Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences has been home to a Zentrum für Gesellschaftliche Innovation (Centre for Social Innovation) for two years. We spoke with Dr Andres Jain, CEO of the Salzgitter location, about the centre, its tasks and goals.
Dr Jain, what does ‘social innovation’ mean to you?
Our society is constantly changing due to a variety of influences: new trends, new ideas, important events. These changes are coming faster and faster, and they are having ever more complex effects. Combined expertise from every discipline is needed in order for us as a society to keep pace with this constant process of change and derive positive outcomes for every one of us. Some of these areas include digital transformation, healthcare or the public interest, for example.
What role does your Centre for Social Innovation play at Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences?
At Ostfalia, we bring together the expertise that various scientists have to offer, because the processes of change are so complex that a single discipline would not be able to cover them on its own. Electromobility is one current example: we are all astonished as to why electric cars hold such a small share of the market so far. I believe that there is a reason for this: many developments and innovations are driven by technology. If these are only considered from the perspective of science and engineering, the perspective of the customer’s needs is often missing. We need to place greater focus on the question of what our customers expect from new technologies, both today and in future. At our centre, we therefore combine the expertise of scientists in the humanities and social sciences and then engage in a dialogue with the field of natural science to address these precise questions.
Which questions and topics do you deal with?
It varies greatly. We look at mobility concepts, and e-mobility in particular, but also health care in rural areas. For example, ZUFOR, one of our major projects, deals with the digitalisation of vehicles and integral safety systems – and the question of how to develop them in the most practical and user-friendly way possible.
Does this make you a facilitator between those who are behind technical innovations and potential customers?
Yes, exactly. Because if a technical innovation fails to take root in society, it will be useless and fall short of its potential.
How do engineers react when you start to get involved?
Well, there might be a bit of friction (laughs). But ultimately, we do help to get the products out there to actual people. However, I have also noticed that young scientists and developers in particular are becoming more and more open to social issues. I am seeing an increasing willingness to think outside the box, and that’s a good thing.
How exactly do you deal with these issues?
First of all, the most important thing is to create a climate in which innovation is possible. Many large corporations still think too much in terms of templates – and employees with good ideas may not even dare to voice their thoughts. They are worried they could be wrong. We create an informal platform where ideas can be exchanged and a culture of innovation that doesn’t shy away from unusual solutions. Mistakes are perfectly acceptable, because you can learn valuable things from them.
Are you still looking for collaborators?
Absolutely. We will be holding a networking meeting in the autumn – and our office in Salzgitter is open to exciting ideas and projects. Anyone who is interested in participating is welcome to contact us.
A final question: what do you like most about the region here?
The research landscape is certainly one aspect. It thrills me to see that there isn’t just an incredible variety of research disciplines here, but above all a great degree of openness between the individual disciplines and departments when it comes to working together and exchanging ideas.