If we sit back, close our eyes and think about which technologies or which scientific breakthroughs of recent years came from our country and had great or supra-regional significance, what would we think of? Would these be the same ones that citizens of other countries would enumerate, would they be asked the question about our country?
And vice versa, what failed projects from home come to mind? And perhaps the even meaner question: How quickly and quickly and how many failed projects come to our minds compared to the successful ones?
I am well aware that such an enumeration is not easy or can be separated between regions and countries. Research teams and global companies are already very international from the ground up. Leading employees in top American companies or Chinese start-ups come from German-speaking countries.
But it can give us an insight into the external and internal perception of our own performance and dysfunctions This is important, not least because countries are now competing globally for investments, company locations and top talent. The country as a brand thus signals whether it is attractive enough for them.
At the end of 2019, I obtained answers to this question in an unrepresentative survey among my newsletter subscribers. I asked six questions, which could be answered in a free text field. The structure was very simple: it asked about successes and failures in a country that would immediately come to mind. The countries I wanted to know about were the USA, China and Germany, or rather the German speaking countries. Here is an example of such a question about successes:
What are outstanding recent technological / economic / political / ecological / scientific or similar achievements or successes that immediately come to mind when you think of Germany (or German-speaking countries)? You are welcome to enumerate several.
And, as a counterpart, the question about failures:
What are outstanding recent technological / economic / political / ecological / scientific or similar failures that immediately come to mind when you think of Germany (or German-speaking countries)? You are welcome to enumerate several.
I deliberately left the period open with the choice of the word “recent” and wanted to let the survey participants freely associate. Of course, at that time, there were always current topics in the answers, as well as a slight focus on main topics for which the participants had subscribed to my newsletter. Nevertheless, the answers allow us to keep a finger on the pulse of the times.
So what did the more than 50 survey participants spontaneously come up with?
Results for the USA
Interestingly, the most frequently mentioned achievements included companies. Tesla, SpaceX, Google and Apple were among the most frequently mentioned. Among the technologies, autonomous cars, electric mobility and artificial intelligence dominated. Elon Musk and Steve Jobs in particular were listed as outstanding personalities, but also the mindset in Silicon Valley, openness and flexibility, the ability to try things out quickly instead of thinking and discussing them at length, and the widespread entrepreneurial spirit in the USA.
On the side of the failures of the USA, Donald Trump was clearly in the lead. But also the withdrawal from the climate change agreement, and in general environmental protection, the denial of global climate change, and such processes as fracking. As companies, Facebook and Google were mentioned negatively, but also the American health system.
Results for China
The participants could think of quite a few of China’s successes. At the top of the list were the unrestricted promotion of electric mobility and the development of associated production capacities with battery factories. The speed with which China is progressing in the development of expertise and applications for artificial intelligence, the speed with which it is pushing ahead with major projects in Africa or the new Silk Road ‘Belt and Road’, and in general the fact that in just a few decades it has developed from a backward poorhouse into a technological and economic superpower with a modern infrastructure for railways, roads and mobile phone networks, also demanded a great deal of respect. And respondents also clearly acknowledge the fact that China is moving from a culture of copying and adopting ideas and technologies to one in which many new and unique ideas and innovation are generated. These are led by companies such as Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei, which are now commonplace.
On the other hand, there are generally anti-democratic actions, including reprisals against Hong Kong and minorities, totalitarian surveillance, which is manifested very prominently in the ‘social score’, with which every citizen is judged according to his or her behavior and, if necessary, excluded from state and private services. The Chinese environmental problems caused by coal-fired power plants and water pollution were also a frequently mentioned topic.
Results for Germany | Austria | Switzerland
What do we spontaneously think of the successes in this country? By far the most frequently mentioned was the energy turnaround, followed by Fridays for Future, which has a large number of supporters. At the same time as the pride in the domestic machines, the statement “nothing comes to mind” was to be found. The most frequently mentioned companies were SAP, named just as often as the pride that the Tesla Gigafactory had been brought on board.
As was to be expected, the Berlin airport BER, the diesel scandal, the fact that the German automotive industry has lost touch with the changes in the industry, and the shift to the right and right-wing populism dominate the failures among the survey participants. The infrastructure regarding internet and broadband expansion, the mobile phone network and railways is also a cause for concern. Frustration evokes the feeling of endless discussions and slow decision-making, as well as a lack of innovation. Interestingly, the basic data protection regulation and BREXIT were mentioned equally often as a German failure.
Now imagine top talents such as a young AI researcher, a data analyst, developers of autonomous cars, or a roboticist, who want to make a difference and who just want to seize the unique opportunity to make a real impact, holding a job offer from all three countries in their hands. Furthermore, assuming that the companies in China, USA and Germany are comparable and the salaries and other fringe benefits are comparable, which country would probably choose most of these top talents? If we rely on the findings of our survey, then the region formed by Germany, Austria and Switzerland is probably not the first choice in the majority of cases.
And we have to change that.