It’s lunchtime in a busy restaurant in London’s King’s Cross and Philip Oltermann, the author of a great book on Anglo-German relations Keeping up with the Germans, is waxing lyrical about Berlin. Its creativity, its vitality, its astonishing low cost. Suddenly he pauses. “But what’s Berlin actually produced in the last 20 years? A great album? A great novel? A great work of art?”
Two weeks later, I’m in Berlin, on the last leg of a literal whistle-stop tour criss-crossing Germany on the Deutsche Bahn. Yesterday was Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt; today is Leipzig and Berlin. And in the dimly-lit living-room style offices of 6Wunderkinder, a tech start-up with grand ambitions, one of the company’s founders is making the same point.
“It’s one of the biggest issues,” says Benedikt Lehnert. “There are great designers, musicians but there is not this one big success.”
Lehnert’s own industry is the closest Berlin has to a success story. Berlin-born start-up triumphs include SoundCloud and Mozilla, as well as 6Wunderkinder itself – a company that works in what Lehnert calls the “productivity” sector – fancy electronic “to do” lists to you and me. The three firms will later this year move to new premises called The Factory in the heart of the city – a building that will form a new tech hub hopefully attracting dozens of young pretenders. The rent is astonishingly cheap – particularly when compared to say the rent at the factory’s rival in London, which apparently we have to call Silicon Roundabout. But while that may be hugely beneficial for some, one of Berlin’s greatest attractions is perhaps one of its biggest problems. The low cost of living has led hundreds of thousands of young people from across Germany and beyond to decide to make the city their home.
“Does it create mediocrity if it’s easy to start?” asks Lehnert. The young and ambitious move to New York and London because they want to succeed. Maybe they move to Berlin because they can afford to fail.
The city’s renaissance – and let’s not go overboard about the problems, there really has been a renaissance – began little more than two decades ago. It is still early days. As Lehnert says, “Berlin feels like a start-up itself. It’s not clear if it’s going to work.”
Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.