The innovation commune

By Brock LeMieux on December 17th, 2012

San Francisco has long been heralded as a mecca for intentional communities and communal living since its days as a hippie haven during the summer of love. But that was the twentieth century. The city has since forged the perfect marriage with the tech-heavy Valley surrounding it, taking the traditional commune model to the next level.

It began with a rise of communal living spaces geared toward the creative, tech, and entrepreneurship scenes in the late 90s, when places like Rainbow Mansion began to pop up. High-achieving friends and, in the case of Rainbow, NASA technologists roomed together to enjoy a luxurious life for a fraction of the price. As the housing market continued to boom, and many huge Valley homes began receiving notices of foreclosure, the concept of the innovation commune continued to crawl up the curve.

Whether called communes, live-work spaces, or fully-fledged distributed housing networks like the ambitious Embassy Network, these spaces are turning into hotspot holding places for powerful networks of increasingly mobile, entrepreneurial digital natives who are taking collaboration, work and lifestyle as many know it to another level. For many, physical offices are history as their colleagues are anywhere and everywhere.

Some of these concepts rise up fast out of the Valley. Others quickly slide down. One such example which claimed it never “failed, it just learned a lot in the process” is the Glint. Aimed at “redesigning heroism, bridging philosophy with the arts and entrepreneurship”, it still exists, yet no longer under the same name. Some say these spaces need proper management: full-time staff to keep them ticking over.

Berlin, a hype-heavy city that our own Milo Yiannopoulos has claimed is on the rise, could be a new phoenix and an example of what it means to be a collaboration-friendly city. There’s the gritty yet slowly gentrifying lofts of Friedrichshain, one of which holds a recently launched live-work space called Sandcastle, comprised of members of the Sandbox Network, a global group of 600 innovators under the age of 30. Then there’s the cutesy Prenzlauerberg, packed full of hipster mommies and daddies struggling against national chains with their artisanal pop-ups.

That’s a good metaphor for what’s happening with the city’s tech scene – and its creative class – except this very global group is welcoming multinationals with open arms. The benefits of their welcoming approach are starting to become clear: desperately attempting to go global with their concepts and leaving the insecurities and inexperience of their twenties behind, these “young, but not too young” rogue professionals are birthing beautiful babies together.

Suddenly, the German capital seems smaller, with a built-in culture of collaboration.

Berlin, as a city itself considered a start-up, is a new kind of innovation commune. Though growing rapidly, unlike San Francisco its size works to its advantage. Walk into any of the city’s hotspots and social serendipity is perfectly architected in the same manner many Valley live-work spaces are attempting to do at kitchen tables. Meaningful partnerships are created in the blink of an eye and shared purpose is communicated with the precision of a German minute hard to find in North America.

One local entrepreneur told me: “Of course everyone is busy. But that’s part of the reason it’s so easy to forge valuable connections. It’s also because there is a level of trust in this city unlike any other.” Many would argue that Berlin’s idealistic altruism can’t be found in London or the Valley, no matter how big the mansion you create to foster interactions between inventive people.

Many entrepreneurs in Berlin are transforming Bohemian past lives in music or photography, translating their cultural expertise into big business. These natural collaborators are interfacing unemployable (yet happily self-employed) networks in the creative and tech industries with large companies to pull off ambitious and experimental innovation projects.

Think Palomar 5, an innovation accelerator which, back in 2010, staged a six-week innovation camp Deutsche Telekom is rumoured to have poured over a million euros into. Thirty people under the age of thirty from around the world came together to live in an old warehouse and create self-initiated projects around the future of work – all on corporate dime. (Admittedly, Berlin has never really been known as a corporate haven, with only a few major companies like Siemens, media conglomerates like Axel Springer and Deutsche Telekom, Europe’s largest telecommunications company.)

The question is: are these events putting a forward-thinking cap on large companies or are they truly groundbreaking social experiments breeding a new, transformative global force of what some are calling “knowmads“, bringing a more human-centered side to the corporate world and bridging the local Berlin creative network onto the global scene? Many would argue the latter, as these hybrid concepts push well past the borders of Berlin.

Perhaps the newest hybrid on the market could be hy!. (Full disclosure: I do community management for hy!’s parent, BERLIN42, and this position will often inspires the subjects of this column.)

This is what’s making the city shine when it comes to really creating the innovation commune of the twenty-first century. While San Francisco may be creating spaces to house folks looking inward for the inspiration, networking, investment and infrastructure to invent the future, Berlin feels both transient and globally ambitious. “Perhaps it’s the appeal to lost souls that gives Berlin its edge,” one of our correspondents wrote recently. “Everyone I meet here is either running away from, or toward, something.”

What Berlin needs to do if it wants to put itself on the map as a model of a city-wide innovation commune, one that pushes well past the borders of some mansion and out into not just the city but the world, is to recognise that a spirit of collaboration isn’t enough on its own. An openness from the companies financing the creative energy behind these experimental ventures only goes so far. These young, globally-oriented, value and impact-driven Berliners not from Berlin have the responsibility, opportunity, and necessity to bring these companies into the future. If not only to keep the money flowing into their own projects.

In many cases, such cross-sector communication has failed. While the above mentioned Palomar 5 innovation camp was considered a success, there wasn’t a sequel. In the future, I am already seeing people look to Berlin as a city the same way many look at the residential spaces that emerged out of the Valley a decade ago. Only this time, with the power to leverage the financial and global breadth large companies have, looking to put their money into ways that can help them survive in a world where the young people they are financing are flourishing.

There will always be a strong culture of innovation, creativity, and collaboration in spaces like Rainbow Mansion, and in particular the Embassy Network, which looks to expand across the globe with an open source approach. Berlin, however, could be the first city we can look to that goes past that border – and takes the world with it.