Interview with Prof. Irene Bertschek
Prof. Irene Bertschek is a digitization expert at the ZEW – Leibniz Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim and advisor to the German government on innovation issues. In an interview she explains how artificial intelligence can steer our mobility sector and which digital solutions of the corona era will be long-lasting.
Digitization is already changing the economy immensely – now the corona pandemic is forcing many companies to move even faster. How is the initial situation?
This varies extremely from industry to industry. IT and financial service providers have long since digitalized many processes. The automotive industry is also undergoing change, but can also build on highly automated work processes. This is particularly advantageous now in the corona crisis, as it makes it easier to maintain physical distances when people cooperate not only with humans but especially with robots. Other industries are just starting out. Take the construction industry, for example: in many companies, digitization is limited to electronic invoicing, even though there are sophisticated software solutions for planning and managing buildings.
How does that come about?
Most construction companies have been extremely well utilized in recent years, leaving little time to deal with future issues. In general, small and medium-sized companies in particular are lagging behind. They often have not yet understood how important and diverse digitalization is. Some carpenters think: I can’t build my furniture digitally after all. Of course not – but they could present it digitally and thus be visible on the market! Digitalization affects everyone. Most large companies have understood this.
It is often said that American and Chinese corporations have an unassailable lead. What’s your assessment?
In the platform economy, US companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook are indeed far ahead. This also applies to their Chinese counterparts Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu. In Europe, that train has already departed. However, in contrast, Europe is in a good position in terms of Industry 4.0 and artificial intelligence. This is shown, for example, by patent applications. Companies need to make the most of this position.
How can this be achieved – for example in mobility?
A good example is the control of traffic flows using artificial intelligence. AI can evaluate large amounts of data from different sources and calculate optimal routes. The information can relate to vehicles, geographical information or the weather, for example. In this way, traffic flows can be better organized, and congestion can be avoided.
How do you envisage the digitally controlled traffic of the future?
My dream is a car-free city center with perfect integration across all means of transport. At its heart could be a digital platform that provides people with all important and up-to-date information at all times in a user-friendly way: When does the next electrically powered bus leave for the city center? Where can I recharge my e-bike while I am doing something? Intelligent networking with short interval times makes cities more habitable and contributes to climate protection.
What else is changing with our mobility?
Digitalization makes many paths avoidable – for example, when we work in home office, communicate with each other from any location or shop online. Tele-consultation hours at the doctor’s office have also become more popular during the corona crisis. In the long term, such digital solutions can help to maintain rural areas as places to live and work.
All this only works with an efficient infrastructure. How is the situation?
Within Europe, countries such as Malta, Denmark and the Netherlands are ahead. There, more than 90 percent of households have an ultra-fast Internet connection with at least 100 Mbit/s. In Germany, on the other hand, only 75 percent of households have ultra-fast Internet access and rank 16th among 28 countries. Many companies complain about these weaknesses, because without a good digital infrastructure they can hardly take advantage of the opportunities offered by Cloud Computing, Big Data, Industry 4.0 or AI. In addition to a nationwide fiber optic network, we need a powerful cellular network – for autonomous driving, for example.
How sustainable is the digitalization push resulting from the restrictions of the corona pandemic?
Some things will return after the acute crisis, because humans as social beings need physical contact with each other. But where digital solutions bring advantages, they will continue to be used. I assume, for example, that home offices, video conferences, online commerce and tele-consultation will play a greater role in the long term than they did before the pandemic.
Prof. Irene Bertschek is head of the research area “Digital Economy” at the ZEW – Leibniz Center for European Economic Research in Mannheim. She also lectures at the Justus-Liebig-University Gießen. Since May 2019, she has been a member of the German Federal Government’s Expert Commission on Research and Innovation.