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.”


To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.

Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.