Opening speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the first Business Forum on Digital Innovation, IT and Communications Technology

25.09.2015 - Speech

Mr Dirks,
Ladies and gentlemen,

The world is mobile. The world is online. There are some 6.8 billion mobile phones in the world – nearly as many as there are people.

When Apple brought mobile internet access to our pockets with the iPhone around seven years ago it was not only a technological milestone. The rapid spread of smartphones also constituted part of a fundamental game-changer for politics and in particular foreign policy.

Would we have seen the revolutions in the Arab world develop in the same way if the images of the self‑immolation of vegetable seller Bouazizi in Tunisia had not spread throughout the internet in no time at all?

Or take the refugee crisis. For many refugees, a smartphone is one of the most important items they take with them. It often serves as a compass. They stay in contact with family and friends via their phone, and pass on information about the next stages. That offers opportunities but also poses great risks and dangers, because of course smugglers also use mobile communication for their dangerous and cynical business.

These examples illustrate the significance – and opportunities – of digital innovation and ICT for foreign policy.

As one of the most‑connected countries in the world, Germany is particularly affected by these global developments. And I am thus delighted, Mr Dirks, that we are here together with the German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media e.V. to dedicate a first Business Forum to these topics.

Let me wish you all a very warm welcome to the Federal Foreign Office!


Ladies and gentlemen,

The digital revolution is causing fundamental economic, but also social changes in our country. That is why, last week, the Federal Cabinet adopted important rules and measures for the Digital Agenda: from a reliable legal framework for public WiFi to setting out the parameters for the European Digital Single Market. State Secretaries Zypries and Steinlein will explain more about this over the course of the conference.

In our ministry – in the Federal Foreign Office – it is crucial for us to keep an eye on the innovative developments abroad and to actively mirror them in our own country. It’s clear that our model of prosperity depends on our ability to innovate.

It’s good news to hear that your sector isn’t doing badly. In the first half of this year alone, exports of ICT products and consumer electronics were up by 13 percent. Other industries can but dream of such growth figures. Currently, it’s foreign trade that’s giving ICT suppliers strong impetus in Germany.

We diplomats also need a better understanding than we previously had of what exactly the digital revolution entails. Over the past two years, I have made sure that the 220 Federal Foreign Office missions abroad are committed to doing just that.

However, in order to carry out our task to the very best of our ability, we need to talk to you, the entrepreneurs, to hear your assessment of the market developments.

The giant industry players and the SMEs – everyone is competing over the top positions in the fourth industrial revolution. I believe we have the frontrunners in this race, or at least the vast majority of them, here with us today. We would thus like to hear from you and to understand how we can best support our companies on the global market.

Digitalisation, Industry 4.0 – these are relatively new playing fields within foreign trade and investment promotion. For decades, our promotion instruments have been used in classic fields such as machine engineering or the energy industry. But something which works for constructing power plants in Latin America or motorways in Asia is not necessarily suitable for the new business models of the digital market.

We, too, need new forms of networking, of advertisement and political flanking measures. We want to discuss with you what form this could take.

And we want to focus on Africa in particular.

I have visited some 15 African countries since entering office. My next trip is planned for November – to Uganda, Zambia and Mozambique. One phenomenon particularly impressed me during all of these trips, that of ‘leapfrogging’. Something which may sound like the activity we remember from sports lessons at school stands for a development which – happily – has nothing to do with gymnastics.

In certain areas, Africa manages to leapfrog stages of the development process and to come up with digital solutions which are not adjustments to our technology but rather its own developments. Africa is a diverse continent, showing astounding economic development in certain parts. And war and poverty in others. Currently, six of the 11 most rapidly growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. This development presents great opportunities for German companies.

At the same time, as foreign policy makers we’re naturally very interested in ensuring that this economic growth goes hand in hand with broad social participation and as much stability as possible so that these African countries can enjoy peace and prosperity.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To conclude I’d like to share a thought on the keyword ‘participation’: access to the internet means access to information, networks, jobs – everything we need to forge ahead in modern society.

The internet is a global common good. It has always crossed borders. It has grown in a decentralised fashion. It doesn’t belong to anybody. And in order for that to remain the case, policy makers also have to step up to the mark. We’re working for a free, open, safe and stable cyberspace. But we cannot do it alone. We’ll only be able to counteract those who do not view this matter with the same sensitivity if we act not as Germany alone but together with our European partners. That is necessary.

Today the internet has around two and a half billion users. In five years’ time, it will be more than double that number. The bigger the network becomes, the more it will need rules. And institutions, which can uphold these rules. And we’ll have to think all the harder about how we can shape this rapidly growing net, if not democratically – I’m under no illusions of doing that – but at least how we can protect it and prevent the empowerment of the few big players from ultimately restricting the access to and use of it for individuals.

I hope that we have support in this matter. Together with Brazil, we sponsored a resolution on this in the UN General Assembly. It won’t change the world immediately, but we want to use it as a basis to raise awareness about the need to focus more on rules. And if the network is global, then the rules need to be global, too. These standards cannot be developed by policy makers without dialogue – with companies, the very people who make the technology.

That’s also why we’re here today.

I hope we will enjoy informative discussions.

Thank you very much!

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