Innovations provide the foundation for a better future. It is not uncommon for a new development to penetrate into other areas of life and change the overall structural conditions in society, whether they be, for example, in transport, health or communication. Next week, on 26 May 2020, the German Design Council will be publishing the winners of the German Innovation Awards 2020, its international competition for honouring innovations in 40 categories.

In the following essay, Lutz Dietzold, Managing Director of the German Design Council, discusses the subject of innovation at the interface of ecology and the economy. This piece appears in the catalogue of the German Innovation Awards 2020.


For a data-driven ecological turnaround

by Lutz Dietzold.

In February of this year, a number of companies went public over period of a few weeks, with impressive packages of ecological measures. A small selection: Over the next ten years Delta Airlines intends to invest a billion dollars in climate-friendly technologies, such as new bio-fuel development. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is pledging 10 billion US dollars to combat climate change, and by 2030, 50 per cent of the online retailer’s deliveries are expected to be carbon neutral. Microsoft is being even more ambitious: By 2030, the company intends to have a negative carbon footprint, in other words bind more atmospheric CO2 than it emits. As if that is not enough, by 2050, Microsoft wants to have offset totally all carbon emissions for its entire company history, from 1975 onwards. Although the efforts promised by some corporations are not entirely credible, the sum of these decisions is astounding.

They are probably directly related to the following statement: »Climate change has become a determining factor for the long-term prospects of companies. Last September, when millions of people took to the streets to demand action against climate change, many of them emphasised the significant and enduring impact that it will have on economic growth and prosperity – a risk that up until now the markets have been very slow to reflect.«

That quote does not come from an environmental organisation, or the young activists from Fridays for Future, but from Larry Fink. Fink is CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment company. The US-based corporation manages assets of around 6.5 trillion US dollars.

A green vision must not get lost in romantic notions of days gone by. In our complex networked world, ecological turnaround is based on data, and coordinated using artificial intelligence.

Fink therefore has an influence over all major multinational companies that can hardly be over-estimated. The letters that he always sends to CEOs around the globe every January are legendary. In his appeal for 2020, he proceeds as follows: »We will be increasingly ready to vote against managements and board members if companies do not make sufficient progress in disclosing sustainability issues and the business practices and plans underlying them.«

Can unconventional approaches such as Larry Fink’s letter actually have enough of a disruptive influence on the system to effect lasting change? One thing is for sure: a green vision must not get lost in romantic notions of days gone by. In our complex networked world, ecological turnaround is based on data, and coordinated using artificial intelligence.

Use the potential of digitalisation sensibly

We have long felt the effects of this digital development. The internet of things (IoT) is invading our lives. The phenomenon is sometimes reduced in everyday life to the »milk in the refrigerator« problem: An intelligent refrigerator automatically re-orders food that is running low from the online retailer. Thus the IoT not only leads to a (sometimes more, sometimes less) sensible facilitation of our daily lives as consumers – the associated transformation is fundamental and currently penetrating all areas of industry, agriculture and the service sector.  Let’s take the construction industry as an example. Here, and universally, information is the key to success.

The associated transformation is fundamental and currently penetrating all areas of industry, agriculture and the service sector.

To optimise the construction process, it is crucial to calculate the likelihood of a particular event occurring given a complex combination of factors. To use a specific example, assessing the compressive strength of concrete on the building site: previously this had to be determined using lengthy analogue procedures, but now, smart testing devices can be used on-site to generate precise data in real time, based on the relevant parameters. The monitoring of all processes and the knowledge thereby gleaned are opening a new chapter in the conception, planning and construction of large projects. The potential for innovation is not only vast in the construction industry, but also often makes both economic and ecological sense.

Think economy in a holistic way

Another revolution is taking place, every day – in our hands. The smartphone not only enables unforeseen forms of communication, it also changes the way we move around the world – or manage our finances. Personal contact with the traditional bank is becoming less important, and in its place, mobile banking, digital financial service (FinTechs) and insurance services (InsurTechs) are on the rise. While these offerings are market-driven, GovTechs include a much broader catalogue of measures, aimed at making the public sector more innovative and agile – thus driving development in the now not so new 21st century.

Thanks to the digitisation of administration, new technologies are finding their way into all the important interfaces of our lives and will naturally lead to data collection. GovTechs will therefore become increasingly important in our lives in future, although despite the undoubted benefits, the question of the limits of data transparency will also need to be discussed. At the same time, cryptocurrencies are enjoying increasing popularity and have the potential to undermine the state’s monopoly on money. We live in exciting times and the outcome is uncertain.

Personal contact with the traditional bank is becoming less important, and in its place, mobile banking, digital financial service (FinTechs) and insurance services (InsurTechs) are on the rise.

For me, the greatest task of the present day is therefore: to consistently consider the potential and newly-raised questions around Big Data and AI in terms of the long-term problems posed by the climate crisis. This task can only be successfully tackled as long as we – unfortunately this can no longer be taken for granted – agree on the path to be taken within the framework of democratic legislation and on the basis of international agreements.


Lutz Dietzold, Managing Director German Design Council

Lutz Dietzold, Geschäftsführer Rat für Formgebung © Lutz Sternstein

Lutz Dietzold (*1966) has been managing director of the German Design Council since 2002. He studied art history, classical archaeology and German language and literature in Frankfurt. After working as a freelancer in the area of design communication for national and international clients, he was appointed as the managing director of the Deutscher Werkbund Hessen (German Association of Craftsmen in the federal state of Hesse) as well as the managing director of Design Zentrum Hessen (Hesse Design Centre), where he was responsible for the strategic reorientation of design promotion.

In 2011 he was appointed deputy chairman of the Stiftung Deutsches Design Museum (German Design Museum Foundation) and member of the advisory council of the Mia-Seeger-Stiftung (Mia Seeger Foundation). Mr. Dietzold publishes articles on a regular basis and gives national and international lectures on a variety of topics relating to design. He is also a member of numerous juries as well as of the project advisory board of the German Federal Ecodesign Award of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety.

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