Former East Germany now a leader in tech innovation

Imagine if you will that the central part of our country, say Saskatchewan and Manitoba, had gone communist and had built a wall along their respective borders with Alberta and Ontario. Safe from outside interference, they had then exploited their resources untrammelled by the inconveniences of public

opinion or democratic elections. In the end, though, through sheer inefficiencies, the walls came tumbling down and the rest of Canada was saddled with cleaning up the economic and environmental mess those years of isolation left behind.

Sound familiar?

Well, of course. That’s exactly what happened with Germany’s agricultural and chemical resource-rich central states in what was communist-controlled East Germany.

Now, after more than 10 years of economic burden on taxpayers of the former West Germany, those central stretches including the state of Saxony-Anhalt have cleaned up their act. With much federal government help, they’ve made a promising economic recovery. Indeed, so promising their leaders may eventually help lift the moribund German economy (hovering just above 0 per cent annual growth) by applying three stratagems: innovation, technology and political leadership.

The first two you probably guessed at. But the third, having our politicos lead technological innovation, with one or two exceptions, is mostly foreign to us here.

Not so, though, in Saxony-Anhalt, as evidenced by Wolfgang Boemer. Once just an East German family doctor, Boemer stepped into political life after the walls came down in 1989 and rose up through the ranks of officialdom in his native state. He became Saxony-Anhalt’s first elected premier then climbed to represent Saxony-Anhalt nationally. He is now the President of the Bundesrat, the equivalent of, but more powerful than, our Senate.

Speaking through a translator during a Toronto visit recently, Boemer said in effect: “”Yes, we had a pollution problem in Saxony-Anhalt like the world has never known from our heavy concentration of chemical factories. But now we cluster all those plants in one park where we’ve focused our government research resources and developed technologies that scrub chemical emissions clean. So now we are planning to use that knowledge to become a world leader in environmental technology.

“”And yes, our agricultural land is still very rich and productive, but we’ve had no markets to sell our produce in. So we decided to be bold and adopt what we know is a controversial strategy to develop new markets. We are going for world leadership in genetically modified food — where we can combine both our agricultural and chemical know-how. And I believe we’ve got the collective political will to do it.””

While not all of us may applaud GM food, we can all cheer Boemer’s leadership and vision for applying technology to the task of turning vices into virtues. Similarly, why can’t we here in Canada use technology to take something we’re naturally bad at into something good for both our economy and the world? An excellent exercise for all government IT people to think about, is it not? To stimulate such thinking, here’s a few of my own suggestions: The world knows we devastate fish stocks, so why not turn that around and lead the world in sea farm technology? We’re also notorious for our “”leaky”” borders, so why not capitalize on that by developing the best border surveillance technology extant? Everyone knows us for killing baby seals, so why not develop leading-edge software to manage humane control of wildlife resources? Get the idea? Thanks for the inspiration, Dr. Boemer.

Andy Shaw is a contributing editor to Technology in Government. Please contact him at [email protected]

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