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  • Seymour Gris: Tech in the Death Strip


Seymour Gris: Tech in the Death Strip

Start-ups take over the former Death Strip in a new tech-center called the Factory. But while Germany slowly develops into a "Start-Up Nation", maybe the strip will resume its earlier purpose, says Gris.

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Five years ago SLAB Mag produced an intriguing pamphlet (PDF) on the “New Death Strip” (NDS) – reviewing the urban development on the former no-man’s land 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They described a certain little cul-de-sac of townhouses with a scenic view of the NDS on Bernauer Straße as “Dead-Tech Santa Monica beach houses” – sterile, hi-tech domiciles promising a feel-good cutting-edge urban lifestyle.

Well, now there’s more Californian Dead-Tech in the neighbourhood. A few steps away one finds the Factory – a “campus” for curated [sic] internet start-ups and older tech companies, both local (Soundcloud) and global (Twitter).

Google, apparently undeterred by Germany’s tendency to nip at its heels with petty concerns about “privacy”, has thrown some pocket change at the project – a nice little PR event in the Googleverse. In his keynote speech at the Factory’s opening last week, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt congratulated Germany “for finally becoming a Start-up Nation.” Thanks Eric.

Factory founder, investor and entrepreneur Simon Schaefer, understandably overjoyed by the presence of the biggest of Silicon Valley bigwigs, lost his cool and disclosed his true agenda: “I want robots, I want drones flying around.”

The symbolism of the Factory’s location – the Wall used to run through the building – is all too perfect. Cutthroat Californian capitalism with a smile and free yoga is taking over the world, including Berlin. All the talk about ecosystems, seed capital and cross-pollination, organic accelerators, mentoring and angel investing, makes the Factory and the start-up scene as a whole appear gentle, flowery and twee – like it’s just a bunch of caring dudes who make brightly-coloured websites between playing table football and munching on an organic bagel at the in-house deli. All the window-dressing makes it hard to see the start-up “community” for what it mostly is: a club of ambitious, greedy young men (yes, mostly men) hoping to score a multi-million euro “exit” deal by selling their ingenious little bit of software to one demonic Californian megacorp or another.

Indeed, the Factory fits perfectly into the New Death Strip. There’s nothing harmless about it or the companies it fosters. In this “ecosystem”, the violent disruption and destruction of old industries is the name of the game. Who can blame Europe’s taxi drivers for getting their knickers in a twist over unregulated Uber. Who can blame the hotels – who actually employ thousands of people and pay taxes – for being aggressive towards competition from the massive black market for accommodation encouraged by Airbnb and co.?

Every start-up is cute and cuddly at the infant stage, but as they mature each one dreams of global domination and the rapid death of its old economy rivals. With a wide, bleached-teeth smile. And the charming smugness of the victorious: ““Europe is beginning to get it,” Schmidt said in his speech. Thanks Eric.

I walked past the Factory this morning and took a closer look at the mailboxes: apart from Twitter, there were very few tech businesses listed, rather several dozen mysterious property and holding companies with names like Billy Wilder Park Beteiligungs GmbH & Co. KG. and Clocktower Immobiliens Verwaltungs GmbH & Co. KG. In other words, the guys making the real money in Berlin right now: good old-fashioned real estate. Very innovative indeed!