Theory: digitisation will revolutionise our world. Fact: it did a long time ago. In 2009, Facebook had 337 million active users; ten years later, that figure is over two billion. Ten years ago, artificial intelligence was capable of playing chess or Jeopardy; today it creates adverts, helps generate treatment plans for cancer patients, and provides high-quality text translations.


Algorithms are capable of increasingly precise analyses of collected data and transferring them into applications used by the general public, companies, and governments. These are powerful instruments we hold in our hands. They’re efficient and make very few mistakes.

But with power comes great responsibility. This technology allows a previously unheard-of level of control and monitoring of society as a whole, providing deep insights into our private lives. And it can be used to manipulate opinions and environments and cause division and inequality. The question is how to harness its power without restricting freedom, creativity, and innovation. It should be treated as an opportunity to create a better world, not a path to the apocalypse. 

The Otto Group therefore wants an interdisciplinary discussion of how to handle digitisation responsibly. After all, it’s no less than a digital transformation that, at its best, will be of great use to people and open up a new chapter in this field. The three following contributions from the Otto Group Annual Report 2018/19 consider what this could look like and what is needed for it to become reality. 

Maja Göpel

Maja Göpel, Secretary-General of the German Advisory Council Global Change

Digitisation is fundamentally changing social and economic relationships. We’ve known it for a long time, but the question of how we handle this change is far from being answered. I think a good approach would be  to look at it from a value-conservative and structurally creative perspective.  Meaning that a company should constantly  be  thinking  about  what  values it wants to create with its economic activities – whether, for example, integrity, respect, social cohesion, and ecological sustainability are part of its DNA – and whether these will remain its anchor as relationships change. 

The challenge here is to adapt structures creatively instead of just throwing your values overboard  in order to maintain business models. It’s also important to make the ideologically charged discussion about  the interaction between state and company more objective. After all, markets are also man-made structures. They should enable market players to act in a responsible and sustainable manner but should have nothing to  fear about remaining competitive. However, these days, there are significant competitive advantages for companies that externalise the costs of pollution and social security. And markets have a tendency towards the concentration of power, as shown by research into complex systems and a simple glance at the digital market. The latter is controlled by only a few people who set  the rules, such as how data will be handled or what  direction  the  development  of  working  standards  will  take.

That’s why we ultimately need a non-ideological  discussion  about  how  industrial policy,  competition policy, fiscal policy, competition law, and labour law should look like in the 21st century, in order to steer innovation and investment energy towards sustainable  solutions and business models. 

It won’t work without state regulation. At the end of the day, someone has to decide who gets access to what and under what conditions. Deregulation primarily means that  this  decision-making  authority is transferred from the state  sphere to the private sphere. And naturally someone who is profit-orientated will act very differently compared to someone who is more interested in the common  good. We are seeing a concrete example of this today in the way data is being handled. It is being described and treated as a resource or goods item, because it is profit-orientated companies in particular that are  collecting mass data and making decisions about  its use. 

But what data should belong to whom? Why and under  what conditions? I can’t keep track these days of who’s  doing  what  with  my  information  where  and  for  what price. And that’s just one of many questions that we  need new answers to, not only in terms of finances, but  also in terms of ethical, social, and ecological consequences. 

I would welcome the creation of a space like the one the Otto Group is planning, where there can be  open, honest, and transparent discussions between the state sector, civil  society, and the  private sector about the fact that we need to rethink regulation creatively in many areas in order to maintain our values in the global digital business.   

Christoph Bornschein

Christoph Bornschein, Managing Director of the digital agency Torben, Lucie und die gelbe Gefahr

From the  wheel  to  the  steam  engine  to  AI:  technological innovation is always more than  just an update of current conditions at every  level. It always also requires social, cultural and economic change – change for society as a whole. It requires every social  player to take up a position: where do we stand in times of radical change? 

