German-Japanese dialogue on digital transformation

Ruhr-Universität Bochum has introduced a new format in its internationalisation strategy. The aim is to offer a platform for dialogue with partner universities on topics that are of high relevance to society across the world.

More than 40 representatives and researchers from almost a dozen Japanese universities debated scopes of partnership in research, teaching and knowledge transfer with their German colleagues in panel discussions and scientific workshops at a three-day event dubbed ‘International Science Days’ at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) on 5-7 July.

The theme was “Society 5.0 – Chances and risks of digital transformation and the responsibility of universities”, with ‘Society 5.0’ referring to the common grand challenges of our time: ageing populations, climate change, food security, the limited availability of natural resources and the fulfilment of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“The digital transformation is one of the biggest changes humankind will have experienced,” RUB Rector Axel Schölmerich maintained, explaining the choice of topic for the first ‘Science Days’ while opening the event.

“It will change the way we think about core values such as democracy and freedom. We face up to our responsibility towards society and are taking a proactive approach to address this key future topic together with our Japanese partners.”

Subjects ranged from plasma and atomic physics through cryptography and cybersecurity, research perspectives for the metropolitan regions in Japan and Germany and the need to shape the law for a Society 5.0, to digital humanities and digitisation for foreign language education.

“Since its inception, the Ruhr-Universität has always been eager to promote the internationalisation of education and research, and has built up strong relations to prestigious partner institutions. It is an important part of the university’s institutional strategy to sustain and strengthen these links. With our new international format, the RUB Science Days, we will foster exchange and cooperation with our partner universities,” said Schölmerich.

Japan was picked as a partner because digitisation is high on the agenda in both countries and science – and hence universities – plays an important role in implementation; and both countries face similar societal challenges, such as how to provide for an ageing population.

Also, data privacy has a similar status in both countries. “In Japan, we are very careful with the idea of privacy,” said Masashi Haneda, executive vice-president of the University of Tokyo.

Longstanding links

But the event was also possible because RUB and several Japanese top-ranking universities have maintained close links for many years – for example, the partnership with the University of Tokyo goes back to 1969, making it RUB’s oldest one. Cooperation agreements have also been signed with Osaka University and the University of Tsukuba, in 2010 and 2016 respectively.

RUB was founded in 1965 as the first academic institution in the north-western industrial region of Germany. Its annual funding totals €560 million (US$654 million), of which about €111 million is third-party funding.

Its 43,000 students, among them almost 6,000 from 130 different countries abroad, study in 20 faculties offering some 190 study programmes, making it one of the 10 largest universities in Germany. Subjects range from arts and humanities through social sciences and natural sciences to engineering and medicine.

In 2007 RUB, together with the neighbouring universities in Dortmund and Duisburg, formed the University Alliance Ruhr, which offers researchers opportunities for cooperation and gives students the option to attend courses at the neighbouring universities.

In the course of the alliance, liaison offices in New York (USA), Moscow (Russia) and São Paulo (Brazil) have been created to promote international cooperation and student and scholarly exchanges.

The university adopted its first internationalisation strategy in 2010, which covers all areas of university activity. The institution as a whole supports 45 international partnerships in research, study, teaching and knowledge transfer.

It is part of a number of transnational education networks: the Utrecht Network which consists of 32 universities from 27 countries, the Global Campus of Human Rights, the DAAD-partnered South African-German Centre for Development Research in Cape Town, the Vietnamese-German University in Ho Chi Minh City and the Sino-German College for Graduate Studies at Tongji University in Shanghai.

Moreover, RUB is a member of the international Scholars at Risk network and has established a programme to guide young people who have fled their home countries into university.

In addition to internationally oriented study and funding programmes, a large number of student exchange programmes are maintained with universities worldwide. Study programmes are run in cooperation with international partner universities in which joint and double degrees can be obtained. And the students can choose from 15 international masters courses taught exclusively in English.

Some 600 incoming and a similar number of outgoing students take advantage of the exchange and scholarship programmes each year.

In order to enable less mobile students to obtain international skills as well, the curriculum is to be increasingly internationalised and digitised. This is being accomplished with virtual and blended mobility formats such as VT-Prep (Virginia Tech Post-baccalaureate Research and Education Program).

In addition to the roughly 6,000 international students, 700 international doctoral researchers are working at the university. And more than 200 international guest researchers and 570 international full-time staff contribute to the international profile of RUB.

Interdisciplinary approach

The Science Days event works well for a university whose research is organised in interdisciplinary research departments. “It is important to think beyond one’s own disciplinary orientation,” Rector Schölmerich said.

One of the interdisciplinary departments is the Horst Görtz Institute for IT Security. Here, more than 100 researchers and 1,000 students from information technology, mathematics, the arts, social sciences and law study all aspects of IT security. According to its director, Gregor Leander, it has Europe’s largest training programme for IT security. Numerous start-ups have already evolved from research activities at the institute.

During the Science Days event Leander explained to the audience that encryption really did work and demonstrated examples of safeguarding small items such as pacemakers, implants and passports from cyber-attacks.

But he also referred to much larger items. For example, car-to-car communication is also being researched at his institute, and Leander maintained that once it worked, car accident fatalities could be reduced by an estimated 80%. However, this would require the processing of thousands of incoming messages in minimum time, which was currently still impeding implementation.

Among the other speakers, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, director of the Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Research Center at the University of Tokyo, demonstrated how artificial intelligence (AI) could be used for problem and conflict solving but also pointed to the shortcomings of current AI applications. As yet, Kuniyoshi said, AI was inferior to the nature of real world intelligence, as he demonstrated with robots required to imitate movements of humans.

Yoshiyuki Sankai, executive research director of the Center for Cybernics Research at the University of Tsukuba, presented the state of the art in cybernic neuro-rehabilitation. The cyborg-type robot HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) developed at his institute performs interaction with the human brain by recording bio-signals on the surface of the skin that are created by nerve signals from the brain. It can thus augment and support physical capability, for example, among older people or individuals with gait disorders.

RUB Rector Schölmerich, meanwhile, criticised the power of the global players in controlling big data. He noted that universities had to claim the right to work with this kind of information. And that this could only be done by global cooperation. "In both our countries, research is not limited to applicable and financially profitable projects, but follows research interests of the involved scientists," he said.

The Science Days event is just one of the ways that RUB is building on its efforts to promote academic networking by students and researchers.

For instance, the academic activities and networking of PhD students are supported at the cross-faculty RUB Research School and the RUB Research School Plus, both funded by the German Excellence Initiative, a national competition to promote world-class research.

In the context of the university’s tenure track programme, junior scientists from across the world are offered the opportunity to work at RUB as junior professors, postdocs or junior research group leaders.

As part of the federal and state government joint funding programme for junior academics, 18 new tenure track professorships have recently been approved for funding, with money for five of them being specially allocated to computer sciences and the remaining 13 professorship positions contributing to RUB’s networking field “Digital transformation of the economy and society”.