Professor Weissenberger-Eibl, the flight from Munich to Hannover takes scarcely an hour. However, you also have to factor in several hours for traveling to and from the airport and for check-in, boarding and disembarking. If you go by train, it takes roughly the same time to get from one city center to another. In that case, what’s so good about flying?
Prof. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl: For people like me who travel a lot, flying makes sense whenever you can actually save time or when there is no real alternative. I’m talking about international and transcontinental flights. For me, flying is a fascinating phenomenon and has become an integral part of our globalized society, connecting people and cultures. For domestic flights, however, you should ask yourself if flying is really the best alternative. At Fraunhofer ISI, for example, we record our environmental footprint in a sustainability report that also covers our travel activities.
How can and must the air transport system develop in the future?
Weissenberger-Eibl: Even if aviation currently accounts for “only” two percent of worldwide transport emissions according to the United Nations’ ICAO civil aviation agency, concepts are urgently required that make carbon offsetting and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions actually possible. With global aviation emissions projected to triple by 2050, it is absolutely vital to find solutions as quickly as possible. One possibility would be climate-neutral biofuel. In addition, projects that seek to increase energy efficiency should be further pursued and expanded, such as work on engine concepts that promise significant fuel savings or indeed the further development of flying wings.
For this to happen, what players are needed? What innovations? What must change?
Weissenberger-Eibl: Naturally, the first people to come to mind here are the legislators and regulators, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, but also biofuel manufacturers and suppliers as well as engine and aircraft manufacturers.
However, you have to be realistic and appreciate that genuinely revolutionary technical innovations still have to be developed first in most cases. And it is precisely this situation that underscores the importance of non-technical and organizational measures. Although emissions trading can play a supporting role here, it’s not enough to minimize emissions. We also have to fundamentally question and rethink our behavior—and that goes for all of us. At Fraunhofer ISI, we’re trying to minimize business trips wherever possible and sensible, such as by using phone or video conferences instead.
How do innovations actually arise?
Weissenberger-Eibl: Innovations are born out of a need; they develop out of a functioning technological development system and also out of application niches. They can be triggered by governments or society through means such as funding programs and investments in promising technologies. In other words, it’s mostly a case of technologies for which there is a demand, or else it arises from research and development in profit-oriented companies.
Consequently, most innovations are demand-driven, while interaction with users also plays a decisive role—something we’ve been talking about for several years now under the guise of open innovation.
What stands in the way of innovations?
Weissenberger-Eibl: Innovations are frequently impeded by regulations that exclude new technologies. Under certain circumstances, another aspect can be the high development costs or the major expenditure required to change structures within companies. However, the Innovation Indicator 2015, which Fraunhofer ISI compiled together with the Centre for European Economic Research on behalf of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and the German National Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech), also identified other obstacles to innovations, for instance, that the basic conditions for research in Germany are still in need of improvement. More investment, the continuation of research pacts, a resulting increase in planning certainty for universities and research institutes, and better coordination of federal and state governments in the field of third-level education are also having positive effects throughout the German innovation system.
Univ.-Prof. Dr. oec. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl
Univ.-Prof. Dr. oec. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl Dipl.-Kffr. (Univ.), Dipl.-Ing. (FH), Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) and Chair of Innovation and Technology Management at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).
Since 2013, Prof. Dr. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl has been Chair of Innovation and Technology Management at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), an institution devoted in particular to carrying out scientific investigations with practical relevance for its area of research. In addition, she has headed the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) since 2007, and lectured in innovation and technology management at the University of Kassel from 2003 to 2012.
Having obtained primary degrees in business management and clothing engineering, she obtained a PhD (2000) and a professorship (2003) at the TUM School of Management at the Technical University of Munich. Alongside her scientific work, she is also a member of the Supervisory Board of MTU Aero Engines AG.
What should an innovation-promoting educational culture look like?
Weissenberger-Eibl: Education is one of the main pillars of our innovation system. It forms the basis for science and business and makes a decisive contribution to Germany’s competitiveness. In international comparisons of innovation capability, Germany holds its own, but unfortunately it’s not at the very top of the table. In the abovementioned Innovation Indicator, Germany ranked fifth in the overall indicator and ranked seventh in the Education sub-indicator. For years, education was one of the biggest weaknesses in the German innovation system. And even though some things have improved here, there is still some way to go, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. In these areas, there is a lack of graduates—and we need them to successfully design and shape the energy transition, digitalization and new mobility concepts. Although I’m glad to see that there’s currently a positive development in this sub-indicator, substantial work still needs to be done in the education system.
