Digital communication overcomes boundaries – across all industries

All-inclusive on Ibiza, last-minute to Mexico, luxury in Dubai – promises big destinations at small prices. The online travel market, which searches for package holidays, flights and hotels on relevant websites such as Holidaycheck, Momondo and Travelbird, is one of Germany’s leading travel portals with more than seven million Facebook fans and 22 million page views per month. started in summer 2012 as a blog, in which school friends Daniel Krahn and Daniel Marx wrote about cheap holiday deals.

Their start-up Uniq now employs almost 200 people in Holzwickede and Unna. It is their job to fish ‘the best deals’ from the Internet and show them to sun worshippers, backpackers and educational tourists. Online magazines and apps round off the service and dedicated sites have been created for special target groups under the brands Captain Kreuzfahrt, FashionFee, Prinz Sportlich and Mein Haustier. As a result of its success, Uniq has now become a kind of model digital company. This has already led to Daniel Krahn being appointed to the Senate of Economy, which serves as a source of ideas for the world of politics and business.

The fact that Krahn and Marx, both children of the Ruhr region, set up their first office in an old building in the Unna district of Königsborn was not solely due to their emotional attachment to the place they call home. ‘The Ruhr metropolitan region is pretty much the City of Cities – with more than 50 towns and cities, millions of inhabitants and huge potential,’ say the men, explaining their reasons for choosing the location. ‘The region has one of the best university networks in the whole of Europe. Its density and quality are almost unique.’ Equally densely woven is the start-up network, which gives young companies the opportunity to share ideas and information and also offers support. ‘Rent prices are also lower here than in many other cities, while the infrastructure every bit as good as the infrastructure in cities like Berlin.’

  • 52.150
    employees 2017
  • 6.276
    companies 2017
  • 6,71
    billion turnover 2017

Shopping mall on the smartphone

Uniq’s success would not have been possible without the boom in digital technologies, which has turned every smartphone into a shopping mall. Communication and analytic software, database solutions and IT security technology provide the foundations for social media, e-commerce and other online services. The manufacturers and commercial users of such technology are brought together in the key market of digital communication, which employs around 52,150 people in the Ruhr Metropolis and grew once again in 2017 by 1,820 employees or 3.6 per cent. No fewer than 1,720 of these people filled new positions in the sub-market of data processing services and software alone, which enjoys the biggest share of the turnover (60 per cent) in this key market. With a 25 per cent share, the adjacent services in the area of retail, repairs and infrastructure are in second place.

The number of companies in the key market of digital communication also grew by 1.2 per cent to 6,276 in 2017. An especially high number of new businesses were recorded within the adjacent services in the digital economy – retail, repairs and infrastructure. The biggest turnover gains (8.8 per cent) were also achieved here. The total turnover in this key market was 6.71 billion euros, representing a six per cent increase in 2017. According to figures published by the industry association Bitkom, the Ruhr Metropolis thus secured around eleven per cent of the national market volume in the area of software and IT services.

A boost for the old and new economies

As a crossover technology, digital communication leaves its mark on practically every sector of the economy – from retail and education to the automobile market. This brings both opportunities and risks: ‘Digitalisation creates the danger among existing companies that their business models will “expire”, while giving start-ups the opportunity to establish themselves with a digital business model,’ says Andreas Liening, professor at TU Dortmund University. ‘If both combine the opportunities with the resources available to them, together they can establish digital business models and turn the Ruhr metropolitan region into a pioneer of digitalisation.’

There is evidence of how this works in Dortmund, a higher-order digital centre (Oberzentrum) in the region with more than 1,000 digital companies and 14,000 people employed in the industry. That’s because the TU and the TechnologiezentrumDortmund (TZDO) have proven their value as a seedbed for start-ups. One such start-up is Logarithmo, a company that develops analytical software for businesses in the energy and logistics industry – to simulate various charging strategies for electric vehicles, for example. The three Logarithmo founders studied or obtained their doctorate at TU Dortmund University. ‘The proximity to the industrial corporations here in the Ruhr region was especially important to us when choosing a location,’ says co-founder and managing director Dr Felix Friemann. ‘Leading universities, a certain can-do attitude and of course a good currywurst are other positive location criteria.’

The city itself is also driving digitalisation forward. The ‘Digital Dortmund’ master plan is designed to better connect authorities – and solve many an everyday problem. Take the parking space shortage, for example: drivers could use an app to book private parking spaces that are empty while their owners are at work. Dortmund is already regarded as a ‘smart city’. This is embodied by the ‘Chief Information/Innovation Office’ (CIO), a kind of control centre for digitalisation, which opened in 2018. CIO head Dr Jan Fritz Rettberg wants to further enhance this profile. ‘In doing so, we will focus on the entire city as well as internal administrative processes and extend international cooperation with smart cities.’

Meeting place and ideas forum

Among the various strands of this strategy are the ‘BARsessions’, digital conferences that are held every two months in the Westfalenpark. Companies, self-employed people and freelancers gather here to talk about new developments relating to social media, online marketing and e-commerce. The ‘Newsspots’ are followed by a 60-minute talk on a topical subject such as warning notice pitfalls or Facebook optimisation. At the end of the conference, participants can sit down at desks and get personal advice from experts. The organiser, the Business Academy Ruhr, whose abbreviation #BARuhr lends its name to the conference series, cooperates with the Economic Development Agency Dortmund and several chambers of industry and commerce.

Annual formats like ‘#diwido – Digitale Woche Dortmund’ and ‘ – Konferenz für digitales Marketing in Bochum’ are both meeting place and ideas forum. The close networking also boosts local specialists – as is the case in Mülheim an der Ruhr. Based in a former machine factory, the ‘Games Factory Ruhr’ has become a centre of expertise for the video game industry that attracts creative potential from all over NRW. Game developers and suppliers of game production services can rent office and storage space here on three floors – not just to create new virtual worlds, but also use elements from computer games for products in the health and education sectors under the watchword gamification.

The players in the key market of digital communication are characterised by their ‘cross-sectoral’ approach to their ideas and their work. Professor Oliver Koch, an expert in e-health and smart living at Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences in Bottrop, sees a special opportunity for the region here. ‘Digitalisation is changing business models and creating new markets. Smart products and services, for example, can improve efficiency, increase individuality and lead to greater mobility and flexibility,’ he says. ‘The digitalisation and networking of the Ruhr metropolitan region is creating big opportunities in terms of employer attractiveness. This is important in the context of skilled worker recruitment and continuing professional development.’

Branching off into the analogue world

Yet digitalisation is not a one-way street. There are instances where it branches off into the analogue world, as has found out for itself. The travel website entered the offline business in 2017 by opening an Urlaubsguru store in Unna city centre. ‘It is not a typical travel agent,’ assure the founders Krahn and Marx. ‘We offer long opening hours until 9 p.m. We have also swapped the dusty travel brochures for touchscreen monitors and VR headsets and can objectively advise travellers, because we are not tied to a particular tour operator.’ The store functions as a customer retention tool – anyone who takes advantage of the free advice can book their trip there and then or do it at home on their own computer. For Krahn and Marx the store was a question of conscience: ‘We are the embodiment of a digital company. This changed with the opening of the first Urlaubsguru store.’ And it has clearly been a success – a second store is set to open in Münster at the end of 2018.

Christoph Stehr

Autor: Christoph Stehr

Business journalist Christoph Stehr writes for journals and online magazines about management, the employment market and careers. He trained at the Handelsblatt trade journal in Düsseldorf.