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Paths to the Great Transformation


At the Alpbach Technology Talks 2021, possibilities, opportunities and obstacles for the transformation of the economy and society as a result of the challenges posed by decarbonization and digitalization were highlighted. Not least, the Corona crisis shows how crucial science, research and technology are for solving the challenges of the future.

"Welcome back!" With this greeting, Wolfgang Knoll, Scientific Director of the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, opened this year's Alpbach Technology Talks. His joy at being able to look into the faces of the participants and discussants in 3D again after a year's break due to Corona was fully reciprocated by them. Only about a third of the participants and discussants who had come to the Tyrolean mountains before the pandemic were present. But this did not detract from the exciting debates in the nine plenary sessions with a total of 45 speakers and just as many break-out sessions and workshops. The debates were also accessible via the Internet - a hybrid format that once again proved its worth.

The Technology Talks, organized by AIT together with ORF Radio Ö1, were held - as they have been for 37 years - as part of the European Forum Alpbach. The general theme was "The Great Transformation", and the declared aim was to develop solutions for Europe together with the next generation, as the new Forum President Andreas Treichl explained. Decarbonization and digitalization in particular are currently driving major transformation processes in society and the economy. "Technology is very important and a great help in this - we are doing everything we can for the best technical solutions. But in the end, we also have to change ourselves - how we consume, how we use resources, how we deal with change," Knoll said, outlining the problem. We need to move toward a holistic approach that includes different disciplines, including the arts, and a human-centered approach, he said.

Wolfgang Knoll at the Alpbach Technology Talks

"Welcome back!" With this greeting, Wolfgang Knoll, Scientific Director of the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, opened this year's Alpbach Technology Talks.

A "triumph of research

The Corona crisis was not only present in the form of rigorous controls on PCR testing at the entrance to the congress center and by wearing FFP2 masks indoors, it was also omnipresent in the substantive debates. In particular, the fact that science was able to develop a vaccine against it so quickly. "Science saved the world's butt," said, for example, the former president of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, Jürgen Mlynek. For Hannes Androsch, "Mr. Technology Talks" (© moderator Rosa Lyon), vaccines are a "triumphant example of the fact that major challenges can only be overcome with research and science. "We can't do enough research and give enough importance to science," he said. It was a view echoed by Christoph Huber, co-founder of vaccine manufacturer BioNTech. He told the eagerly listening audience about the factors that interacted to bring an effective vaccine to market so quickly - above all: decades of basic research, cooperation with pharmaceutical companies, access to financing, the right regulatory framework and a portion of luck.

Corona brought science to the center of society

Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council (ERC), described one of the consequences of the Corona pandemic as follows: "Science has thus arrived at the center of society. Admittedly, this is true not only for the Corona crisis, but to at least the same extent for climate change. The scientific evidence is now clear - humans, by burning fossil fuels, are a major driver of global warming with all its consequences. But this does not tell us how the necessary "green transformation" of the economy and society can and should be shaped. The climate system is linked to the economic system, which in turn is inextricably interwoven with society - and society is the most complex system of all, as Stefan Thurner, head of the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, explained. The solution, he said, is to change people's behavior and habits in such a way that the socioeconomic network changes in such a way that the climate system is relieved. The main problem with this, he said, is timing: "Climate change will produce social stress, and in order for that stress not to be too great, the behavioral changes have to go slowly enough. But the turnaround has to be fast; we don't have 50 years left." The setting of the subsequent discussion on how this transformation could be shaped was highly innovative: the helm was left to climate activist Katharina Rogenhofer (Klimavolksbegehren, Fridays for Future), who, after a brief presentation of her position, asked the other panelists from the fields of politics, industry, finance and science questions about what was progressing in their areas in terms of climate protection or where there were problems.

Alpbach Technology Symposium EFAtec

Technologies play a decisive role

How this transformation could be shaped was discussed in several plenary sessions and examined from different perspectives. "Climate protection is no longer a question of "if", but of "how", said Christoph Neumayer, Secretary General of the Federation of Austrian Industries. From the industry's point of view, the factors of money and time would have to be reconciled. "Technology and innovation play a crucial role in this."

The politicians who came to Alpbach also agreed with the last point. "The Green New Deal requires a digital and green transformation towards climate neutrality. We need new technologies - solutions that move us forward in climate protection," emphasized Leonore Gewessler, Federal Minister for Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology. In many areas, the necessary technologies would already be known as the results of research & development over decades - "it's all about doing". At the same time, new research budgets would be made available for the areas of mobility, energy and the circular economy - a total of 100 million euros (including funds for green startups).

