HSBA Innovation Hub © HSBA

Talking about innovation: "We need more courage."

Hamburg News highlights innovation as HSBA's new innovation hub, Square, opens

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.

Otto-Group-CEO Alexander Birken
Alexander Birken, CEO of Otto Group

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.

HSBA GF Dr. Uve Samuels
Dr. Uve Samuels, Managing Director of HSBA and SQUARE-GF © Hinrich Franck

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.

Budnikowsky GF Christoph Wöhke
Christoph Wöhlke, Managing Director of Budnikowsky

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

New Innovation Hub

HSBA’s new innovation hub, the Square, is set to develop innovations along a so-called innovation road. Beginning with the discovery and creative phase (explore) via prototyping (develop), the road stretches to the transfer of results into operative solutions (operate). This business model is based on “pay as you go”. Inspiration and support come in tailor-made modules, as required. Dr. Uve Samuels has been Managing Director of HSBA since 2007. In March 2019, Samuels was appointed CEO of Square HSBA Innovation Hub GmbH, an independent branch of the university. Alexander Birken has been Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the HSBA Hamburg School of Business Administration since last autumn. Christoph Wöhlke is Chairman of Square’s Innovation Advisory Board. Other members of the “Board of Innovation” include Stephan Uhrenbacher, founder and CEO of Density Venture, Henrik Falk, CEO of Hamburger Hochbahn AG, Prof. Dr. Edlira Shehu of Copenhagen Business School, and Matthias Schrader, founder and CEO of SinnerSchrader, Lead Accenture Interactive DACH (German-speaking countries).

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