Is Berlin ready to be Europe's tech capital?

The Berliner Dome, lit up for 2014's Festival of Light. Image: Getty.

“Berlin should be the capital of sextech!” MakeLoveNotPorn founder Cindy Gallop booms from the main stage at Tech Open Air, before trailing off with the half-hearted: “Because, well, nowhere else is.” A lukewarm call to arms for a city which prides itself on, amongst other things, sex appeal.

But Berlin – riding the crest of the wave in music, art, nightlife, and effortless cool – has seemed from the outside to nonchalantly paddle in the shallows in terms of mainstream acceptance of tech. It’s not just that Uber is limited to professional metered taxis or that Airbnb has been banned from renting out full apartments: paying by credit or debit card is still looked on as an unholy art in bars, cafes and many supermarkets.

Even at TOA, billed as “Europe’s leading interdisciplinary technology festival”, attendees unarmed with wads of cold, hard cash wee left shivering and caffeine-deprived in the decidedly non-open-air weather on 14 July. If only Bitcoins could keep you warm.

But despite rendering half your usual apps and your Mastercard near useless, Berlin’s otherwise welcoming atmosphere is attracting waves of international interest and a burgeoning start-up scene pushing it to the forefront of development in Europe.

“Berlin will never be Silicon Valley, ever, because it’s Berlin, and will always be Berlin,” TOA’s organiser Niko Woischnik says in the comparative warmth of the festival venue, the former east German Funkhaus broadcast centre.

With over 150 international speakers and 175 satellite events on topics from sextech to the marketing practices of German hiphop to democratising VR, the festival showcases an understated confidence to the importance of tech – not just globally, but in terms of what the latest developments have to offer the city, as well as what sorts of start-ups could successfully be incubated here.

Although it champions the international perspective needed for success in the modern tech industry, Berlin is, as ever, determined to do things its own way. The thinking goes, instead of trying to outdo the Americans, why not work with the cultural and alternative capital Berlin has accrued over decades?

“There’s not the culture and diversity in Silicon Valley when it comes to different disciplines like music and art and so forth,” Woischnik says. He shrugs off the fact that the US tech centre is “60 years ahead of us” when it comes to IPOs. The city, he believes, has different things to offer.

Music-streaming platform Soundcloud is already headquartered in Berlin, and Spotify has a major office in the city. Start-up hubs such as Factory and growing amounts of blockchain activity have been gently nudging the Hauptstadt towards offering a one-of-a-kind tech centre with its own individual identity.

Reticence remains, however, among a local population angry at the gentrification of the formerly “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy) capital into a 24-hour international tourist and business paradise. Tech companies have thus far avoided the ire directed at the Mediaspree development along the banks of the city’s central river. (These days, the Spree is home to the Universal Music and Viacom offices rather than the dwindling number of the community centres and excitingly ramshackle clubs which used to line its banks.) Is it just a matter of time?

Perhaps not, if the tech offered and developed in the city is as socially-minded as many of its proponents suggest. At TOA, the potential for coupling development with social good was underlined by proposals for better agricultural technology, or those which aimed to tackle the refugee crisis. Perhaps the growing tech cluster can reflect the city’s own character as well as Woischnik hopes, rather than offering low rents on glitzy offices to existing multinational corporations.

But while Berlin is Berlin, Germany is Germany. “Germany has been very... Traditionally very cautious about implementing change. And I think that it almost outweighs the times that this was for the benefit of the greater good,” Woischnik says with heavy diplomacy.

Uber’s restrictions, for one, are the result of national policy. Tensions between national wariness of change and Berlin’s wholehearted exuberance for it exist beyond the tech scene, of course: Germany is now lagging behind its EU partners in moving towards full legalisation of same-sex marriage, whereas Berlin’s credentials as a gay haven date back to Christopher Isherwood and beyond. The country may not be ready for a sextech capital, even if the capital itself is getting there.

Germany is not alone in Europe in its current divide in opinion between cosmopolitan, urban residents and its smaller towns and rural neighbourhoods: Brexit firmly exposed such divides in the UK, for whom a nascent and individual tech scene in Berlin could be a further blow to economic growth. With Berlin firmly planted in the heart of the EU, and with the free movement of people that goes with that, internationally-minded start-ups may increasingly favour the German capital over London.

"We are a very open city, so it’s not about the Brexit or you know, stealing away talent, or showing the UK it was a bad thing,” Woischnik says. Nonetheless, he offers encouragement to entrepreneurs heading for the German capital.

“I think that’s how this community here is being built, because it is built not just by Germans or people from Berlin, but it’s really built by people that come from all countries in the world...

"Let them come," he concludes. "Let the Brits in.”


What is to be done? Some modest suggestions on solving the NIMBY problem

Lovely, lovely houses. Image: Getty.

The thing about NIMBYism, right, is that there’s no downside to it. If you already own a decent size house, then the fact a city isn’t building enough homes to go round is probably no skin off your nose. Quite the opposite, in fact: you’ll actively benefit from higher house prices.

So it’s little wonder that campaigning against property development is a popular leisure activity among those looking forward to a long retirement (don’t Google it, it’ll only depress you). It’s sociable, it’s profitable, it only takes a few hours a week, and, best of all, it makes you feel righteous, like you’re doing something good. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t be a NIMBY?

To fight the scourge of NIMBYism, then, what we need to do is to rebalance the risks and rewards that its participants face. By increasing the costs of opposing new housebuilding, we can make sure that people only do it when said development is genuinely a horror worth fighting – rather than, say, something less than perfect that pops up a Tuesday afternoon when they don’t have much else on.

Here are some reasonable and sensible ideas for policies to make that happen.

A NIMBY licence, priced at, say, £150 a month. Anyone found practicing NIMBYism without a licence faces a fine of £5,000. Excellent revenue raiser for the Treasury.

Prison sentences for NIMBYs. Not all of them, obviously – we’re not barbarians – but if the planning process concludes that a development will be good for the community, then those who tried to prevent it should be seen as anti-social elements and treated accordingly.

A NIMBY lottery. All homeowners wishing to oppose a new development must enter their details into an official government lottery scheme. If their number comes up, then their house gets CPOed and redeveloped as flats. Turns NIMBYism into a form of Russian roulette, but with compulsory purchase orders instead of bullets.

This one is actually a huge range of different policies depending on what you make the odds. At one end of the scale, losing your house is pretty unlikely: you’d think twice, but you’re probably fine. At the other, basically everyone who opposes a scheme will lose their entire worldly wealth the moment it gets planning approval, so you’d have to be very, very sure it was bad before you even thought about sticking your head above the parapet. So the question is: do you feel lucky?

NIMBY shaming. There are tribal cultures where, when a member does something terrible, they never see them again. Never talk to them, never look at them, never acknowledge them in any way. To the tribe, this person is dead.

I’m just saying, it’s an option.

A NIMBY-specific bedroom tax. Oppose new housing development to your heart’s content, but be prepared to pay for any space you don’t need. I can’t think of any jokes here, now I’ve written it down I think this one’s genuinely quite sensible.

Capital punishment for NIMBYs. This one’s a bit on the extreme side, so to keep things reasonable it would only apply to those NIMBYs who believe in capital punishment for other sorts of crime. Fair’s far.

Pushing snails through their letter boxes. This probably won’t stop them, but it’d make me feel better. The snails, not so much.

Reformed property taxes, which tax increases in house prices, so discourage homeowners from treating them as effectively free money.

Sorry, I’m just being silly now, aren’t I?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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