"Every euro we have spent on research and development in recent decades has paid off," Economics Minister Margarete Schramböck also expressed her conviction. "We have to conduct research in a technology-neutral and open manner, because we don't know what results we will need," she clarified. On the fringes of the Technology Talks, Education Minister Heinz Faßmann, together with Christof Gattringer, the new President of the Austrian Science Fund FWF, presented an important milestone for Austrian science in the direction of excellence: According to this, 37 research teams have submitted proposals for a "Cluster of Excellence": Starting in 2023, three or four such clusters are to receive high long-term funding - Faßmann expects this initiative to have "socially interesting implications." Meanwhile, Peter Schwab, a member of the Management Board at voestalpine and Chairman of the AIT Supervisory Board, drew attention to the fact that in addition to cutting-edge research, there also needs to be an industry in the country to implement the results. "Without production, there can be no innovations," he emphasized. Therefore, production must be increasingly brought back to Europe.

Artificial intelligence and quantum computing

The second major driver of the upcoming transformation was also discussed in detail at the technology talks: digitization. On the one hand, the federal government's new strategy for artificial intelligence ("Artificial Intelligence Mission Austria 2030" / AIM AT 2030) was presented on the fringes of the Alpbach Forum - with the goal of using AI in a way that is oriented toward the common good and benefits Austria as a business location and its competitiveness. On the other hand, the plenary session "Quantum Computing" gathered the who-is-who of the relevant European research and technology scene to discuss recent progress and priorities for the near future. In the eyes of Otmar Wiestler, President of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centers, quantum research has a special feature: namely, that basic research and product development go hand in hand.

The plenary session "The Art of Radical Change" led to a change of perspective. Gerald Bast, Rector of the University of Applied Arts Vienna, and Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, Director of the Vienna Biennale for Change, argued that methods of art (such as holistic vision and creative approach) are complementary to methods of science and thus can help to master a future characterized by complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. "You have to have the mindset of a scientist, but also of an artist, an artist, to understand our problems today, and oscillate back and forth in between," Katja Schechtner, mobility researcher at the MIT Senseable City Lab, put it, for example.

New ideas for the future

The break-out sessions accompanying the plenary program were also devoted to numerous aspects of the general theme of "Great Transformation. Smaller groups discussed, for example, mobility technologies, new ways of learning, urban planning of the future, digitization in Europe and the issue of plastic waste. Great importance was attached to the decarbonization of industrial processes: At the invitation of the NEFI Innovation Network (New Energy for Industry), the prerequisites for the energy turnaround in industry were discussed - in order to increasingly apply contemporary, low-CO2 energy technologies in industry. Wolfgang Hribernik, Head of AIT Center for Energy and NEFI network coordinator, summarized one essence of the debates as follows: "Supplying industry with 100 percent renewable energy is possible."

Also awarded at the technology talks were much sought-after "Tickets to Berlin", i.e. qualification for the Falling Walls Summit in Berlin in November, where research stars and young researchers from all over the world will present and discuss their work. One of these tickets was secured by AIT researcher Patrik Aspermair, who took part in the I.E.C.T. Summer School with an idea for novel and cost-effective odor sensors and beat off strong competition from all over Europe.

Building with glass front in a hill covered with green grass

"Supplying industry with 100 percent renewable energy is possible." Wolfgang Hribernik, Head of AIT Center for Energy and NEFI Network Coordinator

Alpbach Technology Talks 2021

The Alpbach Technology Talks, organized by the AIT Austrian Institute of Technology and ORF Radio Ö1, took place for the 38th time this year on August 26 and 27 as part of the European Forum Alpbach. The theme of this year's talks is "The Great Transformation". Technologies such as digitization, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and life sciences play a central role in all transformation processes of the economy and society and are discussed in detail at the Technology Talks.

Human Centered Innovation Yearbook

A fundamental principle in any transformation must be that people, with their needs and values, are at the center of attention from the very beginning. This is the only way to ensure that technology serves people - and not the other way around. The yearbook "Discussing Technology", which was made available free of charge in printed form to all participants of the Alpbach Technology Talks 2021, is also dedicated to this topic of "Human Centered Innovation". It is also available in bookstores (Holzhausen, 172 p., 36 euros, ISBN 978-3-903207-59-2).