Hamburg News spoke to Alexander Birken, CEO of Otto Group, Dr. Uve Samuels, Managing Director of HSBA Cooperative State University and Christoph Wöhlke, Managing Director of Budnikowsky
Hamburg News: What does innovation mean to you personally?
Uve Samuels: Jumping into an unknown space, embarking on a journey full of opportunities…partly with an unknown goal because the world has a complexity that can no longer be put into words and offers opportunities that you could not have even imagined without venturing down this path.
Alexander Birken: As the person responsible for the Otto Group, I see technology as a driving force that is effecting change that was hardly imaginable in the past. When the iPhone came out, I did not view that as innovation at first. In my opinion, the fact that technological leaps like that break down old value chains and create new opportunities shows exemplarily just how pivotal innovation can be.
Christoph Wöhlke: Solving a problem for customers is innovative in my opinion. For a company like Budnikowsky, that means above all developing new solutions for problems or questions that a customer may not be able to pinpoint yet.
Hamburg News: Does innovation need space or is it a question of mindset?
Christoph Wöhlke: Both. The main thing is to leave behind our silos both spatially and in the mind. We have to overcome silo thinking. At Budnikowsky, innovations are best created in interdisciplinary teams. Then, everyone works towards a joint goal. We also need spaces and markets where people with very different expertise come together to achieve this objective.
Uve Samuels: We are creating just such a place in the HSBA Innovation Hub, Square. Everyone is invited – companies, start-ups, professors, designers, engineers, biologists. We want to create space and networking opportunities thereby generating innovations.
Alexander Birken: In my view, it is definitely, and above all, a question of attitude, a mindset. The question is how can traditional attitudes be broken down? I think the new HSBA innovation campus can provide an impetus towards deconstructing a certain silo thinking in commerce and science. Whether that occurs during work in a room or by taking the laptop outdoors to work beside the Elbe River is unimportant.
We also are witnessing this in the Otto Group. Successful for decades, we have suddenly been forced to reinvent ourselves – and because market and customer behaviour are changing also. The art lies in allowing disruption and cannibalization within the company.
Hamburg News: Is this change generational?
Alexander Birken: No, I don’t see it like that. The question is rather how do we encourage each generation of professionals to focus on constant, lifelong change and having to reinvent themselves repeatedly. That can only be achieved through lifelong learning. There isn’t enough of that in Germany yet.
Christoph Wöhlke: My company, Budnikowsky, must be future-proof. The best possible understanding of customers takes priority. That requires technology and, especially, people. Age barriers are also silos – real and in the mind. If we surmount them, we can work creatively not only with people of different ages, but can also gain the best possible understanding of different age groups as customers.
Uve Samuels: Socialisation is hindering us as a society. Silo thinking starts at school and continues at work. We have to think and act far more liberally and in an overarching manner.
Hamburg News: What does Hamburg need to become even more innovative?
Uve Samuels: We need courage above all. Too many excuses are still being sought for not doing certain things. We cannot defend old structures any longer. Others are faster. Size is unimportant. Start-ups are small, but companies must have innovative ideas.
Alexander Birken: Courage. I cannot emphasize that enough. We, in the Otto Group, organise “courage festivals”! I would like to see more openness in Hamburg and see us moving out of our comfort zone. I see the tremendous speed in China and America – or the technological clout in Tel Aviv. That has a lot to do with hunger – and courage.
Christoph Wöhlke: I’m seeing plenty of new beginnings in Hamburg, but I think that many circles are still stuck in a kind of exclusive club mentality and are isolating themselves. So there’s the danger of being mutually corroborative. A maximum range of different perspectives and opinions is needed.
Hamburg News: As everyone in the innovation scene is familiar with the audible sign of a new mindset: Alexander, Uve and Christoph – thank you very much for the engrossing conversation!
Interview by Karolin Köcher