Changed, changed utterly - or not? Germany's new coalition states its intentions regarding digitalisation and innovation

A view of the university city of
Heidelberg to Ludwigshafen's heavy industry

        With yesterday's official signing of the new Coalition Agreement and today's parliamentary voting on her successor, Germany's so-called 'Ampel' (traffic light) coalition struck a blow to to Angela Merkel’s chances of becoming Germany’s longest serving Chancellor, should she still be in office on 19 December to overtake Helmut Kohl. With Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat leader and current Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister, at the helm, the alliance of the Greens, yellow Social Democrats, and red FDP, represents something of a changing of the guard after sixteen years of Merkel’s CDU/CSU-dominated leadership.


    The Ampel parties face something of a challenge, not least what both public and private sectors appear to see as a looming threat: digitalisation. Despite the ‘economic miracle’ of the postwar years and the country’s success in the automotive, mechanical engineering, chemical and electrical sectors, as well as products and services such as insurance, Germany’s revealed preference appears to be for bureaucracy and risk aversion. Patent-oriented Kat readers will no doubt be familiar with the bifurcated patent procedure and its resulting injunction gap (previous IPKat coverage here).

Such issues came to the fore during the coronavirus pandemic, with many schools lacking basic equipment for remote learning and companies struggling to adapt to the Denglish construction of ‘doing Home Office’. At the same time, Germany wants to maintain its position as a heavyweight on the world stage and influence EU policy. Axel Voss MEP, for instance, is Rapporteur for the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age, whose most recent Report describes AI as the “fifth element after air, earth, water and fire”. That is to say, German ambitions do not appear to lack scale or romance.


    In more concrete terms, then, what does the coalition agreement have to say about digitalisation and innovation?


    Starting at page 15 of an over 170-page document, ‘Digital Innovation and Digital Infrastructure’ appears to be a fairly high priority, declaring that Germany needs a comprehensive digital awakening, which must nonetheless incorporate values like solidarity, respect for rights, and digital sovereignty within a European context.

1.   Digital state and administration
In order to meet public expectations of modern and manageable public administration, the parties have agreed to pursue modernisation through measures such as automation, trustworthy identity management, open standards, and a shift to the cloud.

2.     Digital infrastructure
Here, the goal is comprehensive fibre internet and the most up-to-date mobile network standard: a challenge, considering that the country remains in the 4G transition over a decade after the technology’s launch. Alongside plans for public finance and more connectivity on the national rail network, the parties stand for net neutrality.

3.     Digital citizenship and IT security
Pursuing the principle of security-by-design/default, the parties have committed to allowing encrypted communication and furthering digital sovereignty, to include the right to interoperability and portability and reliance on open standards, open source, and European ecosystems such as 5G and AI with greater independence and competence for the Federal Information Security Office.

4.     Data usage and rights
Due to the potential which data-driven technologies offer, the agreement seeks better, fairer, and competitive access to data in order to promote innovation. Meanwhile, it promotes anonymisation, greater data expertise in the administration, greater European cooperation on GDPR enforcement, the protection of employee data (perhaps a nod to recent rules requiring employers to check the covid pass status of employees wanting to work from the office), and a quick adoption of an ambitious ePrivacy Regulation (which may be futile given the limited scope of recent EU negotiation documents on the matter).

5.     Digital society
In Germany’s community and association-oriented society, it is little surprise to see the parties agree to various facets of strengthening digital civil society. Most pertinently for Kat readers, they have a range of policies regarding the Digital Services Act. These include advocating preservation of freedom of communication, strong user rights, clear reporting procedures, access to data from large platforms for research purposes, the verifiability of algorithmic systems and clear regulations against disinformation and the revision of the domestic legal framework (including the Telemedia Act, TMG and Network Enforcement Act, NetzDG). They also reject monitoring obligations, measures to scan private communications and an identification requirement, seeking to maintain anonymous and pseudonymous online usage.

6.     Key digital technologies
The parties want to invest in AI, quantum technologies, cybersecurity, distributed ledger technology, robotics, and other future technologies, and to strengthen strategic technology collaboration. This includes support for the EU’s proposed AI Act, adopting a risk-based approach to promote digital rights, legal certainty regarding liability, and the avoidance of overly burdensome regulation. They want to prohibit biometric recognition and automated state scoring systems within this framework.

7.     Sustainable digitalisation
Unsurprisingly for a coalition including the Greens, the Ampel parties want to harness the potential of digitalisation for sustainability, including promoting environmentally friendly data centres. Public data centres will introduce an environmental management system based on EMAS (Eco Management and Audit Scheme) by 2025, with federal IT procurement to be based on standards certifications. The agreement also includes an endorsement of the right to repair, with spare parts and software updates for IT devices to be made available ‘for the normal period of use’ in a transparent manner.

8.     Digital economy
The parties support a level competitive playing field in competition and advocate ambitious regulations of the Digital Markets Act, which are not to fall behind existing national rules. This also includes uniform European interoperability obligations and merger control regulation, with the Federal Competition Office to be strengthened in relation to platform enforcement. They also promote measures such as start-up financing and greater opportunities for entrepreneurial women, helping SMEs in digitisation, and the expansion of support for IT security, GDPR-compliant data processing and the use of digital technologies.

Innovation, Science, Further Education and Research

Starting boldly, the document states that ‘Germany is a country of innovation’, with strong science and research as the guarantors of prosperity, quality of life prosperity, quality of life, social cohesion and a sustainable society. The parties want to strengthen universities and universities of applied science in order to accelerate innovation and transfer, European and international collaborative networks, sex equality and diversity, and government spending on research and development.

