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„The task of the older generation is to act as motivators or facilitators“

An interview with Professor Dr. Carsten H. Hahn, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Innovation Engineering & Entrepreneurship // i2e, a professor at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, and an employee of SAP

Professor Dr. Carsten H. Hahn talks about the tasks that should be fulfilled by the older generation in order to help young people implement their ideas. He also discusses a method used in teaching called ‘action learning’ and asks what universities should be doing to prepare students for their future careers.

Hello, Professor Hahn. Your students at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences helped a team of school students called CreaBotic to develop a business model for its robot, which was designed to remove plastic litter from the beach. How did they first come together?

CreaBotic is a project team from a city called Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. It won the German heats of the World Robot Olympiad earlier this year. SAP is one of the main sponsors of the World Robot Olympiad and it offers the groups mentoring from its employees. So I was asked to look after the CreaBotic team. I knew as soon as I started talking to the group and meeting with them that this was no typical “lead user” scenario. Lead user is an innovation term developed by Eric von Hippel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to describe the innovation process for identifying novel products. You sometimes come across inventors who adapt things into new products for their own ends. The highest profile example of a lead user innovation is the mountain bike, that wasn’t even invented by bike companies but was dreamed up by individualists instead, who converted normal street bikes into vehicles for off-road use.

I could see the potential in the CreaBotic robot, but I could also see some work was still needed on the business model. How would an innovation like this be marketed? So I asked the students in the business science department to set up a design thinking workshop with the team from CreaBotic and pull in a few other experts. The outcome is sure to help the team put up a good fight at the world finals of the World Robot Olympiad in Delhi at the end of November, and maybe even win.

Young people are certainly not short of ideas, as we know from the competitions for young people at school, “Jugend forscht” (young researchers) and “Jugend gründet” (young founders). The question is, what’s being done by the older generation to support young people so they succeed with implementation?

Basically the task of the older generation is to act as motivators or facilitators. What I mean by this is that the younger generation is rarely in a position to grasp the initiative themselves. Again, CreaBotic is a perfect example of this. Sergei Buragin is a highly ambitious teacher in Neustadt and he took on this task. It’s thanks to him that the group keeps getting spurred on by new ideas, making such inventions as the robot happen by working together over many long hours. Incidentally, this team has already been involved in similar initiatives in the past. It already had its own exhibition booth at gamescom, the unique international trade show for games in Cologne.

You integrate a method called action learning into your teaching at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences. How does this benefit the students?

My lecturing has often involved visits to MIT in Cambridge (Massachusetts), where I’ve run so-called hackathons with the MBA students at the Sloan School of Management – by the way, that’s the origin of the word hacker. Hackathons are used as an instrument for teams to tackle a particular challenge, which they have to solve quickly, usually within two or three days. It’s not uncommon for them to work on the hackathon day and night. It’s important to MIT that the task the students work on is actually based on a real business scenario. MIT calls this approach action learning. It’s a method that allows students to learn from real issues as they solve them. It’s also an approach I’d like to establish at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, though I’d like to go one step further, so that we’re not just pulling in real problems from business. I’d like to teach the students entrepreneurship by involving them in a startup situation. It would allow them to work on holistic, new, innovative business models with people from SMEs, based on research findings.

We successfully submitted the idea in response to a request for proposals issued by the Ministry for Science and the Arts in Stuttgart. We’ll now be provided with resources to go toward staff and facilities over the next three years so that we can establish the action learning method on an interdisciplinary level. So it’ll span different departments at the university. One thing worth highlighting is that we’re already involved in highly constructive talks with Steinbeis on ways for the Steinbeis House in Karlsruhe to provide support in the form of co-working space. The project will run for three years and the aim is to bring SMEs on board after the funding period so that the method can be kept going in the long term.

One of the jobs of universities is to ensure young people are in good shape for the future. What methods do you think work best in doing this and what challenges do we face, given the current backdrop of digitalization?

The first thing I have to say is that the young people I’ve got to know during my time at the university have tremendous creative potential. But even then it’s essential to tap into this potential. The way I see it, creativity is one of the most important characteristics of entrepreneurial undertaking. So we have to use techniques that play to this potential. Ten years ago, my work with SAP allowed me to get to know a method from Silicon Valley. Our founder, Hasso Plattner, discovered a method called design thinking, which is how Apple goes about product development for famous products like the iPhone and iPad. He adapted it to the world of software and brought it back to Europe. Design thinking has become established as a creative technique in research and business in recent years and it’s not just used for products and software, it can also be applied to processes and strategies. We haven’t just got the design thinking method working as part of the curriculum at the university, we’ve also redeveloped it and are using it to come up with innovative business models. The response from the students has been highly positive. Digital technology is a challenge to all creative millennials to exploit their full potential. This is a generation that has grown up with digital media, so it has a completely different take on digital solutions. By bringing this together with the creative technique of design thinking, we can train outstanding new resources for future employers, especially SMEs.