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Start-up cities: London vs. Berlin

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Amidst Europe’s dark economic woes there has been more than a ray of light emanating from some of their tech industries. London has held its position as the reigning start up heavyweight champion of Europe but a plucky contender in the shape of Berlin has emerged with aspirations on the title. Sav D’Souza, a Londoner, who has lived in Berlin the last year muses on the merits of both cities as creative hubs searching for the next Google or Facebook.

The first thing I noticed about Berlin on a four day visit last November was how “free” the city felt. London in comparison looked very prescriptive. In Berlin it was immediately apparent that things were different, places, people and attitudes. Signs of being more relaxed, of slightly off the wall creativity and perhaps most importantly a feeling that anything was possible. All that in just four days… that’s impressive Berlin.

Old street and Tech City in particular is seen as the vanguard of London’s start-up industry. Fancy London coworking spaces seem to be sprouting up everywhere to facilitate the growth in start-ups and much vaunted “collaborative” ethos. Even the politicians are getting in on the act with PM David Cameron recent announcement of a £50 million cash injection to revamp Tech City.

But for me the area as a whole seems to have changed considerably since I lived there for a number of years not too long ago. Call me a sentimentalist but there seemed to be a more evident creative buzz to the places and people. Back then it felt a little like Berlin’s Kreuzberg district where bars and parties were frequented by arty types and everyone had a project of some kind. Recent return trips have found me defining the area as sterile for want of a better world where ‘alternative’ bars with a bit of attitude and individuality were slowly been taken away by shiny, chain looking substitutes.

Back to Berlin and the city is gearing up for arrival of The Factory onto the start-up landscape. Added to this is the strong development of creative friendly spaces in the city which has seen Berlin become one of the global centres for coworking. Then there is the “Berlin buzz”.  The city continues to be a magnet for creative types. It’s almost become a joke that everyone seems to be an artist or working on a “project” of some kind. At times this can even be a little nauseating but overall the vibe is of people willing to try things, a have a go attitude and that stuff is infectious.

What major differences have I noticed about living in London and Berlin that could be relevant for creativity? I have already mentioned the feeling of being less restricted and freer but along with that I would add that those living in Berlin appear more open minded and non-judgemental.

Then there is a noticeable alternative culture, a quest away from the conventional, a mentality thing, which if it persists, could give it an edge of over London in the longer term. I have also noticed that stress levels in Berlin can be a lot lower. London feels very crowded and faster paced where weeks and days seem to literally fly by.

In Berlin by comparison as a creative you arguably have two luxuries that you don’t typically have in London, time and more importantly peace of mind. A lot of this stems from the considerably lower costs of living that deal with the necessities and provide a comparable quality of life.

Of course London has well established and world class creative industries that will continue to serve it well and attract investment. If you lived in London for a number of years you can’t escape the omnipresent consumerism that runs through the city’s veins, but ironically the quest and urgency to monetise an idea may mean it misses a trick.

Berlin in 2013 feels a very special place for many creatives residing in the city. Fuelled by a lot of optimism, a chance to rip up the rule book, where arguably commercial imperatives are secondary to the quest for seeking out real alternatives could very well be the vital elements in the spirit of innovation. The next Google or Facebook coming out of Berlin rather than London? Don’t bet against it.       

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