Which areas of the aviation industry need innovation most urgently?
Weissenberger-Eibl: In my opinion, it’s vital that we continue working on changing the environmental impacts of aviation. Further innovations are needed both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and with respect to noise problems. The European aviation advisory council ACARE, for example, has committed the aviation industry to ambitious targets and published them in a Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) (see also „Saving fuel is in“).
How quickly do we need these innovations?
Weissenberger-Eibl: As quickly as possible—both from an environmental and an economic point of view. If not apparent beforehand, the Paris Climate Conference emphatically demonstrated that “business as usual” is not an option for international climate politics and the efforts to tackle climate change. At Paris, Fraunhofer ISI presented a study, carried out as part of the DecarbEE project, which revealed that by implementing suitable energy efficiency and decarbonization measures, the fast growing economies of the European Union and the USA, China, India, Brazil and Mexico could save some 2.8 billion dollars by 2030. This clearly shows that increased environmental and climate protection can also offer and release big economic potential.
In relation to the aviation industry, a stronger focus on energy efficiency targets can help get the sector fit and ready for the future and maintain its international competitiveness. The German Aviation Association (BDL) publishes an annual Energy Efficiency Report, and the 2015 edition shows that the aviation industry has recognized the need for action: for example, thanks to more efficient aircraft and engines, German airlines have reduced fuel consumption per passenger and 100 kilometers by 42 percent since 1990. However, these efforts must be redoubled and with a greater emphasis on opportunities.
The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) analyzes the genesis and effects of innovations and carries out systematic, interdisciplinary research into the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes as well as the social effects of new technologies and services. Its clients come from the spheres of business, politics and science. Some 230 people are employed at the institute’s headquarters at Karlsruhe in southern Germany.
What political, economic and social background conditions are also required?
Weissenberger-Eibl: First of all, politics—supported by research—has to recognize important stimuli and incentives for innovation and then promote this innovation, which will go on to have economic and social consequences. Let’s take as an example a topic that is very important for the aviation industry: the security of supply of raw materials. Our Raw Materials for Emerging Technologies 2016 study, which we carried out on behalf of the German Mineral Resources Agency (DERA), shows that new technologies will cause the demand for economically strategic raw materials to climb dramatically in the future. This plays a hugely important role for the strongly import-dependent German economy in particular.
For instance, sharply rising demand for superalloys in the aerospace industry over the coming years could affect the markets for special and minor metals, which would have consequences for the industry as regards technology costs. So that Germany does not fall behind internationally, politicians must act early to secure the supply of economically strategic raw materials for the sector. And politicians must also consider the fact that the implementation and market penetration of new technologies depends on acceptance among the general population. Fraunhofer ISI takes these aspects into account in its research—for example, through studies that investigate the social acceptance of innovative energy technologies such as wind power generation on the mainland.
Getting back to the air transport system: in your view, which innovation has caused the most lasting change to the industry over the past few decades? Or is this innovation yet to arrive?
Weissenberger-Eibl: The most serious change in the industry in recent times has no doubt been the rise of low-cost carriers, whose strategies and cost models threw the established airlines into a panic. From a purely market-based perspective, these developments can perhaps be viewed as a good thing, but from a sustainability point of view they are not very innovative. For such cases, innovation researchers have the expression “frugal innovations,” which are stripped back to the core aspects of products or services and achieve big market success in this way.
In the case of air transport, the budget airlines triggered a lasting trend, in that flights were reduced to their transport utility and not so much what they can offer in terms of luxury and a pleasant experience. Let’s take as an example the dropping of entertainment services or free in-flight meals. This has made flying more affordable for many people, but it has also caused aviation to lose some of its aura of being special and unusual. Some companies in the industry are now consciously bucking this trend in order to position themselves in contrast to the low-cost carriers. However, all this has tended to push aspects such as sustainability and climate protection even further into the background over the past few years. In order to be ready and equipped for the future and international competition, companies in the aviation industry should integrate these factors even more comprehensively into their overall strategy.
Carbon offsetting Compensating for carbon emissions produced by the burning of fossil fuels, e.g. by buying certificates whose proceeds fund climate protection projects such as forestation.
Open innovation Opening up the innovation process within an organization to the outside world in order to increase innovation potential.
Frugal innovations These are all about developing lean, fast and low-cost solutions, e.g. by concentrating on the bare essentials, by using existing or bought-on components, and by simplifying distribution channels.
Eleonore Fähling, is MTU’s Editor in Chief for AEROREPORT and has been in charge of the MTU employee magazine since 1999.