berlin
Business Management

Berlin: A British Perspective on Germany's Tech Hub

Sitting in a basic apartment-hotel not far from the centre of Berlin, listening to a fridge that sounds like Darth Vader and, thanks to a painful ear infection, a daughter who sounds like an opera singer in labour. This is not my typical Berlin experience.

I've been here before, several times. Berlin is one of a number of European cities I could easily see myself living and working in. And it seems I'm not alone. This city has been undergoing an IT revolution in recent years, with start-ups emerging all over the city as young, tech-savvy people move in.

I'm not going to list all the recent Berlin startup successes (and failures): a simple web search will do that. I'm interested in why they're here. What's the appeal? Why have IT companies been moving to Berlin in the past few years, or been formed here? It seems a combination of factors has nudged this city, always known for its Bohemian and artistic population, into the technology limelight. But first, a wider perspective.

The euro benefited Germany for many years, thanks to interest rates that favoured the northern EU countries much more than the southern ones, but even after the financial crisis Germany has powered on. Partly that's due to continued high demand for luxury products in new and existing markets (including, but not limited to, vehicles). Partly it's due to high levels of education – technical/engineering in particular – and an employment environment that at least attempts to balance the profit motive with workers' rights (strong unions help in this respect).

And, it has to be said, partly it's due to the work ethic. Germany's recent World Cup win was lauded internationally, with surprisingly few sour grapes even from traditional 'enemies' such as the English tabloid press. There's a good reason for that: they worked hard and deserved the result.

Take all those facts and add in Berlin's appeal to young people: great bars, fantastic clubs, good restaurants, loads of cafés and, perhaps most importantly, an open-minded population.

Contrary to the stereotype, Germans tend to be friendly, welcoming and warm people. A quarter of a century ago I drove around mainland Europe with two friends in a converted Bedford van. Scruffily dressed and culturally naive, we saw everyday life and prejudices in a dozen countries. The Dutch were fun, the French loathed us, the Germans went out of their way to be helpful.

Statistically meaningless anecdotes, I know, but those German attitudes are certainly visible in Berlin. You don't really know what helpfulness is like until you've walked around a city at night trying to find a GP to prescribe antibiotics and painkillers for your daughter's ear infection.

Berlin is not a rich city, by any means. A couple of years ago Berlin's mayor described the city as "poor but sexy" and there was little to no government investment for the IT sector. That has changed in recent years: Berlin isn't exactly awash with public cash for tech startups, but there are at least some funds available.

The language barrier? Hardly a factor these days. Like it or not, English remains the default international business language and the majority of programming languages use English words. Ask a young Berliner if they speak English and the typical response is a mildly indignant "For sure!" – much as if you'd asked them if they breathe air. Though you're almost as likely to hear a Polish, American, Russian or Turkish accent as a German one among the four million inhabitants.

The cost of living is rising here, as you might expect. Home ownership is still not particularly popular, at least by US/UK standards, with renting the preferred option thanks to sensible long-term tenancy regulations that strongly favour the tenant. And actually buying a house or apartment can be a tedious process at best, a nightmare if you're a foreigner.

Even so, property prices and rents have been creeping upwards in Berlin, which may threaten the city's Bohemian status in the longer term. Typical cycle: the cool kids make an area interesting and lively, then the money moves in and the cool kids can't afford to live there anymore. But that's an international problem, not restricted to Berlin, and 'high' prices here are still relatively sane compared to London or San Francisco. If the tech culture can flourish there, it can certainly flourish here.

As an example, a move from London to Berlin could leave the average coder or tech entrepreneur significantly better off financially due to the lower cost of living, and arguably richer in other respects too, such as social life, access to different cultures, commuting time (and temperature, if you're a regular Tube traveller) and overall sanity. The downsides? A small time-difference and distance from friends and family, but since you could fly from Berlin to a UK airport faster than you could commute from one side of London to the other on a bad day, that's not such a drawback.

So would I move here if my personal circumstances allowed it? For sure.

 

Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business, Ministry of Prose.

 

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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