"Anticipating the challenges that lie ahead"

Prof. Dr. Michael Kaschke in conversation with Dr. Eike Wenzel

A host of megatrends, accelerated innovation cycles and digital transformation will set the pace for companies in the future. Lifestyles change in a flash, and product cycles are getting ever shorter. Platform companies disrupt entire industries. Companies, the economy and society must all be able to anticipate the challenges that lie ahead. Industrial companies with a technological focus and the researchers of the future can use strategic investments and scientifically sound trend studies to play a key role here. Dr. Eike Wenzel, founder of the Institute for Trend and Future Research, and Prof. Dr. Michael Kaschke, President and CEO of Carl Zeiss AG, came together to discuss these points.

Dr. Wenzel (left) and CEO Prof. Dr. Michael Kaschke (right)

Dr. Wenzel: Digitalization is rapidly changing our lives in many ways. The economy and society are undergoing a period of tremendous upheaval. This also concerns parts of your company which are set to change drastically, such as Medical Technology. A company like ZEISS simply must get on board with this.

Prof. Dr. Kaschke: That’s true. Through strategic planning, we are thus aiming to establish a mid-term future strategy that goes beyond quarterly and annual planning. It is essential that we begin by clearly documenting the planning factors. That means providing answers to the question about what assumptions form the basis for the possible planning scenarios.

Wenzel: Companies that operate strategically and future researchers certainly stand to gain a lot.

Kaschke: Allow me to present one of these factors: sustainability. How can there be social peace in Africa or Asia when billions of people have no access to healthcare? We do tend to apply our world view to other countries. But we often forget that healthcare is a much more pressing issue in other countries than it is in our own.

Wenzel: This is also shown by the fact that seven of the 15 megatrends we’ve created at our Institute are sustainability trends. At the Institute, we’re none the wiser about how smartphones will look in the future. But we can still play our part by keeping a close eye on the megatrends and understanding them.

Kaschke: That’s why we asked ourselves what megatrends are relevant to our strategic planning. The first issue is our aging society – and by that I mean the active members of our aging society, the people who will be active at this new stage in their lives.

Wenzel: In terms of demographic change, we usually hear about how we are all getting older. But people normally neglect to mention how much younger we feel. Between the ages of 55 and 80, we’re entering a whole new phase of our lives. This has repercussions on production volumes. I’ll stop talking about particular age groups because I expect future 80-year-olds to feel young. Self-driving cars, for instance, can tap into new worlds of mobility, which will have a positive impact on our quality of life.

Kaschke: That’s why I think the term “aging society” is somewhat misleading. After all, stating our biological age doesn’t do justice to this new phase of our lives. New lifestyles can create a need for certain products. One of our primary goals is to use the products to enhance quality of life, for example through our many innovative vision care solutions. I’d like to mention another topic: industrial development toward the platform economy. Hundreds of thousands of eye doctors across the world help millions, nay billions of people to see more clearly. We are working on developing a platform for these doctors around the world, which is why the platform economy as a megatrend is such an important topic for us.

Wenzel: The development of the platform economy is truly impressive. Many successful business models are based on the network effect. However, many established portals will be rethinking their global role over the coming years, and potentially redefining themselves in certain megatrend areas, in a way that bolsters factors such as their regional focus.

Kaschke: Platforms have become so dominant because in the B2C area they can be scaled very quickly and easily across boundaries. This is linked to how software platforms like these reduce the application costs to next to nothing. When you produce a piece of hardware, you can almost compensate for the production costs in a linear sense by manufacturing a certain volume. The question is, how can we hold our own in the face of rapidly scalable platforms with minimal replication costs? By developing industry-specific B2B ecosystems. We can do this thanks to our expertise in certain industries or occupations, such as eye doctors.

Megatrends like digitalization and Smart Production, healthcare in an aging society and in miniaturization are rapidly changing our lives in many ways. As a technology leader, ZEISS strives to use its products and solutions to shape the future – and not just in the optics industry.

Wenzel: Are you at all concerned that software companies could one day combine your algorithms with artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop diagnostic tools for eye doctors?

Kaschke: Many people have already started using machine learning and artificial intelligence, but we believe we’re miles ahead of them. After all, we are familiar with doctors’ needs and have many years of experience in this area under our belts. This, coupled with our direct customer contact, often results in us developing our platforms together with our customers.

Wenzel: I take your point. With classic B2C platform concepts, America and China are way ahead of the pack. However, the B2B world holds a tremendous opportunity for German industry. Here, it would make sense to join forces with other companies.

Kaschke: We’re already doing that. Last year, we acquired two software companies that also work in areas like these. We are using the ADAMOS industry platform to enable a partnership with other companies that have a certain amount of domain knowledge. At ZEISS, we form groups capable of focusing on platform concepts that break away from the classic business model. We are always thinking about how we can maintain our competitive advantage. I believe our strength lies in our customer relationships, in our domain knowledge, as well as in our well-stocked technology pipeline. Mergers and acquisitions also play a role in this respect, but we are evolving organically at tremendous speed – in terms of both quantity and quality.

In their discussion, future researcher Dr. Wenzel  and CEO Prof. Dr. Michael Kaschke identified that strategically operating companies and future researchers can set trends.

Wenzel: A key issue with platforms is who moderates them. Back in 1995, IBM claimed that you should work with your competitors. The idea of the ecosystem you mentioned is certainly appealing, especially since it gives rise to new products and services.

Kaschke: I couldn’t agree more. The aim is always to deliver the value added of a platform to the users. For example, an eye doctor has access to huge volumes of anonymous data. This helps the doctor make decisions, for example with information about the statistical probability of how a disease is likely to develop. This is value added that we can offer the doctor. Here’s another example: many people with age-related diseases live in a care home. These days, we shouldn’t really expect older people to travel a long way to see a doctor. Remote diagnosis means many issues can be resolved in the care home.

Wenzel: You mentioned a new phase of life in which older people will be much more active despite their limitations. Perhaps this will also change the way we see lifelong learning.

Kaschke: Some people in their 70s are taking computer courses. What motivates them to do so? They recognize the benefits. The key is therefore in learning on our own terms, especially in an age where the media is ever present. I’d like to add one more thing while we’re on the subject of learning and it applies to all generations equally: learning enables us to retain our capacity to make judgements and helps our causal reasoning so that people don’t just understand things and information but can also see the connections and judge and assess them.

Wenzel: That pretty much sums it up. In this new world we will need the capacity to judge. While this may sound conservative, it’s actually a fundamental issue.

Moderator: Guido Walter