A merging of minds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2011, 12:00am


Four years ago, Birgit M?ller, a social anthropologist based in Paris, published her book Disenchantment with Market Economics - East Germans and Western Capitalism.

With a title that was pretty much self-explanatory, readers were not surprised to find that she posited that while Western managers regarded the expansion of their businesses towards Eastern Europe following reunification as a civilising mission, East German employees reacted with complex strategies of individual adaptation and resistance.

Today, M?ller's tome almost ranks as ancient history as eastern and western Germany, with only a slender hint of the former divide, forge a new identity on the stage of international business and commerce.

Everyone remembers the Trabant - rickety, smoky contraptions with a two-stroke engine and a superstructure that was the butt of numerous jokes. Today, they are collectors' items and museum pieces, almost a headstone on the East Germany of yesteryear, put off the road by European Union regulations and far superior technologies. The Trabant's demise was inevitable.

Taking another example, many observers thought international financial services provider Allianz was headed for trouble when it bought into the state insurer of the former East Germany. Allianz took over the offices, employees and customers of Deutsche Versicherungs and promptly had to embark on a massive campaign of training and bringing operations up to date. Computers were introduced and business methods were streamlined. Employees gradually got used to no longer being a state monopoly but a powerful private enterprise operating in a private market. Today, Allianz is recognised as one of the most respected financial services providers in Germany, and it is well known for its sponsorship of sporting events such as Formula One and the Paralympics.

From concentrating on salving the east-west divide, Germany has started to cast its eyes to broader commercial horizons.

As the largest economy in Europe, and one of the largest in the world measured by gross domestic product, it has a significant influence around the world, especially in developing countries.

Germany is already playing a significant role in trade with China, and its importance got an extra boost in June when Premier Wen Jiabao and German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed trade deals worth about US$15 billion in Berlin. They also set a target for an increase in bilateral trade, aiming for US$284 billion over the course of the next five years.

In Hong Kong, Germany will take centre stage at Business of Design Week (BODW) this winter, when it will be the expo's official partner country. 'BODW offers a unique opportunity to present German design, lifestyle and creativity and to rejuvenate Germany's image and that of its brands and products in the region,' says Andrej Kupetz, CEO of the German Design Council.

'Germany's image in Asia is largely marked by the solidity and quality of its products. At this exhibition we will tell the full success story of German products and show the latest developments and the prospects for German design in the 21st century.'

Ever since Bauhaus, German design has stood for functional and efficient forms, so it is clearly positioned internationally.

'The Americans think in different dimensions, whether it's cars or bathtubs,' Kupetz says. 'And Japanese design is similar to German, except that it tries to be more harmonious - design with rounded corners, if you want.'

Traditionally, the best examples of German design are to be found in cars, furniture, kitchens, tableware and bathrooms, although fashion accessories and lifestyle products have been catching up recently.

In the Caribbean, a different sort of German design is attracting interest. Green technology is being sought to replace oil, and the German Society for International Co-operation is supporting the development of renewable energies and the improvement of energy efficiency in 15 countries, providing know-how for the construction of wind farms, solar plants and hydroelectric power stations.