There are no rules in Berlin,” says Pedro Pineda, co-founder of MakerLab, with Jay Cousins  and Christopher Doering of Open Design City, the fablab at Berlin’s biggest coworking, Betahaus. “Not just here at Betahaus but anywhere, people have an idea, they try it out, and if it doesn’t work they try again.”

Maybe this is the key to Berlin’s current status as a hub of creativity and startups, a role that has recently been recognized by both UNESCO (who named it a “City of Design” in 2006) and UN Educational (which added Berlin to its network of “Creative Cities”). On a recent weekend trip to the city, we at MakeTank set out to meet people, breathe in the atmosphere, and try to understand what ingredients make a city successful in the creative industries.

3D printing

3D printing by the minute

Ingredient number 1: openness

Our first stop in Berlin was not the Brandenburg Gate nor the radio tower but Betahaus, the coworking we’d heard so much about and where we hoped to meet a cool bunch of Makers. The entrance of Betahaus is a ground floor café with mismatched and home-built furniture. When we arrived around 10am it was pretty empty, but towards noon it had filled up, some people choosing the single laptop desks that line the walls of the space, others sitting at communal tables, everyone connected to the free and open wifi that works like a charm. In one corner a group seems to be giving birth to a start-up, in English.

Betahaus outside

We had an appointment to meet a fellow Italian, Danila Pellicani, whom we’d picked up on a facebook group of fab-lab fanatics and she generously told us to stop by. Her warm welcome and willingness to share her experience with us shows that she’s embraced Berlin’s open approach. She became our guide to Betahaus for a few hours and our “in” to meet other people there, though we got the sense that one could easily walk up to anyone and say “hi, what are you doing?” and they’d welcome telling you.

Danila Pellicani

We sat down with Danila on some chairs that look like they were saved from your grandma’s apartment and sipped highly alternative, local iced tea. An Imola-born interactive designer who studied industrial design at the University of Florence, Danila moved to Berlin four months ago after a stint in the United States. Her choice of Berlin was entirely based on the city’s reputation as a mecca for talented creatives in all fields, not to mention cheap and easy options for housing and office space. In four months she’s found it easy to settle in – despite not speaking German yet and not knowing anyone before she arrived. Being part of Betahaus is probably the biggest factor as it provides a built-in network of people who interact both spontaneously and during designated sessions for the exchange of ideas. Although she would welcome a chance to return to Italy, she hasn’t found anywhere in Italy that gives off the same feeling of opportunity and exchange.

Bram de Vries

If our Italian readers fear brain drain, they may be right, but Danila is just one of many foreigners we met that day at Betahaus. Inside the café there’s a sign advertising 3D printing or design consultation for a euro per minute. Bram de Vries mans the printer, an Orca v. 0.42, and dispenses information in his native Dutch, perfect English, German or Spanish.

When we asked him what he was up to, he shows us that he’s printing a carrying case for an Arduino chip. There’s another, less accurate, 3D printer inside Open Design City, but Bram and ODC chose to put this machine out front for greater visibility and accessibility.

Pedro Pineda

Pedro Pineda

Danila spots Pedro walking in and stops him for us so that we can get into the ODC, and we let her get back to her work. In 10 intense minutes, Pedro tells us more useful things about open philosophy, coworking and fablabs than most people could communicate in a whole day.

We didn’t ask him to repeat the history of ODC nor his own philosophies, which we’ve read about here, here, here and here. What’s amazing about Pedro is that researching him online pulls up about as little about him as a person as we got talking to him: he’s such a powerful force when it comes to collaboration that he seems to embody a collective. Everything he does points to a strong belief in the ability of people to do things together for greater results than as individuals, and with this he and various groups take on large social challenges as well as small design challenges.

Open Design City

Hacked MakerBot

Machine Room

From the perspective of an outsider, what goes on in Open Design City seems almost utopic: a complete disregard for ownership, patents, safety waivers in a place where everyone shares ideas and helps each other out. You start to wonder how anyone is ever going to make any money in here.

