Europe must embrace digitalization...

... and combine it with historical strengths!

Thorben Albrecht has focused on the future of work as his primary field of interest. This quickly becomes apparent when you speak to him about the possible ways work can be shaped in the future. The historian and political scientist has been federal manager of the SPD since 2018. He was previously state secretary in the Federal Ministry for Labor and Social Affairs, where he launched the dialog process “Work 4.0”. But Albrecht has not limited his efforts to the national stage; he is also active at the international level of the future of work. In 2017, he was appointed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as one of 28 representatives worldwide from politics, academics, and business to the “Global Commission on the Future of Work.”

Albrecht met with Marc Wagner and Jan Pfeifer in the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Berlin, the federal headquarters of the SPD, to talk about trends in the working world and the role of European politics in defining new ways to work as part of the Detecon series “Europe, Your Digitalization”.

Detecon: Mr. Albrecht, digitalization of the working world is the subject of innumerable discussions at this time. What do you view as the major trends of digital transformation?

Thorben Albrecht: The trends of digitalization are of profound nature in the ways they are changing the working world. As I see it, however, they are per se neither positive nor negative; instead, they present a change that we must steer. For many years, discussions focused in particular on interconnected factories, while later automation using robots became the key topic. At this time, the debate about artificial intelligence is raging. This development and its accompanying automation will bring about more and more change processes in the service sector as well. I am still convinced that, when all is said and done, the bottom line will be more jobs. But that will require us to take action at all levels.

So you are more of an optimist when it comes to digitalization ...

... an optimist, but not one who plays down the significance of the challenges. We have good reason to be optimistic, but only if we actively manage the process and exploit the opportunities for improvement of work. We must take people along with us on this journey.

Our observation is that fear is the overriding emotion when it comes to the topic of the future of work. What is the role of politics here, at the European level as well?

It is the job of politics to talk about the opportunities and to present specific offers for management of the risks. We must succeed in walking this tightrope: approaching the task optimistically, but not closing our eyes to the areas that we must regulate. We must offer new opportunities to the people who are vulnerable to being left behind.

The German and European economies are under pressure, in no small part because of attacks from the USA and China. What would be your master plan for bringing Germany and Europe up to peer level or even to secure a lead for them?

I am convinced that it is essential to call on our own strengths in such a competitive situation. Midsize niches between startup and global corporation can be our strengths in the future, just as in the past – but only if we are prepared to move ahead in our development and not to rest on our laurels. We here in Europe must embrace the opportunities and new forms of work offered by digitalization – a key word here is working more agilely – and combine them with our historical strengths.

As far as Germany is concerned, I have the impression that a strong relationship between academic research and companies is a key factor that already functions well with existing infrastructures such as the Fraunhofer Society.

Israel has a digital ecosystem that is strongly driven by central forces of the government and military. On the other side, we find the decentralized German model. Would you like to see greater centralization here as well?

I don’t believe that decentralization is of itself wrong. The deficits often arise from the inadequate interaction among many different areas or because the areas are not systematically organized within a decentral system. There must be more joint agreements, goals, and coordination between the federal, state, and local governments.

However, more important than the question about centrality is that we must be prepared in greater measure to make resources available quickly. The professorships planned as part of the German government’s AI strategy must be established quickly. Another point is the matter of mindset. When a minister says we don’t need the internet on every milk can, we have a problem, because certain things haven’t been understood then.

Let’s turn to New Work. At Detecon, we look at the topic from the perspective of four dimensions: “People”, “Places”, “Tools”, and “Principles & Regulations”. What are the fundamental elements for you?

Basically the building blocks you have just named. The decisive lever, however, is the culture – the way work is understood. We must create the spatial environment and tools for this. We must systematically take on the qualification. But the first step is a cultural understanding of what processes are a fit for the specific culture. In IT processes, agile work is the standard today, and that is a good thing, but that does not mean that it is the one and only right model for all work processes. Ultimately, the objective is to focus on people. That is also one of the key recommendations that we from the Global Commission on the Future of Work propose in our report.

Can there be a European path if you say that culture is key?

The approach of focusing on people works on a global scale – from the informal agriculture in the southern part of the globe to the high-tech forges in the northwestern and northeastern parts of the world. Europe offers an opportunity to establish certain framework conditions – in academics, for instance, or with respect to the rules governing how we handle data.

What I believe to be decisive is that we learn how to deal with media and how to learn at an early stage. In this respect, we have good prerequisites in Europe where we can build on existing educational structures. This can become a competitive advantage for our location if we continue to develop these structures systematically.

When it comes to robot ethics, the initial discussion was conducted primarily by representatives of technology companies. What tasks do you see facing politics in this context?

Ultimately, we need political regulations in this area. This will require politicians to become more capable of action and to immerse themselves deeply enough into the subject that they understand its basic principles. This understanding cannot yet be found in all sectors of politics in Germany. You do not have to develop robots yourself to be able to understand how the technology works. But as a politician, I must be able to assess the results myself – on the Ethics Commission on autonomous driving, for instance. No one can make this decision for me at the end of the day.

What are the main fields of action you would identify for the future? Where do we here in Germany still need to catch up in terms of digitalization?

E-government is an important topic, but the technical infrastructure for network coverage is a relevant factor as well. Since digitalization is a topic that has a role to play everywhere, all sectors must keep up with the times. Unless we have that, what you have just described as a digital ecosystem will not work. As far as the government and related activities are concerned, I cannot say here, either, that only one authority or one ministry must step up while the others can lean back in their chairs and relax.

In conclusion: What must we do in Germany within the next four to five years if we want to be world leaders for the topic of Work 4.0?

We are world leaders in the political debate. We were the first to issue a white book on the market that covers all relevant areas from the management of work to social security. In the Commission as well, we have seen at the international level that there are a lot of areas in which we are far advanced – e.g., the management of changes in collective bargaining agreements and the flexibility compromises between employers and employees.

But we have not achieved adequate interaction with small and midsize companies in this respect. This is where the greatest efforts are required, as I see it. Moreover, we must make substantially greater progress when it comes to life-long learning, especially in advanced training, if we want to exploit potential fully and ensure that all people participate in the process.

Thank you, Mr. Albrecht, for your interesting insights!

Thorben Albrecht
Thorben Albrecht
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