Overcome legacy, handle disruption – SHIFT Spring 2022

Overcome legacy, handle disruption. It was the fourth time that this slogan had announced our SHIFT conference––yet it seemed to have become more current than ever. Talk was needed. Not only about the ever-growing global challenges, exacerbated by the sky-high expectations imposed on companies, by an increasingly threadbare social fabric, and by the growing complexity of online markets, and compounded still further by the uncertain political situation. The SHIFT speakers not only summed up these many and various problems; they also presented potential solutions. And there was still scope to mention topics of the future that need to be borne in mind, however dramatic the daily news headlines.

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“You feel like smoke is coming out of your ears,” said Jürgen Alker in the last talk late on Friday afternoon. A conference packed with thought-provoking impetus and innovation. The opening session on Thursday, May 12, established the socio-political framework. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalists Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier presented fascinating insights into the battle against corruption and fake news. They explained why they had chosen to go independent with their new company, paper trail media: to make this branch of journalism more independent. Or, in other words, their entrepreneurial spirit was fired up by the need to be able to act as the “front line of democracy,” delivering high-quality journalism.

The world of politics is also undergoing a sea-change––such was the impression created by Bettina Jarasch in our online debate. The mayor of Berlin and member of the Bündnis 90/Green party (and, incidentally, sister of SHIFT co-organizer Nick Hartmann) vigorously rejected any attempt to describe her as a “brand.” “Even the title of the session was provocative,” she laughed, pointing out that politicians, however charismatic, still have to follow the line of their party.

Jarasch is convinced that in politics, honesty definitely does pay––and can be a driver of personal success. She was firm that pretence and fakery are no use in the long run. Her insight was explored further during the two-day conference with respect to entrepreneurs and decision-makers. Closing the first evening, Jarasch drew on the Ukraine war for an extremely poignant, and only seemingly unrelated, example of how rapidly a party can change its position over matters of principle. Jarasch pointed out that many of the Syrian refugees that came to Germany in 2015 now hold important official positions. “Their politics are on the left, but they are also extremely clear that armed response is necessary,” explained Jarasch. A storm was brewing outside, but there was still time for an initial get-together on the Hartmann Campus terrace.

Don`t believe the hype? That “don’t” was adamantly crossed out by SHIFT program director Marc Schumacher on Friday morning, when he presented future-focused news from trend agency TRENDBÜRO. Schumacher’s keen eye for the significance of selected news topics quickly indicated where the tasks of the future lie.

The need to take a stance, including in political issues; the communication of the back-to-office policy after the pandemic; the overall credibility of a company; the erosion of customer loyalty among younger age groups; the gulf between “I want flawless online service” and “I want to keep my data private”; and not least the desire of most people for global players to take action and help save the world––in short, the demands placed on business leaders, can range from maximum flexibility to maximum vision. And preferably both at once.

It quickly became clear that the topics raised by Schumacher formed a common thread that was returned to again and again by the panels that followed. When the charismatic quartet of presenter Nina Kalmund with Judith Dada, Patricia Stangner, and host Simone Hartmann came together, the essence of their debate was that women should have more influence in the future. Not only on grounds of justice, but also because of sheer economic efficiency. The panel pointed out that the global population was practically ignoring 50 percent of its potential for becoming more diverse, and thus more flexible, and for boosting innovation and success. Germany appears to be lagging considerably behind over the gender issue, and the panel noted there was still plenty to do. Extending the vision further into the future, Judith Dada declared that the differences between men and women would be increasingly erased as artificial intelligence and machines replaced human labor.

And yet there are rays of hope, encouraging signs. Take Obermaier, for example, who was struck by how investigative journalism serves as a source of impetus for the work of official authorities. Or Bettina Jarasch’s perception that questioning one’s own ideas instead of always going by the book is a “sign of strength”. Or Marc Schumacher’s description of a technology currently in development that could very soon make computers run around four hundred times faster. Or the idea that during our lifetime scientists could work out a solution to feed the world. Ideas such as these help to relieve the dystopian gloom.

And then there was Frank Dopheide.

Joining the conference online from Düsseldorf, the founder of human unlimited was shown against a backdrop reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut “Rhinoceros,” a work based on a mere description, created by an artist who had never seen the animal he was portraying. A fitting expression of Dopheide’s appeal for greater creativity, greater courage to propose unconventional ideas. Addressing executives and leaders, he called for closer scrutiny of the hurdles placed in our path by intellectual history, for the abandonment of rationally focused uniform thinking. Optimum answers were needed not only for the question of “how,” but also for the question of “purpose.” At the same time, Dopheide admitted, “’Purpose’ is a terrible word. There are far better options, like ‘animated,’ or ‘inspired.’” When people are Inspired they create meaning, and inspire others in turn.

Dopheide pointed out that we are currently living through a phase where economies are battling three radical disruptions at once: employees’ lack of identification with their employers, falling customer retention, and crumbling social goodwill towards institutions. The solution he proposed is for entrepreneurs to infuse their companies and their products with purpose, to be authentic. “When you have the people on your side, the figures will follow,” he affirmed.

At the close of the conference, Simone Hartmann  concluded: “The question-marks are getting larger, not smaller.” But by focusing on topics that combined social and technological aspects, like the metaverse and NFTs, SHIFT was also able to set exclamation points and present strategies for the future. The next conference is scheduled for September 16 and 17, a shift to a Friday/Saturday slot. A disruption that should prove relatively simple to cope with, particularly since a visit to the Oktoberfest is also planned.