1.     Future research strategy
Pointing to BioNTech’s successful COVID-19 vaccination, developed in Germany, the parties want a solutions-oriented science and research policy. Central priorities include: modern technologies for competitive and climate-neutral industry in Germany, clean energy, and sustainable mobility; climate, biodiversity, agriculture and food production; modernisation of the healthcare system to apply biotechnological and medical advances in a preventative manner, especially to age- or poverty-related and rare diseases; digital sovereignty and application of advances e.g. in artificial intelligence and quantum technology, for data-based solutions across all sectors; sustainable space and ocean exploration; and social resilience, sex equality, cohesion, democracy and peace. They want to strengthen European alliance and promote large-scale research facilities in order to conduct and apply biotechnological research.

2.     Innovation and transfer
The key plank of this strategy is a modern funding policy, which seeks to promote Germany as a business location as well as societal development across the country, through regional and supra-regional innovation ecosystems. It promotes the establishment of the German Agency for Transfer and Innovation (DATI) to work together with universities of applied science, small and medium-sized universities, start-ups, SMEs and social and public organisations, among others. With expansion and bundling of funding programmes, sandboxes, the establishment of thematic research lighthouses, the parties are looking to the British model of innovation regions, and place an especial focus on biotechnology – describing the BioNTech vaccine as ‘the mRNA vaccine from Mainz’.
A cultural shift is also required, in order to promote and fund spin-out companies and the infrastructure for technological and social entrepreneurship, with the parties being ‘open to the establishment of a German Tech Transfer Fund’ and supporting platforms which make unused patents known and accessible to the market, as well as improving the legal and financial framework for the Agency for Leap Innovation.

3.     Research data
The parties also wish to promote innovation through the use of hitherto-untapped research data, comprehensively improving and simplifying access to research data for public and private research with a Research Data Act and the establishment of Open Access as a common standard. They also advocate a ‘more science-friendly copyright law’ and the development of the National Research Data Infrastructure and European Research Data Space, alongside enabling data sharing of fully anonymised and non-personal data for research in the public interest.

4.     ‘Framework conditions’ for higher education, science and research
Federal-state cooperation is to be continued in order to develop a future-ready science system, including higher education budget reform. Other higher education reforms include development of the Foundation for Innovation in Higher Education, especially in the area of digital teaching, and a federal ‘Digital University’ programme with support for the expansion of innovative teaching, qualifications, digital infrastructures and cyber security. Continuing education is also a priority, such as potentially introducing micro-degrees. The Strategy for Excellence is also to be given additional funding with the goal of strengthening alliances and increasing cooperative or interdisciplinary clusters of excellence, with the Pact for Research and Innovation to be maintained and Academies of Sciences and Humanities funded analogously to the PFI. Strategic priorities include simplified and accelerated research funding procedures for crisis situations and priority areas and the reduction of bureaucracy in research and administration.

5.     Scientific working conditions
The parties see working conditions as a priority, stating that they will evaluate and reform the Act on Fixed-Term Contracts in Science and Humanities, with an early career focus to promote doctoral quality assurance as well as contractual alignment with expected research duration and greater permanence. This includes more family and disability support, the expansion of a permanent tenure-track programme, the promotion of gender equality and diversity, and standardisation of leadership and compliance.

6.     International university cooperation
International cooperation is to be made a high priority, including the defence of academic freedom at home and abroad and more dialogue on internationalisation. Alongside strengthening Erasmus+, the parties want to expand European higher education networks and deepen Bologna cooperation. In order to be attractive to international talent, administrative hurdles are to be removed and a recruitment platform for top international researchers to be introduced. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) are also to have their funding increased analogous to the Pact for Research and Innovation and significant expansion in Asia, especially China, is planned.

7.     Science communication and participation
The Ampel parties want to promote science communication and societal exchange at all levels, including anchoring it to funding approval and supporting science journalism and continued education for decision-makers (whose fruition may come as welcome news to digital policy, data protection, and AI reform advocates at the EU level). They also want to integrate perspectives from civil society more strongly into research and to strengthen Open Access and Open Science.


These proposals represent a broadly sensible attempt to address the pressing issues facing German businesses and research institutions, especially focusing on maintaining competitiveness. However, a number of points, such as what precisely a more scientifically-oriented copyright policy or greater independence for the Federal Information Security Office might actually mean, remain as yet unanswered. Other facets, such as a push towards greater access to data, represent no meaningful change of course from existing Union policies: a sign, perhaps, of change being more apparent than real. 

Changed, changed utterly - or not? Germany's new coalition states its intentions regarding digitalisation and innovation Changed, changed utterly - or not? Germany's new coalition states its intentions regarding digitalisation and innovation Reviewed by Sophie Corke on Wednesday, December 08, 2021 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Nice write-up. Many thanks, Frau Corke.

    But let's factor in the background, that the three Parties of the Traffic Light Coalition need at this point to Big Up what they agree on and keep stumm about the myriad topics on which they disagree. In the ara of "innovation" for example, consider genetic engineering. The lifesaving Pfizer vaccine was invented in Germany but a horrible lot of Green Party members (especially here in Bavaria) want nothing at all to do with biotech and in consequence are active vaccine-deniers. Living in cosmopolitan Munich though, I'm optimistic, that the Ampel will be successful, and will heal rifts in society rather than aggravating them. Germans think it vitally important for the grown ups to set a good example to the children. Will the new Government set a good example. One really does hope so.


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