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Stephan Balzer: "We have to apply pressure from below"

Stephan Balzer: "We have to apply pressure from below"
Photo: © Sebastian Gabsch

Ten years ago Stephan Balzer brought the TED-Talk from California to Berlin. It’s a format that discursively combines technology, design, global perspectives and local risks. As a little German brother, TEDxBerlin wants to be in no way inferior to its big brother. Who is the man behind the TEDx scenes, Stephan Balzer? What are his goals? And what has happened in 10 years of TEDx? We had a conversation about these topics, and more.
 

INTERVIEW Boris Messing

 

CCB Magazin: Ten years of TEDx Berlin, with growing numbers of visitors every year. The series of events deals with topics such as technology, design, entertainment, politics – if you don’t mind me asking – how is this different than re:publica?

Stephan Balzer: Well, for one, the format is different. Besides, TED is much older than re:publica, which has been around for 35 years. Ten years ago, TED allowed foreign licenses and since then thousands of TED events have taken place all over the world. In terms of topics, re:publica is certainly more political, more bloggers, more activists, while TEDx is more for generalists.

CCB Magazin: Stephan, you are as well known in the TEDx scene as Maradona is in football. You brought the TEDx format to Berlin. Who are you really? 

Stephan Balzer: I’ve been dealing with new technologies and innovations and their impact on society for over 25 years. Early on, I developed the talent for explaining these new technologies and their possibilities to people in a simple, understandable way. That’s what my work at TEDx and Singularity University is all about. I am an ambassador and translator of this often-complex content and, on the other hand, put it into a strategic context for companies. This applies not only to the major transformation and change processes in companies, but also to leadership and cultural change. Only when the topics are correctly understood can a rethink occur within the company itself.

CCB Magazin: According to Ray Kurzweil, the chief developer at Google, singularity will occur in 2045. Will super intelligent, humanoid robots then lead the TEDx debates?

Stephan Balzer: Good question. I can’t predict that. However, the XPrize for Artificial Intelligence announced by IBM is already awaiting the company that manages to construct the first talking robot that can conduct a TED talk. This is a project that’s currently underway all over the planet. But yes, if Ray proves right with his prediction, then robots will surpass us by far in terms of intelligence around 2045. That’s why we really have to actively discuss it today and ask: What direction should the development take? What do we want to allow, and what not?

The diesel scandal demonstrates that many business groups are lacking when it comes to humility. I attribute this to their outdated, paternalistic corporate culture and to managers who still cannot admit any mistakes and just want to continue on as they always have done. This is the wrong attitude.

CCB Magazin: Germany is one of the most important economic nations in the world. But countries like China or the USA are far ahead of us in terms of digitalisation, which plays a major role in the economy of the future. Will we be able to catch up, do we have to catch up at all, or has the train already left the station?

Stephan Balzer: Yes, I think we can keep up. But we don’t have a Ministry of Digital Affairs to guide and coordinate this development process. What is needed is a genuine willingness and understanding on the part of the Federal Government for this necessary step. We are a nation that has grown through our ideas, through our engineering skills, through high-quality products that we export. That was and is the basis of our prosperity. And to maintain this prosperity and our social system, we’ll need more courage and innovation in the future. We mustn’t miss out on the next wave of economic change. In my view, politicians miss setting clear priorities and increasing pressure on corporations. And industry should become more involved, too. Sometimes too little is happening here. The diesel scandal in particular demonstrates that many business groups are lacking when it comes to humility. I attribute this to the outdated, paternalistic corporate culture in Germany and to managers who still cannot admit any mistakes and just want to continue on they always have done. This is the wrong attitude.

CCB Magazin: What would be the right attitude? Are Americans doing any better?

Stephan Balzer: I don’t know if the Americans are really doing any better. In general, it’s about companies becoming aware of their responsibility for the processes they set in motion, beyond the pure profit orientation. We are a global market. As a company, I simply can’t just be selfish and say that I’m only interested in myself. In the future, there must be people who are capable of looking beyond their own limited horizons. 

CCB Magazin: Two of Silicon Valley’s great recipes for success are flat corporate hierarchies and the venture capital provided for start-ups. Are we sticking too much to old patterns that we can’t get rid of?

Stephan Balzer: These are two different topics. As far as hierarchies are concerned, I can say that the strict hierarchical orientation of German companies often gets in the way of innovation. Large companies in particular find this difficult because they have learned that development only works through clear hierarchies. One mustn’t forget that these are companies that became very successful after World War II and have experienced continual growth. Of course, these companies are now asking themselves: Why shouldn’t this continue? But many young managers no longer want to support this working model. This increases the pressure on companies to change in order to remain attractive as employers. 

CCB Magazin: An almost classic question: Will AI lead to mass unemployment?

Stephan Balzer: No, I don’t think so. The past has shown that with every leap in development, there was a short-term phase in which jobs were lost. But then there were new ones that emerged that you couldn’t imagine at the time. It will be the same this time. But we will have an immense need for training and retraining. We have to prepare ourselves for this. And maybe we also have to think about a basic income. At least there must be an open dialogue about it. 

CCB Magazin: Stephan, if the new Berlin Airport still isn’t finished, how are we supposed to tackle bigger issues like hunger, climate, water shortage?

Stephan Balzer: We’ll manage. We have to exert pressure from below. And perhaps one or two TEDx talks will also contribute to the solution.


Profile of TEDxBerlin on Creative City Berlin

Here is a review of 10 years TEDxBerlin in the CCB Magazine

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