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Maximum Impact

With its rich artistic tradition, thriving music scene and some of the best museums and galleries in the world, the city of Berlin is almost unparalleled in terms of culture. But how large a stake does the city hold in the global economy, and how does its creative startup community contribute to this? Few are better-placed to comment than Leon Reiner, partnerships manager at Berlin's branch of Impact Hub, a global network of co-working spaces housing some of the most exciting startups of the moment.
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07.01.15
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What is the purpose of the Impact Hub network, and what is your involvement in the organisation?

Our vision is to help build a more just and sustainable economy. We believe that, by changing the ways in which we conduct business, we can contribute greatly to a better future. We want to do that by giving a home to the global movement of people who pioneer innovative ideas for people, planet and profit. Impact Hub is a network of spaces, people and ideas that currently spans 63 spaces on all five continents and about 12,000 members.

As one of the founders here in Berlin, I’m managing director and responsible for our partnerships. Currently, I’m also leading the construction works on our new space in the heart of Berlin, Friedrichstrasse 246. For this we are running a crowdfunding campaign on www.startnext.com with some great perks, like a shirt with one of our mottos: Where ideas have sex. Check it out and support us!

What is your background as a professional, and how did you end up here?

I studied development economics, trying to understand why some countries are poor, others are rich and what to do about it. But after years of analysing failed policies of development I couldn’t imagine going to a foreign country to tell people what to do. I wanted to find something new to solve the problems on here on our doorstep – I found social entrepreneurship.

After writing my final thesis, I started interning at a consultancy for social entrepreneurs in Berlin. I got lucky, and shortly after I started there, they kicked off the first German-speaking incubation program supporting social start ups, and they hired me. In my time there, I got to see many ideas in an early phase. I saw what could be done and what couldn’t, and after some time set out to start my own business. After teaching social entrepreneurship at university and some smaller consulting gigs, I met my co-founders Anna, Nele, and Martin. I can’t believe it’s been two years since we first started working on Impact Hub Berlin.

Impact is a global chain of creative hubs, rather than a standalone organisation. How much collaboration is there between the businesses based in your Berlin branch, and those based in the other Impact Hubs across the world? Is this something you try to encourage?

This is definitely something we want to encourage. We believe Impact Hubs are the perfect infrastructure to interact and also scale into new markets. Much of this already happens informally. Any Impact Hub member who wants to reach out to other members or cities can do so through our online platform HubNet that hosts all members globally. We have a standardised model of exchange between the teams running Impact Hubs through Communities of Practice forums and online tutorials, as well as yearly conferences.

We would love to see this kind of formalisation for our members as well, and we are currently working on this challenge on a global level. As a first step we opened parts of our yearly congress to partners and collaborators. The ‘Unlikely Allies’ Conference will take place in Romania this June and we are already super excited!

Impact Hub Berlin's new space on Friedrichstrasse

Impact Hub will be moving into new premises at the end of March – how will the new offices differ from your current space, and what improvements are you looking to make?

It will be a huge change. We have been prototyping – meaning that for one year we ran the Impact Hub Berlin on 100 sq.m with minimal investment, in order to test our assumptions. We did so successfully and also raised most of the needed capital to scale.

Last autumn we commenced a design process with our community to find out what a new space would need to suit their needs perfectly. Together we came up with a concept of activity-based zones. We’ll have a café-like, dynamic co-working space, a space for focused co-working with a library atmosphere, standing desks, couches, a sleeping den, monk cells, team offices, and a huge event space. So it’s really about giving our users the possibility to decide in the morning: ‘What’s my day like today?’, and accordingly decide upon the kind of setting in which they want to work.

Also, in terms of location, we’ll be much more central, with one of Berlin’s most prestigious addresses, Friedrichstrasse, which is already helping us at times. In the future, this will hopefully be the case for other organisations registered with us.

How big a role do creative startups play in Berlin’s economy?

Generally a huge one. From the outside, many people fail to realise that Berlin is one of the poorest cities in Germany with huge unemployment. Berlin, historically, doesn’t have heavy industry or other big German companies in town, so tourism and the creative industries play a big role. Recently though, positive development around the startup scene has started to be recognised for its great potential economic boost for the city.

To what extent is social enterprise a part of Impact Hub’s philosophy?

It is an integral part. We see the concept of social enterprises as one of the tools that will play a big role in building the kind of economy we feel is needed to build a better future. We in Berlin as well as most other Impact Hubs see ourselves as social enterprises. We do what we do to achieve our vision; earning money is just a means to an end. The great thing about our model is that, the more customers we have, the more we can further our vision.

How supportive is the German government of organisations such as yours, which foster emerging businesses in developing industries?

Throughout the last two years we haven’t had any concrete support. There have been some talks on city and also government level, but so far nothing has come from it. Still, social entrepreneurship is also a comparably young and small topic in Germany, although it is now growing. We are seeing a lot more engagement currently, and I am confident we will see a lot happening over the next two years. We have seen a similar development in the tech start-up scene, where by now there is a good support system in place.

Do you believe that cooperative working spaces such as yours dispel the notion that capitalism is cutthroat and hyper-competitive by nature?

I think it is generally problematic to speak of one kind of capitalism. It is a system with many shapes and forms that is so persistent precisely because of its adaptability. Here at Impact, we make use of this to build something that has no fixed name yet, but is often referred to as ‘purpose economy’, ‘collaborative economy’ and others. So what we strive for really is a new kind of capitalism that actually gives us a future instead of destroying it. Dispelling the image of cutthroat capitalism is an aim we have yet to achieve, but hopefully we can do this by having more and more success with new modes of economy.

Tell us about some of the exciting projects to come out of the hub in recent months.

Here in Berlin we just recently hosted the first Startup Weekend Social Innovation. We hosted 62 designers, business geeks, and developers, of which 31 pitched an idea using tech for good. After 54 hours, 11 amazing ideas were presented in front of the jury. In the end the winners were No Booze, an online solution aiming to revolutionise begging and WeConnect, a platform that connects refugees and Berliners via fun activities like sports.

It was huge success that was only possible because of the great partnerships we had with ViO Water and Make Sense. In fact, we were part of a globally coordinated series of startup weekends on the topic. Events like this – bringing together different partners and people of so many different backgrounds to work together and find innovative solutions to social problems – is at the core of our mission. Now we are working to build up the infrastructure to support ideas like WeConnect or No Booze on a continuous level.

How do you see the Impact Hub organisation evolving over the next few years, in Berlin and globally?

Here in Berlin, we are really only starting. The city has huge potential to become the home of many new ways to do business, and we are already seeing more and more social businesses and ideas from the sharing economy popping up across town. Berlin has a history of doing things differently. We want to continue this tradition of this Berlin way. In this sense, you could say we are traditionalists.

More concretely, we are already getting many new requests and I can well imagine having several Impact Hubs in Berlin like they have in London. It’s really about growing a movement. With what we do, we hope to contribute to that movement. Globally, we are working hard to make Impact Hubs more connected, and to learn how we can best use our power as a network to achieve our mission.

http://impacthubberlin.net