Dr. Alexander Opitz

Project director of the structural change project »AI Village«


»The AI Village is one of the most innovative lighthouse projects in the Rhineland and a contact point for all companies from the region that want to be at the forefront of AI.«

On August 23, the »AI Village« was opened in Hürth near Cologne – an AI innovation campus designed to support companies from the region in digital transformation. We spoke to Dr. Alexander Opitz, who is driving the project forward as project director.

Dr. Alexander Opitz, © Giuseppe Piliero

What is the AI Village and who is behind it?
The AI Village is one of the most innovative lighthouse projects in the Rhineland region. At its core, it is about implementing the currently most important future technologies in the field of artificial intelligence in the region and throughout the country.

As a joint project, the AI Village brings together many strong partners: the city of Hürth with its diverse economic structure, the German AI Association with over 400 AI companies, Fraunhofer IAIS and Fraunhofer FIT as leading research institutes, the Rheinische Fachhochschule as a modern education institution and KI.NRW as a link to the state’s further AI activities.

The AI Village is intended to have an impact beyond the region. Studio 6, a former television studio in Hürth, will form the core of an innovation campus for artificial intelligence. Our medium-term goal is to establish an AI ecosystem. We can count on the support of our local studio partners, the Blockchain Reallabor, the competence center WIRKsam and the association IDiTech – Institut für Digitale Zukunftstechnologien e. V.

How did you come to open the AI Village in Hürth? What was the motivation?
Hürth has been severely affected by the structural change resulting from the phase-out of lignite. This is having a direct impact on the many workers in the mining industry and its suppliers, as well as in the local energy-intensive industry, particularly the chemical industry.

At the same time, Hürth, as a traditional mining location, has decades of experience with structural change. The comprehensive use of future technologies such as artificial intelligence is therefore only logical in order to ensure competitiveness and future viability. On top of this comes the proximity to the metropolitan areas of Cologne and Bonn, a diverse economic structure and excellent connections to the region’s research and university landscape. All in all, the conditions for using artificial intelligence in Hürth are ideal.

As a PhD in economic history, you are very familiar with transformative processes. How do you assess the impact of AI, perhaps also in comparison to past technological developments?
Economic history deals extensively with the adaptation and impact of new technologies on the economy and society. These are oftentimes monumental, such as the introduction of the steam engine and the industrial revolution. In my academic career, I myself have dealt intensively with innovations and their financing in a historical context. This makes it even more exciting to now be part of a huge upheaval myself. I am sure that the impact of the use of artificial intelligence will be at least as serious as the invention of the steam engine or the automobile.

How can companies from NRW benefit specifically from the AI Village?
The AI Village brings together companies, AI start-ups and researchers to develop, test and apply the many new developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. Specifically, we will help companies to identify use cases in the context of workshops, one-to-one discussions or using demonstrators. We also offer further education programs and courses for employees, which are crucial for the success of an innovation in a company.

Many well-attended events are already taking place in the AI Village and the network in the regional economy is growing steadily. What is your impression, how do SMEs in particular view the topic of AI? What are the specific needs, what is particularly in demand? And how are you responding to this?
We have noticed that the topic of AI has essentially arrived in companies. The ideas range from the use of simple text recognition tools to computer vision and the creation of individually trained language models – a kind of corporate GPT. Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered: Who can specifically help me with the implementation? What effort and costs are involved? How can the AI application be turned into a worthwhile business case?

This is where the AI Village steps in and can draw in particularly on its large network of local companies, the KI.NRW network, the implementers in the German AI Association as well as the expertise of both Fraunhofer Institutes. We also work closely with our studio partners in search for business cases. It is often the combination of certain technologies, such as blockchain-based smart contracts and AI tools, that is particularly exciting.

In addition to the business target group, you also offer events for school classes and the public. What is the idea behind this?
Artificial intelligence is not just a short-term hype but will be with us for a long time to come and much more comprehensively in the future. The ability to use AI effectively is therefore essential – both at work and at home. It is equally important to recognize the challenges associated with AI and to learn how to use the relevant tools responsibly.

This applies even more to young people. Bear in mind that for future generations, the use of artificial intelligence will no longer be a novelty but will be taken for granted. It is therefore of great importance for our society to strengthen the skills in dealing with AI. This is also confirmed by the schools we are already in contact with. Incidentally, there is also a great need for teachers to learn how to use AI tools in practice – there are probably already some essays being written by ChatGPT.

A look into the future: you are now not only the project director of the AI Village, but also have family roots in Hürth. What is your personal wish for the AI Village? Do you have a picture in mind of what it should look like here in two years’ time?
My father’s family actually comes from Hürth, from Hürth-Knapsack to be precise. I spent a large part of my childhood here. In this respect, the development of the AI Village is also a personal concern for me. The project will be halfway through in two years. With regard to the vision of the AI ecosystem described at the beginning, we have very ambitious goals. We want to have developed the Innovation Campus to such an extent that a constant background noise can be heard in Studio 6. Whether it’s events, workshops, lecture series, congresses, delegation visits or network meetings – you should be able to clearly feel that the topic has arrived in the region. Ultimately, we want to be perceived as the central point of contact for artificial intelligence in the region in the long term.

Dr. Alexander Opitz is project director of the AI Village. After studying economics in Cologne, he completed his doctorate and research in the field of economic history in Stuttgart, St. Petersburg and Istanbul. He specialized in innovations and their financing, as well as data analysis in a historical context. This proved to be groundbreaking, as the native Rhinelander then returned home to initiate and support innovative structural change projects at the Zukunftsagentur Rheinisches Revier. Extremely familiar with the regional players from business, politics and science, he has been building an AI ecosystem as project director in the AI Village since August 2023.