It’s long  become a platitude, the fact that digitisation would be accompanied by such radical  changes. But even experts these days are surprised by the established status quo that has crept up on us. Practical service providers, social networks, cloud companies, and trading  platforms have gradually become a definitive part of digital infrastructure. Today, corporations that monopolise and commercialise the  most private of data have a huge influence on the digital revolution and changes to companies. The value DNA of these companies, their  conceptual anchoring in systems designed for  maximum growth and control – China and the USA – must inevitably lead to conflict. Europe has long held back with its own designs  for a digital future. 

It was too tempting to view digitisation primarily as a productivity-increasing update for the economy. It was too great a challenge to formulate a picture of the future for the many that offers more than risk avoidance and the hasty copying of  strategies perceived to be successful.

However, the current level of debate – from newspaper articles to Executive Boards to  the European Parliament  –  makes it clear  that acceptance of monopolising and commercialising data corporations has reached its limits. A need for viable, European alternatives has manifested itself. 

This is where companies such as the Otto Group can play a key role. Corporate Digital Responsibility understands how fundamentally digitisation is changing  society as a whole. It takes a critical look  at corporate roles and encourages social debate. The question “How  will  we  live?”  in relation to the opportunities and  consequences of  the digital revolution can  only be answered if all the relevant political, cultural, and economic players come together to discuss it.

Space to explore new possibilities is also  opening up in direct corporate action. Value-based, responsible digital business models could turn European value awareness into  a real competitive factor. One major requirement here is a new sustainable  concept of growth that places the wellbeing of society above quarterly profit across every generation.

From this position, we will be able to work out  principles for how we each handle data-based  services and products  and  come up with a joint design for a European digital  market economy. 

Without wishing to trivialise the issues, it is ultimately a question of  transformation  performance. The will is there. A start has been made.

Alexander Birken

Alexander Birken,
CEO of the Otto Group

Companies have to not only do their best to make a profit, but also be aware of their social responsibility. For decades, the history of the Otto Group has been shaped by the aim of making the environment and society a concrete part of  corporate objectives and backing this up through  major sustainable initiatives. Sustainability is at the heart of our idea of modern business. It applies to  the way we treat our planet, our commitment  to society, and, not least, to the way we treat our employees, who expect job security, fair treatment, and opportunities to unlock their potential.  

This  fundamental attitude is more important than ever today. Not just because our climate is changing in an worrying way, but also because digital transformation is causing an upheaval that is completely rewriting the rules of our lives and our business. But we are not just going to give up on our values. We are conservative in the classical sense. But we understand that this isn’t enough. We need to work on creating new framework  conditions  for a social, digital market economy. It’s  im por ant for our customers to feel safe, not as if they have to surrender their private information in order to receive good service. And other companies that sell their products on our platforms should be able to rely on the fact that we are a reliable partner who  won’t exploit our market power to their disadvantage by making conditions increasingly unfair. 

The only thing is: if we do that, it does not mean  that other companies feel obliged to create a similar moral code. And this would give rise to the question of whether this shouldn’t be mandatory for every company with a certain framework. After  all, shouldn’t the same rules apply to all? Rules that not only use the new technologies to generate  high profits, more efficiency, and speed, but also benefit people and society as a whole. But it’s not enough just to discuss if, how and when this is possible. That’s why we recently set up a Corporate Digital Responsibility initiative with the  aim of getting various players from the economic, academic, political, media, and civil sectors together to drive forward the digital socio-ecological market economy. 

We want to make the digitisation discussion more objective, leaving behind the scaremongering and  clashes between state and business. It’s about leveraging the opportunities of digitisation, minimising risks, and further advancing our free  democratic social order within this framework. It must be possible to be innovative while still acting in line with reasonable philanthropic values.

It’s clear to us that we can’t do this alone. That’s why we want to join up with partners  from – where possible – every European country to find a new way through this, ending up with a European form  of a digital market economy. It’s about time.