San Francisco has Silicon Valley. Tel Aviv has Silicon Wadi. London’s tech start-ups cluster round Old Street tube station, a place known with typical English self-deprecation as “Silicon Roundabout”. And now Berlin, with its own crop of international start-ups, has effortlessly gained the name of “Silicon Allee”. I contacted several of these companies that are involved in education technology, to find out what it is about Berlin that is making it into such a hub for entrepreneurship.
By Alasdair MacKinnon
Berlin has always been Germany’s international meeting-point. The Bundesrepublik has many global cities that are equally as important to the global economy as Berlin, if not more so; the financial hub is Frankfurt, the major port Hamburg, the high-tech centre Stuttgart, and so on. Berlin, in the words of its mayor the “poor, but sexy” state, may not have economic riches to match these; however, situated at the point where the road from Paris meets the road to Moscow, it is historically the place where people, ideas and cultures from across Europe collide. For much of the twentieth century, this collision was expressed in conflict: the Berlin wall became the physical representation of the clash between east and west. Reunification has allowed the city’s cultures to melt creatively together once again; over a quarter of Berliners nowadays are of foreign origins, making Berlin the most international city in Germany: alongside the famously low cost of living and office space, this makes it the perfect place for a young company with global ambitions to start out.
From interviews with just a small number of start-ups, I was amazed by the number of different places their employees came from: there were Scandinavians, Italians, Russians and Germans working alongside people from as far afield as India, Vietnam and Argentina. This is not just typical of Berlin: for many companies, it is a key to success. HowDo, for example, is a peer-to-peer learning platform for capturing and acquiring DIY skills: users upload their own how-to guides to share with other users worldwide, on subjects as varied as crochet and acrobatics. “We’ve had an international focus from day one,” said Emma Metcalfe, the co-founder. “We felt that it was important to showcase the types of knowledge that exist in different cultures.” And it’s not just the international mix that is valued by tech companies: today’s Berlin is also a place where the creative and tech industries come together. “There’s dreamers and grafters,” Emma told me – “that feels like the perfect home to build the future from.”
Berlin’s tech start-ups are the cutting edge of the e-learning revolution: based on their international roots, they hope to cause fundamental changes in education globally. This aspiration is illustrated by MATH 42, a learning programme that helps 5th to 12th-grade students solve maths problems intelligently, through suggestions and step-by-step working. The founder, Thomas Nitsche, is a former computer chess world champion, and has transferred some of the concepts he learnt there to his latest application – an example of technical genius creatively solving what he describes as “one of the biggest pain points in school”. And he has bold ambitions: “we really want to disrupt math education at all levels — reaching from how math is taught at school to covering the private tutoring market. In the long run we should do well especially in emerging countries, because affordable education is something which is really needed there.”
This self-confidence is one of the things I found most impressive about Berlin’s ed-tech entrepreneurs: they all have a firm belief in their own product’s ability to conquer their chosen market. And practically all markets are represented: while HowDo aims to fill gaps in lifelong learning, MATH 42’s creators have decided to take on, and hope to overturn, 5th to 12th-grade learning – a highly competitive sector. Then there is K.lab’s meinUnterricht.de, a platform helping teachers to prepare their lessons and access over 60,000 pages of quality learning materials. “We would like to use technology to enable teachers to enjoy and master their profession,” says K.lab co-founder Benjamin Wüstenhagen. It seems that for every problem in education, there is a company out there with an innovative solution, trying to make life easier and learning more effective.
“Education doesn’t have to be boring and shouldn’t be a painful experience,” Holger Seim of Blinkist told me, “it should integrate into people’s everyday life.” His company turns non-fiction books into a made-for-mobile format, distilling the key lessons and information that may be otherwise hard to access. “People are curious and eager to learn new things, but these things remain increasingly out of reach for most of us, being hidden in long books or complex interfaces.” It is companies like these that are finally bringing education up to date: exploiting modern phenomena to deliver the same information that would previously have been only learnt laboriously in a wholly new way, which Holger describes as “a perfect balance between insightful / in-depth, yet easy-to-consume and entertaining.”
Talking to Berlin-based entrepreneurs about their chosen home, one word keeps cropping up: “vibrant”. It is a word perhaps overused by guidebooks and tour companies – but sometimes, as a film critic once said, “the banal truths are the important ones”. The fact is that Berlin’s vibrancy – its international mixture of “dreamers and grafters”, creativity and industry, east and west, is what is making this city into one of the most buoyant capitals in the world, and the perfect place for ONLINE EDUCA to base itself. Now in its 19th year, the Conference has long recognised the city as the perfect place for people from all over the world to come together and exchange ideas. These days Berlin, so long the focus of world events for entirely different reasons, is once more at the centre of global attention: recalling the words of Ernst Reuter, who, speaking in 1948 and in a very different context, declared: “People of the world, look to Berlin!”