7 November 2022

Opinion of the month: “Europe must not fall behind as a centre of innovation”

Karin Tresp, Head of Central Data Protection Management at the REWE Group, explains why people are the focus of all our digital developments and how Europe runs the risk of falling behind in terms of new technologies.

“We have been selling groceries at our markets since 1927, ensuring that people in cities and rural areas have access to local options for food shopping. At the same time, we’ve been developing the digital future of the retail business. At the REWE Group, we combine a cooperative tradition with innovation and experience with new technologies – for our employees, our customers, and our business partners. We approach our work with boldness and a sense of humility, and we want politicians to do the same. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are here to stay. So they need to be regulated, without curtailing the opportunities they present, while at the same time creating legal certainty.

The world around us is constantly evolving, and the retail sector – like every other sector – must keep up with developments in order to meet its customers’ needs and wishes. For this reason, our work goes well beyond the mere digitalisation of internal processes. When our customers shop for groceries at REWE online, they sense the progress just as much as when they’re in a REWE Pick&Go market in Cologne, Berlin, or elsewhere. Shoppers can check out their groceries without going to a cashier. At the REWE Group, people are at the centre of all our digital developments – from protecting their data to meeting their expectations when it comes to shopping.

At the REWE Group, people are at the centre of all our digital developments – from protecting their data to meeting their expectations when it comes to shopping.

Karin Tresp
Karin Tresp

The seriousness with which we take this responsibility can be seen in my job, which doesn’t even exist at most companies. As the Head of Central Data Protection Management for the REWE Group, I have Group-wide responsibility for ensuring compliance with data protection regulations. So I understand how sensitive personal data is and how important it is to protect it and ensure that it is handled properly. With this in mind, we have implemented a data protection compliance system, with comprehensive support for all departments. But our department also has the challenging task of finding legally compliant and privacy-sensitive ways of tapping into the enormous potential in this area to benefit our company, our employees, and our customers with more tailored services, optimised flows of goods, improved product information, greater shopping convenience, the prevention of food waste, and innovative offerings, to mention but a few.

One thing is clear: digitalisation is becoming a bigger part of our lives, and every company wants to and must go down this path. However, this path is often rockier in the EU than it is in other places. Yes, the geographical home of companies plays an immense role in the development of digital innovations. We must ask ourselves why technology ideas often come from Europe, but are then further developed in the US, China, India, or Israel. In part, this is because of the reticence that prevails in the EU. Rather than demanding, promoting and advancing digital innovation, right from the start the focus is instead placed on potential risks, and how to mitigate and, ultimately, regulate these risks. If we’re not careful, Europe will soon become a region with little digital innovation. Not because European companies don’t want or are incapable of such innovations, but rather because the necessary conditions are lacking. For this reason, the legal framework for artificial intelligence at the EU level (the AI Act) that is currently being discussed must be structured in a way that allows for the continued development and use of AI in Europe. We must prevent Europe from falling behind as a centre of innovation.

We must prevent Europe from falling behind as a centre of innovation.

Karin Tresp
Karin Tresp

If the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is to fulfil its full potential in levelling the playing field in the domestic market and serving as a model for other countries, then we must ensure that it is implemented uniformly in all Member States and, where applicable, their political subdivisions, such as German federal states. If the EU wants to advance the European data economy, as has been proposed in the EU Data Act or discussed at national level in Germany, then such political initiatives must also take account of trade secrets. In addition, we must ensure that it remains possible for European companies to maintain a technological and competitive advantage.

While the political motives, such as protecting consumers’ rights, are commendable, problems arise, for example, where the definitions used in the regulations are not clear. This can lead to confusion, causing uncertainty among companies and making them hesitant to bring innovations to market. As a result, there will be a massive delay in the development and use of innovative technologies.

If we are to see added value as a result of the data economy in Germany and Europe, then all stakeholders must act. Politicians, whether at the EU level or at a federal level in Germany, must create a framework in the area of data protection and innovation that defines clear rules while simultaneously giving companies flexibility. Companies must show that they are willing to use such flexibility responsibly. The personnel and technology available to data protection authorities should be adapted in line with the requirements of the data age so they are able to support the innovative projects being developed by companies. In this connection, we welcome the federal government’s digital strategy, in which the government has announced the “development of an attractive, secure, and agile data strategy”.

This is because, as shown above, the development of products and services involving artificial intelligence has enormous potential for customers and business partners of the REWE Group – in both the retail and the tourism sector. With this in mind, we published the “AI Manifesto” in 2020. The manifesto is the first document to provide clear, concrete recommendations for the development of AI applications.

One example of the responsible use of new technologies is the opening of the REWE Pick&Go market in Cologne in October 2021. We opened a second market in Berlin in November 2022. Customers can either pay at the checkout as usual, or they can pay digitally with no need to queue. At Pick&Go, purchases are captured securely using camera and sensor technology designed to minimise the data collected. Once customers leave the store, they are billed automatically. Data protection continues to be at the heart of the development and operation of the system. It does not use facial recognition technology or “remember” customers on subsequent visits to the store. All of these points were addressed when the system was designed. We also worked with the relevant data protection authorities from an early stage – going beyond our statutory notification obligations.

Thus, companies can – and already do – do many things when introducing new technologies and services to strengthen customer trust. But the legal framework must be clearly defined if the enormous potential in the development and use of innovative technologies is to be exploited in Germany and Europe in the future as well. I am confident that we are all pursuing the same goal: to make Europe more secure and more attractive for digital innovations – and to retain digital experts here.”

Karin Tresp

is the Head of Central Data Management at the REWE Group.

About REWE Group

The cooperatively organized REWE Group is one of the leading trade and tourism groups in Germany and Europe. In 2021, the company generated a total external turnover of 76.5 billion euros. Founded in 1927, REWE Group operates with around 380,000 employees in 21 European countries.

The sales lines include REWE, REWE CENTER and BILLA as well as BILLA PLUS and ADEG supermarkets and consumer stores, the discounter PENNY, IKI, the drugstores BIPA and the toom Baumarkt DIY stores. The company also operates convenience stores REWE To Go and the e-commerce activities REWE Lieferservice and Zooroyal. The Lekkerland Group comprises the wholesale activities of the business group in the area of on-the-go consumption.Travel and tourism under the umbrella of DER Touristik Group includes the tour operators DERTOUR, ITS, Meiers Weltreisen, Kuoni, Helvetic Tours, ITS Coop Travel, Billa Reisen, Koning Aap, Exim Tours and Fischer as well as more than 2,300 travel agencies (e.g. DERTOUR, DERPART, Kuoni, Exim, Fischer and cooperation partners), the hotel brands Sentido, Aldiana, Calimera, Cooee, and the online travel portal Prijsvrij Vakanties.