Ingredient number 2: space

Coworking, fablabs and exchange of creative ideas go hand in hand – this much we knew before. But Pedro opened our eyes to something very interesting about Betahaus. He says that being in Betahaus is considered a plus for startups in the opinion of investors – essentially, the coworking space has turned into a self-sponsored incubator that companies enter to grow and then leave. All this openness does pay off.

Co-working space at Betahaus

Co-working space at Betahaus

The importance of injecting parallel ideas and sharing both space and concepts has been recognized even by more traditional companies in Germany. For example, Pedro cites travel agency Tui that has opened up a coworking space (Modul 57 in Hannover) in order to take advantage of the collaborative space model that is clearly working so well.

Berlin is particularly well positioned when it comes to the availability of space for living, coworking, larger businesses and stores due to the post-reunification reorganization of the city. Residential rent is low by EU standards, making the city ideal for students and young people getting started – in fact, students at the state-run Berlin University of the Arts and the many private arts institutes often stay on here after their studies. There are coworkings for every field, including one specifically for artists. There are also a lot of galleries hosting exhibits and well-attended openings, readings and talks. Temporary showrooms also proliferate, in which young creatives can have a shot at selling unique fashion and other designs to the general public.

One aspect of these communal, sometimes temporary spaces that we observed on our trip is that they tend to be rather bohemien in style, using crates and untreated wood and found furniture. Berliners don’t seem to need sleek designer spaces to produce sleek design themselves.

Two examples of these very casual spaces are the Prinzessinnengarten garden in Kreuzberg and the R.A.W Tempel / Urban Spree area in Friedrichshain. Both spaces make relatively temporary use of land concessions that could be revoked at any moment, but neither seem to be bothered. In Prinzessinnengarten they’ve developed a form of container gardening that could be easily transported elsewhere, while at R.A.W Tempel various groups have set up a gallery, bar and other businesses without particular concern for what might happen next year. For now, these spaces are in use in ways that favour creativity.

Prinzessinnengarten

Prinzessinnengarten

Our Canadian guide on a street art tour of Berlin, who showed us R.A.W Tempel, observed that Berlin does not look much toward the future. If we combine this with what Pedro told us about Berliners simply trying things out, we start to form an idea of a philosophy of life that favours getting things done without worrying too much about what might go wrong.

Ingredient number 3: materials and stuff

Once you’ve got open people and open spaces, people start making stuff. Makers make tangible stuff, artists make art, and startuppers do whatever it is that they do. Having easy access to a fablab is one of the factors that help tangible things come into being.

ODC actually does not have a whole lot of expensive tools, but they have most things you’d ever need in the large workroom, and access to more sophisticated items thanks to agreements with members who own them. During the week, the materials and space are reserved to Betahaus members, but every Monday night there’s free and open DIY night so that the public can come out and play.

Sometimes ideas come in an abstract way and then we search for the tools and materials to render those ideas tangible. Sometimes, ideas come from browsing a really great craft or hardware store. We found ourselves super inspired at Modulor, a gigantic store just around the corner from Betahaus, where the slogan is “where ideas and materials come together.” This place even makes rubber bands look exciting. It’s Maker heaven, though our wallet suffered.

Modulor the Makers' heaven

Elastic bands are now exciting.

Great, can we reproduce it?

Three main ingredients, and a lot of extra seasoning and unidentified factors have thus been identified as the secrets to Berlin’s creative success. Now, if we were to magically transport open philosophy, big cheap spaces, machines and materials to another city, would we be able to reproduce the “Berlin effect”?

Probably not. It would be wrong to try, because each city, every place, has characteristics that are fundamental to it. It comes down to the seasonings. We have to identify what makes our own city special, and what advantage it might be able to bring to the creative industry. Think about this for your city, and let us know what you come up with.

 

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