Tech Open Air, The Sense of Berlin for Creativity – By Tobia De Angelis

tobiaVisual art, music, tech, startups and venture capital – all of them are highly experimental, prone to failure and aim to transform our society. And I was thrilled to attend Tech Open Air, a new event that brings together artists, investors, product people and scientists to celebrate creativity and discuss innovations, technology and culture.

I was able to attend the event, and I’m happy to share with FinSMEs readers a few things I’ve learned, in no particular order.

Among the others, I was amazed by the talk by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator at MoMA, which was about Design and Violence, a web-based project collecting a huge variety of objects and design ideas carefully designed to kill or hurt people. It’s somehow shocking to see how much ingenuity humans put in anything they do – and killing is a big part of it.

Speaking about our world, my attention was grabbed by China and Silicon Valley alternative models, two topics extensively discussed at TOA.

Stage 4 was the best stage of the festival, despite being the smallest indoor stage. Organized by NEU China, it hosted a great variety of topics with China as common theme. Being a European citizen, I was curious to learn more about what’s going on in the biggest competitor to the US/Silicon Valley system.
Here some takeaways:
– China is a huge market for digital goods – people spend $15 bn a year in mobile gaming and people use to pay to live stream/broadcast, and there’s no surprise then that a big VR movement is taking off.
– While technical challenges (framerate, real time motion) are shared by all VR companies in the world, it seems more difficult fo Chinese companies to gather attention of the young, still-too-risk-adverse VC community to build an ambitious company without a concrete plan to make revenue in a short time.
– TL;DR: China seems to have the best market in terms of number of users and habit of spending but it’s not the best place to start a company in this space for an immature, too risk-adverse VC ecosystem.
– David Lee – founder of the first maker space in Shenzhen and speaker at TOA – pointed out, VC-backed companies represent less than 1% of the total companies founded in China (and in the world too) and the VC-backed entrepreneur is not the typical Chinese entrepreneur. It’s shocking to acknowledge that there is a huge number of unknown companies who make $5/15M in revenue per year and are totally bootstrapped or crowdfunded – many of which basically build a hardware product for vertical markets and based in Shenzhen.
– Shenzhen is today the place to be for any maker or hardware entrepreneur, because its culture and production facilities can provide to the biggest variety of components and maker talents in the world.
A simple example comes from company shipping 50 million units of a particular device – with 8 giant speakers – a year. Who needs an eight-speaker huge smartphone? Turns out, construction workers do. And it’s a big business.

Silicon Valley Alternative Models
The overall mood of TOA was a big “we are Berlin” statement with a question mark at the end. What is “Berlin” today? It’s still difficult to define. The first talk to give a systemic description of Berlin was Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler, the last speaker of the conference.
Stickler, a former art critique turned entrepreneur, talked about how culture, narrative and business have the power to shape our society, and the unique potential and opportunity that Berlin has to become a unique tech hub, globally.
Kickstarter recently did something incredible for a private tech company: it paid dividends to its investors. I wasn’t able to fully understand the reason behind it until I’ve heard him speak.
Strickler is an idealistic entrepreneur, who isn’t afraid to point out all is wrong with the Silicon Valley model of hyper-growth at all costs – something that the many Rocket Internet employees who attended at the conference might have found difficult to accept but worth thinking about.
His point was that Berlin shouldn’t follow this model but build a real alternative – based on privacy and restored respect for the user/customer, based on companies with the ambition to have a positive impact on society at scale.
I wasn’t conviced by all the ideas – mainly because all of the biggest Silicon Valley based companies had a huge positive impact on society too, and he seemed to forget it in his own speech.

What is clear to me after TOA is that the unique atmosphere and culture of Berlin, more than Brexit, represents the biggest chance for the city to become a tech hub able to spur world-changing companies.



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