Trust is the Key

We have to consciously face risks in order to trust technology, says TÜV SÜD Chairman of the Board of Management Axel Stepken. The company aspires to ensure safety in traditional fields as well as for new digital applications.

Interview Jörg Riedle Foto Thomas Dashuber

Mr. Stepken, trust has been the focus of the company’s philosophy for years, not just since TÜV SÜD celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2016 with the motto “150 Years of Inspiring Trust.” Why is trust so important?
Because trust is the glue that holds our society and economic system together. No relationship can survive without trust—it’s no different in our personal lives than it is in the business world. As a customer, I must be able to rely on the fact that a product will deliver what the manufacturer or retailer promises—regarding quality and safety, for example. Likewise, every company that does business with other firms must be able to rely on agreements being honored. And for all technical equipment it must be ensured that it is safe and can actually do what it was purchased for.

Is this the reason why TÜV SÜD’s claim was updated last year to “Add value, inspire trust”?
Yes, it is. We are hereby focusing on the key concept behind our work—the way the vast majority of our customers see it: the trust in our neutrality and in our experts’ knowledge is the foundation of everything that we do. We create trust, for instance, by providing our customers with safety and security, by providing access to markets and supporting them in terms of sustainability. “Inspire trust” goes far beyond the previous “choose certainty.” We’re certainly not bidding farewell to our commitment to safety, but instead are strengthening it. We’re doing this by clearly acknowledging that safety serves to create more trust in technologies, processes and partners. We must continue to earn this trust from our customers every single day. That’s why we must constantly work on making our services and our employees excellent in every way. We’re placing a great deal of emphasis on this as part of the company’s Strategy 2025.

What does trust specifically mean in the modern world, where progress is strongly influenced by software and digital technologies?
Digitalization is the major driver of innovation. But one thing must remain clear: every innovation is associated with risks that must be controlled in some way. Ensuring safety and security in the digital era is therefore a very central aspect of digitalization. Without security for IT systems and applications, there is no way to maintain trust in digital processes and technologies over the long term.

What does this mean for a company like TÜV SÜD?
We’ve been deliberately expanding our expertise in the digital environment for years. Firstly, we’ve been augmenting existing services with added digital value, for example by advancing the development of automatic image recognition for damage appraisals. We’re also moving into very new technologies, such as additive manufacturing and highly automated driving. We’ve also been hiring personnel for some time now to set up our own cybersecurity unit. Meanwhile our Cyber Security Services has almost 100 employees and operates in Germany, Asia and the United States. I’m confident that there won’t be any service we offer that isn’t affected by digitization. We’ve synthesized this cultural transformation, which is of central importance for all of TÜV SÜD, into the slogan “from steam to cloud.”

Since last summer, TÜV SÜD has also been involved in the “Charter of Trust”—with the term trust right there in the name. What is that?
It’s a cross-sector initiative with 15 strong international partners that was founded over a year ago, spearheaded by Siemens and the Munich Security
Conference. What distinguishes the partners in the Charter of Trust is that they have recognized that there will be no long-term trust in the digital economy without cybersecurity. To achieve this we urgently need regulations—and where there aren’t any, we must help create them. That’s why we’re involved.

What are the specific goals of the Charter of Trust?
The initiative has developed ten specific principles to help cyber security become an integral part of our society and business. Among other things, we consider it absolutely imperative to take responsibility in digital supply chains and have put together some baseline cybersecurity requirements along the digital supply chain. These requirements address all aspects of cybersecurity, including people, processes and technology. One current focus is also on making cyber security an essential part of university education and of professional development. This is what we’re promoting and what the members of the Charter of Trust are committed to doing.

Public trust in independent technical inspections has been shaken this year. At the end of January, there was an accident in Brazil when a dam collapsed at an iron mine in Brumadinho. TÜV SÜD performed the inspections of the dam in Brazil.
The dam breach was a human tragedy and an ecological disaster, and we all grieve with the victims’ families. The investigations of the investigating authorities must uncover what ultimately led to the dam’s collapse. That will definitively take some time due to the complexities of the situation.

What is TÜV SÜD doing concretely to restore the trust that may have been lost as a result?
Our over 24,000 employees around the world do a fantastic job, day in and day out. To ensure this, we’ve been implementing comprehensive compliance and control mechanisms throughout the company for many years. These help guarantee the independence, neutrality and high quality of our services. This also includes extensive transparency. In the case of Brazil, it was therefore clear from the outset that we would fully cooperate with the investigating authorities. Furthermore, we’re also undertaking an investigation into internal processes and possible causes for the dam collapse in Brumadinho, supported by in-house and outside experts. Since late February, there is also a scientific expert group with us, comprised of external geotechnical and mining engineers. We brought them in to deal with the assessment of technical issues. We will do everything on our part to completely clear up what happened, and to uphold the trust that people have placed in us.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Axel Stepken has been the Chairman of the Board of Management of TÜV SÜD since 2007. He previously held various management positions at ABB in the power transmission and distribution segment in Germany and Indonesia. Stepken was born in Essen, studied electrical engineering at RWTH Aachen and received his doctorate in the field of high-voltage engineering. He’s held an honorary professorship at TU Munich since 2015.