Philip Meier, Gemeinsam digital © HIIG

27 April 2020

"Berlin's AI ecosystem is on par with London and Paris."

It doesn't usually take much to get your company fit for artificial intelligence: _Gemeinsam digital , the SME 4.0 Competence Centre offers a comprehensive range of AI training courses, in which not only burning questions are answered, but applications are also tested together. Philip Meier is a PhD student at the HIIG and has been supporting _Gemeinsam digital since 2018 together with four other experts as an AI trainer. #ki_berlin talked to him about the work of "AI compe­tence in small and medium-sized enterprises", the development of artificial intelli­gence in Berlin, and why the city is on the same level as other major European cities.

Mr. Meier, with "AI competence in small and medium-sized enterprises" you and your colleagues are making companies in the field of artificial intelligence fit. What exactly does your training programme look like?

We have two types of offer with which we are supporting the participating SMEs. The aim of the first type is to better understand the different situations in which the vari­ous companies find themselves in the context of this so-called artificial intelligence. In other words, what the company representatives understand by the term, which immediate fields of application they see, and which activities have been or will be initiated in their own company. For this purpose, we invite company representatives to our AI consulting hours physically or digitally for a one-hour conversation at the HIIG. On that basis we develop learning materials or further qualification measures.
Own qualification measures are the second type of offer. Here our focus is clearly on knowledge transfer. In close cooperation with our AI trainer colleagues from the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Potsdam, we have established a wide range of fur­ther training courses. It offers formats both for company representatives who wish to gain an initial overview of the topic and for those who are already well-informed and for example want to get started with a specific project. The HPI offers a workshop-based introductory series to convey basic knowledge as well as a 3-day intensive seminar in which the AI trainers and company representatives develop applications for use in the company based on real company data. At the HIIG we offer, in addition to the consultation hour, further in-depth workshop series on individual key compo­nents in the context of AI, such as automatic image recognition.
We generally invite every SME to our consultation hours, regardless of their own assessment of the topic of AI, since the focus here is on broadening public under­standing, especially for the targeted design of future funding measures and pro­grammes.

How is the development of artificial intelligence in companies in the Berlin-Brandenburg region proceeding according to your experience? Do the differ­ent companies have similar starting points and developments that you have observed?

Of course, we have not examined a representative population, but we do recog­nize several trends - especially based on the consultation hours. I would like to high­light three points:
Drive is needed for the topic from the management. We talked to open-minded and inspiring CEOs and learned that these people often do not lack ideas and visions for using different AI applications in their companies. They start small pilot projects and initiatives for the further education of their employees and actively participate in fur­ther education formats like those in our competence centre.
These same people, and this is the second point, often directly associate AI with automation, efficiency gains and cost savings. No one can blame them, because SMEs are naturally very efficiency-driven and do not have the innovation budgets of large corporations. Nevertheless, in our formats we try to raise awareness beyond the pure efficiency gain from process automation to look at technological develop­ments with a more holistic view of their own business model and, in this context, to raise questions of sustainability for example.
The third point and the most frequently mentioned obstacle to the development and also the use of new AI applications is a lack of resources. The time that the respec­tive managing directors themselves and their employees can invest, money to implement projects and access to well-trained personnel with AI know-how play a limiting role. The lack of new manpower with AI know-how has been mentioned par­ticularly often as an urgent need and should, in my view, be the focus of future sup­port measures.
Obviously these observations are subject to a certain bias, as we tend to be con­tacted by company representatives who are already rather open-minded, and so it is not surprising that there is already an interest in AI. Therefore, we are increasingly actively addressing as diverse a group of companies as possible to broaden our understanding.

How much in demand is your offer among SMEs in Berlin?

