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Day Zero: Innovation & Governance Trip to Berlin

The Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government is abroad with its Innovation and Governance study trip. Most of the students belong to the Master of Innovation Management program (alums or current students), most of which I have had the honor to supervise. This study trip is to understand the innovation ecosystem of Germany and its governance system. The enthusiasm was so high we began unofficially early, and here are a few notes of what we have learnt.

We took different transportation routes to Berlin because Berlin does not have many international landing slots!!! Surprising for a capital city. I was told Lufthansa did not want to open a landing slot (they have two large hubs in Frankfurt and Munich and figured out it is an easy connection). Of course, Berlin was divided into East and West Berlin before the 1990s, and Lufthansa did not have landing rights (just Aeroflot, PanAm, British Airways, and Air France, with Air Berlin, allowed later). Also, there has been tremendous lobbying by home airlines to prevent international airlines from flying to Berlin, hence our highly complex journey. You realize why systems thinking is critical for policymakers when you see (in this case) the industry power of lobbying and understand the representation of those decisions from outsiders' eyes!

I flew in from Munich and had a one-hour transit time to get my connecting flight (5 stars to Munich for the excellent logistics). Some traveled through Munich or Frankfurt and took the train, and others opted to take flights via other countries – Bosnia or Cairo. Yes, Germany is connected by a rail network, flights, and trains. Could it be better? I spent 20 minutes looking for a ticket center in Potsdamer Platz, and no one could help me – they were not kidding when we were advised to buy the Berlin welcome card!). Incidentally, the government gave a reduced fare to travel anywhere in Germany between June through August, for just €9 per month! While very popular, there have been debates on costs! Again an excellent example of short versus long-term policies and their impacts, which policymakers need to balance despite the popularism of short-term tactics.

Potsdamer Plats is named after an old route to the city of Potsdam and was divided by the Berlin Wall till reunification. It is considered part of Berlin-Mitte (Berlin City Center). It is home to the first railway line linking Berlin to Postdam in 1838. Potsdamer Bahnhof opened on 30 August 1872 (see the pictures!). It was an equivalent to Times Square in the 1920s-30s, a bustling place with an active nightlife and one of the world’s largest and luxury focussed department stores, Wertheim (1897). It was destroyed in World War II and became the site or the border strip between the two Berlins.

Most of us were in on Sunday. Sunday in Germany means all shopping is closed! However, the flea markets (flo market) and art markets come alive on weekends. I visited four just to soak in the ambiance and its families, young adults, and tourists, among some serious antique hunters. Of course, food stalls are plenty. You will find many local artisans. In Germany, being self-employed requires you to decide your “classification.” For example, “Free-professionals (Freiberufler) are those who have academic training - lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, etc. Other professions may be considered to be "trades." Then there are the "crafts" - such as butchers, barbers, florists, etc. And then there are the "freelancers" - writers, artists, performers, independent consultants, etc.” Craftspeople must meet German standards for that craft. (More info: here and if in a category such as trade, you must have your Master Craftperson certificate(Meistertitel), and you need to also register yourself for handicrafts like confectionary or haircutting and craft-like trades like theatre (more details here and here). The ability to vet handicrafts and perhaps preserve even the old ways of making things maybe important for heritage.

In Germany, Arts and Culture are essential. The government supports these through the constitution, as mentioned in Article 5: “Arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free.” It is a right. There is state and private sector funding (through tax breaks), and the creative class gets social security. During the pandemic, the state created a “Neustart Kultur” program distributing 50 billion Euros to support the industry. I lived in this country for three years and loved the traveling fairs! For wellbeing, we need to understand the role of arts and culture for our citizens.

The symbols of The Wall are everywhere, and I love how the Berliners have used open spaces to commemorate history. Perhaps other cities can learn how to convey city history through these open curated spaces. From 1949-90, East Berlin was the de facto capital of East Germany (GDR). Before that, since 1945, it was the Soviet sector of Berlin. The capital of West Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany, or FRG, was Bonn. Finally, Berlin became the capital in 1990 (it was voted). The voting in the Bundestag on June 20, 1991, was fierce: and Berlin won by a small margin changing history: 337 votes for Berlin and 320 votes for Bonn. The ability to lobby and win an agenda is an important policymaker's skills.

Not just the actual Berlin wall exists, but the symbolic wall of metal rods and other reminders that give German and English information to visitors traveling by. Small memorials on the pathways give you an idea of families or people who died or escaped during those turbulent years. Take the story of Olga Segler, an 80-year-old woman who was separated from her daughter. She was left behind in East Berlin as she could not flee with them across the wall when it was being built. She tried to jump to the other side and died of injuries – is written in the sign below and commemorated with a stone where she fell and died.

Another memorial to the Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust is the memorial to the murdered Jews. This memorial is made up of 2711 slabs. Underneath is memorial with the names of 3 million murdered people. This memorial cost 25 million euros. It is estimated that during World War II, approximately 6 million Jews died and 5 million were Prisoners of War. One reason why this war waging on is so personal to many Europeans. History is deeply personal even if you never lived through it. It is kept alive in books, movies, through education, passed down from one generation to another through stories, and other forms of culture. Ideally nations can shape history and its retelling. I worry with everything online, how easy it is becoming to change history with a click of a button.

West Berliners have more money than East Berliners. Some massive reconstruction projects and real estate development have been taking place, possibly displacing original East Berliners. Anyway - there is a difference between East and West Berlin in layout of the cities at least. For city planners as spaces develop, and you need to integrate old and new I do suggest think of how to capture the imagination of the public to remember, to forget and what messages you feel are important for the new generations to learn.

In the evening, we walked to Brandenburg Gate, another symbol that various people appropriated for themselves. It was built between 1788 and 1791. The Quadriga (a chariot pulled by four horses) has been a victim of conquests – it was brought down three times (and even taken to France by Napoleon). It was damaged in 1956 (World War II), and what you see is a reconstruction. It was during the cold war between east and west Berlin – in a space, no one could visit. Finally, with the fall of the wall, the gate was opened and became a symbol of reunification. Most of my early research was on place branding and so the repurposing of symbols is fascinating. Policymakers need to understand how to change narratives and storytelling is an important skill.

Stay tuned for more about this trip!

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