. My model is trust working hours and trust working places.
A prerequisite for many digital solutions is fast internet – and Germany is at best mediocre. What are the main problems?
My impression after two months of corona: We are coping better than I had expected. There was no indication of any overload situations. Many applications related to schoolwork operate with incredibly low bandwidths. Here in Franconia, in the flat countryside, a company has created over 1,000 additional home office workstations in just a few weeks. There were only four cases where the bandwidth was not sufficient. Nobody has complained in my public consultation hours either. This does not mean, of course, that everything is top class everywhere though.
“Things that we thought were sufficient a few years ago are now reaching their limits. And we don’t know what will be in five years. That’s why we need as much as possible as soon as possible.”
Do we need an investment program for broadband expansion?
There is sufficient money available – at the federal level and in most of the states. As the federal government, we want to expand our funding program for fiber-optic networks. A real problem, on the other hand, is the lack of construction capacity. Many construction companies lack the skilled workers they need. There is also a lack of acceptance among the population. Some don’t want historical pavements to be torn up during the fiber-optic expansion, others are worried about their gardens. The situation is similar with mobile communications: every time a new mast is to be built, there is a citizens’ initiative that takes to the streets. And now there are the conspiracy theories that blame 5G for corona. It does not get any easier.
How can acceptance and speed be increased?
I have been campaigning for a long time for the establishment of a Federal Center for Digital Enlightenment. Digital education and media literacy are important for creating transparency, taking away citizens’ fears and worries. We have already simplified the expansion of broadband through alternative installation methods – but we could go even further.
When will we reach a level suitable for the digital age?
We will never reach saturation, because there will always be new applications. Keywords are Internet of Things, Car-to-Car Communication or Telemedicine. Things that we thought were sufficient a few years ago are now reaching their limits. And we do not know what will be in five years’ from now. That’s why we need as much as possible as soon as possible.
How far has the transport infrastructure been digitized?
On the A9 motorway near Nuremberg, we have created one of the first test fields for automated driving worldwide. We have test fields for self-propelled buses in rural areas and in Baden-Württemberg a test program for unmanned aircraft will start in a few weeks. With our action plan for “unmanned aviation systems and innovative aviation concepts”, we want to advance air taxis and drones. These are all signs that a huge transformation process is taking place. On the other hand, I see deficits in Europe’s digital sovereignty. This must be a priority of the German EU Council Presidency in the second half of the year.
What are Europe’s weaknesses?
We lack a data cloud based on European values. At the German government’s last digital summit, we therefore launched the Gaia-X project for an open and networked data infrastructure. We need to press ahead with this. The deficits are also noticeable in everyday life – especially during corona times. In online meetings at EU level, we almost exclusively use software from American providers because it’s easier.
“Navigation-on does not mean brain-off. I look at the signs myself and think: Does it make sense what the device is suggesting?”
Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly important in mobility – it is used to optimize traffic flows, control cargo drones or even cars. People are being steered. How will we deal with this?
People adapt to new things very quickly. AI is a learning system – but we will still have to use our common sense. An excellent example is the navigation system. Here, too, I have always been guided by the principle that: navigation-on does not mean brain-off. I look at the signs myself and think: Does it make sense what the device is suggesting? Navigation systems have become much better over the years. Those who do not know their way around will reach their destination. But in an ideal situation, the driver is someone who knows their way around and uses a mixture of artificial and their own intelligence.
Let’s look ahead to mobility in 2040 – what are you looking forward to and what are you worried about?
In general, I am not very worried (laughs). According to a study, 95 percent of all things you are afraid of don’t happen anyway. I’m looking forward to beaming. Maybe Volkswagen can make sure that it comes even sooner than 2040. Then it would be even easier for me to reconcile family and career.
Dorothee Bär (CSU) has been a Minister to the Federal Chancellor and Federal Government Commissioner for Digitization since 2018. Prior to this she was State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Transport for four years. The 42-year-old Franconian has been a member of the Bundestag since 2002 and represents the constituency of Bad Kissingen.