Seeing the silver lining in crises
Innovation is like a muscle, opines Prof. Katharina Hölzle. You have to train to get better at it. She believes that we have lost our mental and physical flexibility due to the high levels of stability, comfort and prosperity we have enjoyed in recent years. As an innovation researcher and industrial engineer, she is maintaining her confidence in the face of the multiple ongoing crises. “As the history of innovation research shows, great advancements in innovation have always come during times of major crisis.”
Since April 2022, the professor has been a member of the institute management at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO and director of the Institute of Human Factors and Technology Management (IAT) at the University of Stuttgart. Prior to that, she served as professor for Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship at the University of Potsdam from 2011 to 2019, and then as head of IT Entrepreneurship at the Hasso Plattner Institute. Born in Flensburg in the north of Germany, Prof. Hölzle studied industrial engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and completed an MBA at the University of Georgia in Athens. She went on to pursue her doctoral studies at the Technische Universität Berlin, where she also qualified as a professor. Next, the industrial engineer held the role of visiting professor at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) in Beijing, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Macquarie University in Sydney. Before launching into her academic career, she worked in companies such as Infineon Technologies, Capgemini and an American start-up. From 2019 to 2021, Prof. Hölzle was a member of the German federal government’s High-Tech Forum, and until June 2022, she was the deputy chair of the German federal government’s Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation (Expertenkommission Forschung und Innovation, EFI).
She summed up the key points of the report published by the scientists on the expert commission in 2022 as follows: Technological sovereignty is crucial for Germany’s growth — “in fact, for our survival, too!” The strength of Germany’s positioning varies across the different key technologies, she reports: while the country is doing well in conventional production and material technologies, it has a weak spot when it comes to the areas of bio- and natural sciences. “This is particularly obvious when you look at digital technologies — we have completely fallen behind there.” The overall picture that emerged from the studies is a cause for serious concern for the expert council, as digital technologies feature in every form of production and biotechnology these days. Germany ranks much lower than the USA and Asia when it comes to patent applications in this area. China in particular has gained ground enormously, in terms of publications and start-ups as well as patents. “In recent years, Germany has missed out on quite a few things in fields like big data, digital security, microelectronics and AI,” states Prof. Hölzle.
Germany’s business culture and even its social culture need to change, the scientist asserts. If options are limited, particularly in terms of finances, then old structures must be abandoned in order to make room for the new.“What we need is the desire to shape the future,” argues the professor. As a teacher, she treasures her interactions with her students. For her, education means participating and contributing. “Innovations are not welcome in times of doubt. They are stressful, they’re different — and we humans really struggle with that kind of thing.” However, she insists that each and every individual must accept that “more of the same” is simply no longer an option. The scientist wants to counter that view with another imperative: “I can do something!”