Among change-makers: Learnings from re:publica Berlin

re:publica is not your average industry event – really, it is more of a festival. Except the people you are coming to see are not musicians; they are experts, activists, journalists, and leaders. Make no mistake, the event is still jam-packed with knowledge, inspiration, and aspiration disguised as a casual festival serving vegetarian and vegan food, providing refill stations for water bottles, and encouraging you to take a breather in a beach chair or check out art exhibits to regroup and digest this compact infusion of knowledge.    

re:publica: An event for all those who want better 

re:publica is the festival for the digital society, an event that attracts a broad audience, from politicians and journalists to public organisers and the tech scene. The attendees are just as diverse as the speakers and come together for three full days to network, get inspired, build better, and learn.

The talks across six stages and several lightning boxes, meet-ups, and workshops provided such a broad range that choosing which talk to attend really does become a challenge. The upside: with so many good offers, it is almost impossible to choose poorly. This is not an exaggeration, during prime-time slots between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon, the choice was often between 21 (!) co-occurring talks, panels, and workshops.

From this impressive line-up, my colleague Bastian Meger and I learned about the current state of the European AI Act. Jen Gennai, Google’s Director of Responsible Innovation, shared their process for assessing technologies and their impact. Journalists transparently spoke about the challenges of editorial selection when so many pressing issues demand attention and teams are simultaneously shrinking. New Work Panels discussed measures that would improve the day-to-day, with measures ranging from DE&I initiatives to mental health first-aiders.   

Rediscovering the power of work 

Surprisingly, the future of work touched more conversations and panels than expected. While the EU parliament has drafted the AI act to outline the legal boundaries, trying to cap the most harmful effects on its citizens’ lives, labor unions, academics and employers are hashing out the organizational framework for AI in the workplace. The primary concern speakers cited was not the fear of artificial general intelligence (AGI) but rather the scope of responsibility AI should be allowed to carry.  

The potential for relief and the excitement of tech enthusiasts itching to play with and introduce automation into their workplace is great. Not to mention the positive examples of AI applications, like work schedules that automatically take into account individual employee preferences such as school pick up and drop off, which could both improve satisfaction among employees and lessen emotional burden on managers. However, using AI to make recommendations, whether that be strategic business decisions or employee reviews, is a much stickier question and it goes to the core of a recurring question at re:publica: When and where do people choose to spend their resources? And in the case of AI, when are we okay to reduce our involvement? 

The question of when and where people apply their skills and labor resources came up in the context of sustainable development frequently. As activists and venture capitalists noted – more people are using their own skilled labor as a way to further the cause. When pitted against each other, employers who have a convincing mission or drive change come out on top; companies that are perceived to be harmful are bleeding employees.

The panel “10 Steps for a better workplace” with Magdalena Rogl (Diversity & Inclusion Lead at Microsoft), Sara Weber (Author and Journalist), Nina Straßner (Global Head of People Initiatives at SAP) and Sue Reinke (Diversity & People Experience Strategist) further touched on this notion. Companies across all branches are noticing the shift around new work as a force to be reconned with, not laughed at. Among the critical paradigms for a more equitable workplace, the speakers cited time. Yes, this includes flexible working hours, but it is so much more nuanced than that. We heard questions like: What constitutes work and when should it be tracked? Is a walk that sparks the solution to a problem work or time off? Are generic mental health days helpful or should employees be supported on an individual basis? Should positions, especially upper management, be posted as part-time by default?   

These panels posed interesting and thought-provoking queries with no easy answers. But they all provided little puzzle pieces for attendees to take on and where possible bring into their workplace. 

Stepping out of the bubble to spark ideas 

Attending an event in a professional capacity obviously presupposes some benefit. In this case, the benefits for our business are not easily measured. re:publica doesn’t generate leads, but it tugs at the creative side. After hearing the insights from journalists across different outlets, the event has broadened our perspective on pitching and heavily influenced our approach to new topics. We have a new frame of reference for our content and how our clients can support this. At re:publica we stepped outside of our usual tech-business bubble, hearing and observing different capabilities of technology. This has helped to shift and transform our mindset and we would absolutely recommend it.