Innovation in the heart of Bavaria. Middle Franconia: A look at the region’s past and future

An interview with Pierre Leich

Hello Mr. Leich, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. The Nürnberg metropolitan area is highly innovative. Why do you think that is?

I think what it comes down to is that the collaboration between science and industry in this region genuinely works. You can see evidence of this going all the way back to the late Middle Ages and the early modern era. Take the free imperial city of Nürnberg, which was definitely one of the great geographic hubs of Europe. This meant the city was constantly exposed to new ideas and influences. But Nürnberg itself also had a great deal to offer.

We’re conducting this interview on February 19. Nicolaus Copernicus was born exactly 545 years ago today. In 1543, he completed his major work in the shadow of the Kaiserburg castle in Nürnberg.

© Pierre Leich

Pierre Leich – Project manager at kulturidee GmbH.

Nikolaus Copernicus etablierte das moderne Weltbild der Erde, die sich als Planet um die Sonne dreht.
© Fotolia

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 – 1543) etablierte das moderne Weltbild der Erde, die sich als Planet um die Sonne dreht.

Johannes Kepler fand heraus, nach welchen Gesetzmäßigkeiten sich die Planeten bewegen. Diese nennt man Keplersche Gesetze.
© Fotolia

Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) fand heraus, nach welchen Gesetzmäßigkeiten sich die Planeten bewegen. Diese nennt man Keplersche Gesetze.

Dieter Seitzer ist Gründer des Fraunhofer IIS und Förderer des mp3-Formats.
© Fraunhofer IIS

Prof. Dieter Seitzer (geboren 1933) ist Gründer des Fraunhofer IIS und Förderer des mp3-Formats.

But let’s turn back to today, and specifically to the relationship between population and economic power. Measured by the number of patent applications, Middle Franconia is the strongest of all 88 regions in Germany (each region has its own chamber of industry and commerce). This is due to Siemens and Schaeffler, but also to scientific institutions such as the Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg and especially Fraunhofer IIS.

Where does this passion for innovation come from? Is it the connections and collaborations? Or is it also the people?

To be honest, I believe there are innovative people in all regions. But what makes this region noteworthy is perhaps the healthy mix of scientific institutions whose employees take an application-oriented approach. Plus, we have here our share of big industry alongside a phenomenal number of SMEs. I’m more inclined to emphasize the multilayered nature of the structure than the genius of individuals.

Does the Franconian mentality play a role here?  We’re known for being rather stubborn ...

That’s hard to say. When it comes to new ideas, we also have a reputation for focusing on flaws and playing down the good points so that no progress is made. But I think that we’re increasingly more interested in underlining the strengths rather than the drawbacks.

And of course in thinking in terms of practical application. After all, inventions alone won’t pay the bills. Perhaps it’s time to reestablish this practical approach as a regional trait. One that means we don’t get too bogged down in the theory, but instead ask right away what the practical application might be.

Where do you think the region is headed? Is Franconia becoming even more innovative?

Personally, I was pleasantly surprised that the map of “hidden champions” – in other words, of market-leading SMEs – has a heavy concentration in Upper Franconia. Perhaps this is a sign of the stubbornness you mentioned. Over the years, slowly but surely, large companies have emerged there and are now global market leaders in their segment.

Germany does not have much in the way of natural resources and the level of our wages means we can hardly be the world’s factory. That just leaves innovation: coming up with clever ideas and putting them into practice. And that’s where I’d say our region is on the right track.

What role does Fraunhofer IIS play in all this?

Fraunhofer IIS is a major economic force. The institute provides hundreds of jobs, collaborates with numerous companies in the region and is an incubator for a wealth of new business ideas.

Most people are unaware of the scientific work we do here. One move to change this is the Long Night of the Sciences.

Yes, that’s right. A prime example is mp3. Everyone knows what it is, but until a couple of years ago, no one knew that it was invented in the Nürnberg metropolitan area. The Long Night of the Sciences is an opportunity for public research institutions to show where public funds go, and companies can present themselves as innovative employers. Besides, people are growing more interested in science.

How has the Long Night of the Sciences evolved since it started in 2003?

The number of visitors has grown steadily from 12,000 to now over 30,000. Leaders at key institutions – from the university and also from Fraunhofer – were on board early on. The Long Night is not a purely academic event, but rather an inclusive one that allows us to provide a multifaceted picture of modern science.

Yet another example of mutual support in the region.

Yes, the level of collaboration is impressive. It’s a network that has developed over hundreds of years and there are many who envy us for it.

At the last Long Night of the Sciences, Fraunhofer IIS in Erlangen set up a camera to record what visitors want technology to offer. There were plenty of good ideas; which ones did you like?

Well, I think we’ll probably have to wait a while for the teleporter. But robotics is obviously a current topic. I also liked some of the ideas for the home: “We’d like to have an automatic sock pairer for our sons’ socks.” That goes right along with the wish another visitor had for a way to have clothes put themselves away.

And do you have a wish that you’d like science to fulfill?

I’d like a way of connecting my subconscious to my computer overnight, so that my computer can tell me in the morning what I should write and I just have to say “Great – I couldn’t have put it better myself.” (laughs)

Turning to inventions, have there been any surprising inventions to come out of this region?

It’s a commonly held belief that the globe was invented here, but that’s definitely not the case. The globe was probably invented in northern Italy. It is true that Nürnberg is home to the world’s oldest surviving globe, the Behaim globe. But it was just a few months ago that we learned that the personal organizer was invented in this region. A helpful little item that most of us carry to keep track of appointments, and the inventor was from this region.

That must have been a very well-organized Franconian!

(laughs) Exactly!

And something we can aspire to also in the future. Thank you for talking to us today.

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