‘Competitive After Corona’: Discusses Opportunities with SMEs

With a combined demand and supply shock, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs)  have been greatly exposed to the adversities of the pandemic outbreak. On the one hand, production has been affected by business closures, travel restrictions, and distancing requirements. On the other, containment measures have decreased demand, especially in sectors such as gastronomy or tourism. Amidst this pressure, SMEs still have to pay all their fixed costs. Despite a rollback on lockdown measures, many such enterprises are still facing challenges on how to react and adapt to the new situation. What are the lessons learnt so far? Which are the right actions? How to strengthen resilience and become more future-proof?

In July 2020,, the Centre for Digital Responsibility in North-Rhein Westphalia, addressed these questions in an online meeting together with over 130 representatives from SMEs, the NRW government, civil society, and the scientific community. Harnessing the power of digitalisation in supporting SMEs to become more resilient was at the centre of the discussions.

At the event opening, the Minister of Economics and Digital Affairs in NRW, Prof. Dr. Andreas Pinkwart addressed the participants via a recorded video, in which he explained how digital responsibility can lead to more competitiveness, including in crisis times.

Prof. Dr. Barbara  E. Weißenberger from Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, a project partner, reflected on the current state of research: “We are still observing a certain optimism regarding the economy and there is hope that we will be able to absorb a good part of the economic downturn next year. However, I consider it realistic that we will have to deal with the effects of the pandemic even by 2023 or 2024”. She added that the essential part is to focus on making companies more crisis-proof and that this requires measures to improve sustainability. In turn, higher sustainability goals are closely linked to digitalisation, concluded Weißenberger.

Tying digitalisation processes with sustainability goals is a key in With the support of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in NRW and the scientific community, is looking into the specific needs of the businesses and trying to map out solutions collaboratively with them. also intends to make existing knowledge visible and connect key players with one-another. As Wolfgang Trefzger, IHK NRW representative in the team points out: “We want to implement our work in close collaboration with the 16 IHKs in NRW. Experiences from companies that are already pioneering in sustainable digitalisation processes will be taken into account, too”.

One such example, the Cologne-based bag manufacturer FOND OF, was already presented during the online meeting. Julian Conrads and Till Hess from FOND OF shared first insights into good practices of digital responsibility and set the framework for the following discussion. The highlights of their interview are available here.

The expert panel pointed out at various pressing issues regarding digital responsibility on the SME’s side. A video, summarising their presentations is available here.

The discussion of the experts was complemented by questions and suggestions from the audience. An important consensus from the audience side was that, SMEs’ needs and opportunities are often not the focus of the public debate on digitalisation. This could be countered by actively addressing the challenges posed by sustainability and digitalisation, for example by offering products and services with added social value, the experts suggested.

The next online event, a live interview with KI.NRW, a central networking initiative in the field of artificial intelligence in NRW, is scheduled for 12 August 2020. Find out more about the event and register here. In the coming weeks, the team will visit IHK Bonn and IHK Düsseldorf to communicate project contents and receive direct feedback in interactive workshops and personal talks. – Sustainably Competitive is funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs NRW via the EFRE fund.

For further information, please contact Anna Hilger.