In general, demand for our offers is good. This applies both to the general offer of the competence centre and to the offers from the AI trainer programme in particular. Registrations for our workshops and seminars usually exceed the number of avail­able places. It remains to be seen how things will develop in times of COVID-19. For example, we are already working on a purely digital format for the advanced work­shops, but we cannot yet say how this will be accepted. The number of registrations for the consulting hours has decreased a little in the last few weeks, but since this week it has been increasing again. We still have free capacity, and I would like to take this opportunity to call on readers of the interview to participate. The registration can be done on our website.

As an AI trainer you have a good overview of developments and the AI scene in Berlin. How do you perceive the local AI ecosystem and medium-sized enter­prises as one element of this?

I think this question contains two important aspects, which I would like to answer individually. Firstly, I find the Berlin AI ecosystem to be very innovative, strongly growing and on a par with London and Paris in a European comparison. However, this is primarily driven by attractive and innovative start-ups like Merantix or Peregrine Technologies, as well as by national and international technology groups like Google, Amazon, Volkswagen or Lufthansa, which have opened technology hubs here. In response to the second aspect of the question, the role of medium-sized enterprises, I would like to take a differentiated look at the concept of medium-sized enterprises. Germany’s “Mittelstand”, or medium-sized enterprises, is often rightly referred to as "hidden champions", companies with usually a few thousand employ­ees, industrial orientation and several (hundred) million euro of turnover through international trade. In these companies, I see a strong commitment to the ecosystem through collabora­tion with start-ups as well as own activities, similar to the activities of corporations.
What I find particularly exciting here is the first collaborative approaches of several medium-sized enterprises which are jointly running AI initiatives for their industry or sector. Viessmann's “Maschinenraum“ ("engine room") is a good example of this. Within the competence centre we work with small and medium-sized enter­prises (SMEs); according to the EU definition, these are companies with up to 250 employ­ees and an annual turnover of up to 50 million euro. This group includes, for exam­ple, the hairdressing salon around the corner, the local bakery with four branches or various marketing and film agencies. As described in question 2, these companies often lack the necessary resources to develop their own AI applications. Neverthe­less, in my view SMEs can play an important role in the ecosystem in the future as users and partners. There is still potential for the digitisation of processes, products and services in many of these companies, and this usually offers accompa­nying opportunities for problem-centred development and the use of new AI solutions by start-ups, for example.
One case I find exciting is the Berlin start-up Zeitgold, which helps SMEs to optimize their administrative processes with an AI-supported accounting app. SMEs are inter­esting user groups because, among other things, these companies are often willing to conduct experiments, try out products and services and implement new systems in an uncomplicated way after a positive economic evaluation.

How did you come to the competence centre and your work as an AI trainer?

I have been working as a PhD student at the HIIG since March 2018, and since then I have also been working at the Mittelstand 4.0 Competence Center Berlin. Before I came to the Institute, I had the opportunity to spend two years helping to build up the Group Digital Division at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg. In addition, I worked for several months in various technology start-ups and in consulting, in each case at the inter­face between strategic and technical areas of responsibility. When we applied for the AI trainer programme last year as representatives of the Berlin Competence Center together with the HPI, I was involved from the very beginning and was of course very happy when we were awarded the contract and I was allowed to take on the role of one of the AI trainers. Despite, or perhaps because of my not too straightforward career path, in which I have gained theoretical and profes­sional knowledge in tech­nology, management and design topics, I feel very well pre­pared to support and accompany SMEs as an AI trainer.

Last but not least: What's your prediction on the use of AI in the near future?

The many motivated, open-minded, ambitious entrepreneurs with whom we work together make me feel very positive. It is unlikely that traditional SMEs will become large-scale suppliers of AI applications. However, I do think that the increasingly easy usability of new applications via the lever of process optimization and cost reduc­tion will be used more and more in SMEs. For SMEs which then also take the next step and look into how their own business model can be further developed through new technologies, I see the best opportunities especially in Berlin to secure the future of their own companies by networking with sponsors, start-ups, universities and with each other.

Many thanks for the interview.