Save Berlin: Campus fever

Dan surveys the city’s start-up campus boom. In July, manufacturing giant Siemens announced plans to create a centre for aspiring technology entrepreneurs in Spandau which they’re calling an “innovations campus”. But Siemens isn't alone.

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The future Zalando Campus being built on the former Media Spree grounds. Illustration by HENN

Dan surveys the city’s start-up campus boom.

In July, manufacturing giant Siemens announced plans to create a centre for aspiring technology entrepreneurs in Spandau which they’re calling an “innovations campus”. Siemensstadt is already home to a 42,500 sqm work-sharing space in a former Siemens office building named Techno Campus Berlin. These are just two of a slew of self-described “campuses” popping up around Berlin, all aimed at giving the city’s flourishing startup industry a shot in the arm. But critics say that behind their innocuous names, these campuses are breeding grounds for an unbridled capitalism that threatens the city’s affordable rents, landmark buildings and way of life.

A new digital-economy business opens its doors in the Hauptstadt every 20 minutes.”

Siemens is arriving late to Berlin’s startup party. It’s said that, beginning in 2013, a new digital-economy business has opened its doors in the Hauptstadt every 20 minutes. Office space is scarce. In those five years, commercial rents have jumped 56 percent to €19.20 per square metre. 

Then why the need for that “shot in the arm”? In reality, starting up a business may be fun, but running it is a grind – and usually heartbreaking. Statistics show that 75-90 percent of startups fail in the first two years. Enter an array of entrepreneurial-aid organizations – startup engines, incubators, accelerators, and now campuses – that offer mentoring, networking and maybe even cash.

Google’s controversial exercise in PR

Siemens joins Google whose own Berlin startup lab, simply titled Campus, opens this fall in Kreuzberg. Since the project’s unveiling two years ago, activists have held regular protests spotlighting the global data-mining behemoth’s history of trampling on privacy and exploiting workers. Even worse for some, Google’s Campus is defiling a land-mark building, the 1926 Umspannwerk by architect Hans Heinrich Müller. The beloved Cathedral of Electricity, they say, is being transformed into an evangelical recruitment center for the kind of rapacious “business as usual” that’s already killing the planet. Siemens’ and Google’s startup accelerators are essentially exercises in public relations. They can play generous while sniffing out potential competition, either to exploit their ideas or, given startups’ typical tragic life cycle, accelerate their demise.

Springer’s Kreuzberg turnaround

Publishing giant Axel Springer, on the other hand, has put its money where its mouth is. The newspaper firm made a dramatic U-turn in 2013, selling off a dozen print publications to focus on digital media. They’ve invested in over 100 successful Berlin startups including job-search platform Stepstone, the housing portal Immonet and price-comparison search engine Idealo. In 2013, the company announced plans to round up all these disparate startups under one roof, a new building next to their Kreuzberg headquarters with the working title Axel Springer Digital Campus. Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas describes his design, a futuristic cube with a 30-metre high atrium, as “a building to lure the elite of (Germany’s) digital Bohemia”. Since construction began in 2017, there’s been another U-turn. The building at the corner of Zimmerstraße and Axel Springer Straße has changed names, from Digital Campus to Neubau, or simply “new building”. It’s now slated to house 3500 workers from Springer’s editorial and publishing departments when it opens next year. The lure didn’t work. Did Berlin’s digital elite rebel at the idea of being corralled under the watchful eyes of their corporate bosses?

Zalando’s Campus renaissance on Media Spree

Twenty years ago, Berlin’s planners cleared a strip of century-old warehouses along the Spree River in Friedrichshain with dreams of building an office park to lure entertainment companies. They named it Media Spree. Now construction cranes are finally filling the empty plots around Mercedes Benz Arena with office blocks custom built for Zalando. The online clothing retailer is Berlin’s one-in-a-million startup success story. Architecture firm HENN won the competition to de- sign two curvy glass blocks planned to open next year, finally gathering most of Zalando’s 6000+ office workers together at one site. The key to making those decades-old plans a reality? A simple name change: from Media Spree to Zalando Campus.