Nick Clegg Looks to Berlin to Learn the Lesson of Transforming a Rundown City into a Tech Hub

By David Knight |

If you’re a top politician, it probably feels like the world is constantly out to get you.* So when you embark on what seems like a nice little day trip abroad, you know you will almost certainly have to put up with endless awkward questions, political point-making and controversy. Thus it makes sense to have at least one port of call on said trip which is a guaranteed happy-face, isn’t-life-wonderful, good-news story.

Hence why politicians love themselves a bit of the tech life.

And that’s not even the usual cynicism towards politics you find round these parts; technology is an increasingly popular theme for politicians as it represents the future, both for society and the economy.

Strangely enough, this train of thought started when a couple of people I know back in the UK messaged me last week to say they had spotted me in the background on BBC TV news. I had been at a Q&A in Berlin with the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that morning, and it occurred to me that when we started Silicon Allee nearly four years ago, the prospects of a leading politician from any country becoming so personally involved in what we (as a community) were doing in Berlin was ridiculous.

Since then, things have changed. A series of high-profile politicians at a local, national and even international level have decided that Berlin’s tech scene is a good-news story they could get onboard with.

As for Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats – the junior partner in the ruling coalition in Westminster alongside David Cameron’s Conservatives – it seems he spent most of his trip to the German capital talking about immigration and the ongoing debate (most vocal in the UK) about who should have the right to emigrate where, and what benefits they should be eligible for and when. It’s a crucial issue that is likely to play a big role in the British general election next May.

So it’s no wonder a stop at betahaus was squeezed into his schedule, giving him the chance to have a look around, talk to the teams and some leading lights in the Berlin tech scene like HitFox’s Jan Beckers and Nicolas Zimmer of the TSB and Liberio, and do the above-mentioned Q&A with the rest of us.

And his reason for making a tech stop was to see how such a booming scene has developed in a city which had been economically ropey for some time, especially the idea of turning old, unused industrial spaces into tech-related offices and venues.** The idea is to do the same thing with the depressed, ex-industrial areas of cities in the North of England, including Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, with the Deputy Prime Minister himself representing a Sheffield constituency in the House of Commons.

Now, as well as being a transplanted Londoner – albeit one who has now lived in Berlin for nearly eight years – I also worked as a newspaper reporter for two and a half years in an ex-mining town called Barnsley, 20 minutes in the car from Sheffield. I’ve also spent some time in Manchester, and I am genuinely a fan of these cities.

And the plans to transform some of their most dilapidated, underused areas into something useful sounds great and, I think, will prove successful, at least to a certain extent. Indeed, I have seen some of the initial projects at first hand, when I spent a few days touring around Liverpool and Manchester back in 2012.

I don’t, however, expect the results to be anything like what we have seen in Berlin. For a start, the vast majority of the projects, hubs and so on aimed at developing the tech industry in the UK appear to me to be led by the government, or at least funded (or part-funded) with public money. This seems especially true outside London.

In Berlin, on the other hand, the opposite is true: The current ecosystem arose in a city where the authorities had no money, and no interest in getting involved in startups. That has begun to change, of course, encouraged and supported by the like of Nicolas Zimmer and others.

Yet the culture, the ethos, of entrepreneurship and building technology companies in Berlin retains a fiercely independent, ‘we can do it ourselves’ streak, even taking into account the plethora of corporate-startup partnerships such as accelerators.

Additionally, Berlin was in the perfect position to become a top-three tech scene in Europe. As a hangover of the Wall, it wasn’t yet an economic powerhouse dominating the country like London, Paris, Stockholm and so on. That meant there was plenty of room to grow (old industrial buildings included). But as the capital of Germany, it was (and is) becoming increasingly important and at the heart of what happens in Europe. Put those things together, and you get an attractive destination to start a company, with people flocking to Berlin from all over the continent – especially from Eastern Europe.

Add in the cheap rent and the fact that Berlin is just a fantastic place to live, and you can see why both the city and its tech scene are booming.

But can that really be repeated elsewhere?

Northerners – that is, people from the North of England – are fiercely proud of their roots, despite sounding a bit funny when they talk.*** In the great cities of the North, those roots are largely industrial, a legacy which has led to economic downturn, poverty and crime in those neighbourhoods, even as other parts of cities thrive. If Berlin can lend a few lessons in how to transform these areas, then fantastic. But they shouldn’t be trying to emulate Berlin, just as they shouldn’t be trying to emulate London, or anywhere else. One suggestion brought up at the Nick Clegg Q&A was for each one to concentrate on a particular vertical, just as many of the smaller accelerators have.

Oh, and as far as immigrants go, I hope I don’t sound biased when I say that Berlin and its tech scene wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is today without people arriving from abroad…

*Sometimes it actually is…

**See the Factory, Radialsystem, Backfabrik, betahaus itself and a hundred other projects.

***Just kidding, just kidding.