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.”


Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.

On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.