daily briefing

Analog Germans with digital cash

Workers clean the street after Greenpeace activists painted it yellow in a protest to call for quick exit to coal fired power in Berlin
It was supposed to look like the sun. Source: Reuters

The so-called “digital cabinet” of Chancellor Angela Merkel meets today for the first time, offline and face to face. Now, stay polite. This doesn’t mean that the German government only just heard about this new phenomenon, which Germans awkwardly call “digitalization.” Rather, it means that they’re admitting that Germany is way behind in adopting digital technologies, and that they’re eager to catch up.

That’s why Merkel put her chief of staff, Helge Braun, in charge of coming up with a digital strategy. Braun just met with Handelsblatt to sketch out his plans, and he chose an interesting metaphor. What he wants is a “digital Airbus project for Europe.” Airbus, of course, is seen as a rare European success story in catching up technologically (in aerospace) with America’s Boeing. It is also a model for different European countries cooperating commercially to match the scales of America or China.

In practical terms, this digital Airbus will apparently take the form of a network of research labs for Artificial Intelligence, led by Germany and France but open to the smaller countries. It’s tempting to sneer at these top-down attempts at innovation by government decree – until you remember that even the Internet was born out of ARPANET, a project of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Could you fax me that?

But lest you get carried away with digital optimism, remember what real life is like in Germany. When I worked for a British company, I filed my expenses by uploading a PDF file; now, in my German company, I print out PDFs, sign them by hand, then send them off for processing in what is literally called “a suitcase.”

Or take money. In China, most people already pay for stuff with their mobile phones, using Alipay or WeChat or something similar. Millions of Africans transfer money with a mobile service called M-Pesa. In Sweden, many stores don’t even accept cash anymore, because it’s too cumbersome and most Swedes don’t carry it. But Germans? They still use coins and bills: 74 percent of transactions last year were settled with cash. That’s why it takes so long to be in line at Starbucks here.

So I’ll be watching curiously how Google Pay develops. Its German service was launched yesterday. For now it works only on Android phones, but an iOS version is sure to follow. And Apple Pay is rumored to be close behind. The technology will be the easy part; the hard part will be culture. READ MORE

Good idea, bad execution

Remember that “coal commission” I wrote about in yesterday’s Daily Briefing? It’s supposed to come up with a plan for Germany to phase out using lignite and anthracite in generating power. Well, the folks at Greenpeace decided to play a prank to motivate the commissioners.

Yesterday, they dumped 3,000 liters, or about 17 bathtubs worth, of yellow paint on the circular traffic ring around Berlin’s Victory Column. From above, it was supposed to look like a sun, you see. The activists made sure passers-by understood that by holding signs that said “sun instead of coal.” People and cars started skidding. One woman on a bike wiped out and spent a few minutes on the ground in shock.

But Berlin, which is otherwise notorious for incompetent public services, snapped into action. A fleet of imposing vehicles showed up in a flash and started wiping. The incentive: The Victory Column marks one end of the “fan mile,” the other end being the Brandenburg Gate. And that’s where the crowds will start gathering in a few hours, to watch, and maybe celebrate, Germany play South Korea.

To subscribe to this newsletter, or learn about our other newsletters, click here.

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!