A high “churn” rate has its downsides, but Hamburg needn’t worry

I recently spoke at 12min.me about “Why Hamburg?”, and the line I took was that international people generally come here for a specific reason, e.g. love, work, a recommendation from a friend, or some other coincidence. They don’t often come here because Hamburg is their dream destination, but usually love it when they are here.

This means that these people are rooted in, and rooting for, Hamburg.

High churn rate

Cities that have “gone viral”, on the other hand, don’t have this luxury. London, New York, Sydney and recently Berlin have such a strong international image that people just go there because they have heard it’s great and arrange a life around them once they are there: any job, accommodation, etc. The question “Why New York?” might even seem superfluous.

This group of young and internationally mobile people can leave at the drop of a hat, and do, meaning that they don’t necessarily put down roots in the same way that we do in Hamburg. This in turn means that there is a high “churn” rate of people coming and going.

This is the topic of an article by Richard Goodhart for Demos Quarterly, published by the UK thinktank Demos. The article itself is controversial in the way it deals with race issues – in my opinion, the author is too clumsy in his use of terms and statistics relating to the white population without clearly explaining why.

However, it points to some of the problems with being one of those hyper popular cities like London. I don’t want to do London a disservice – I love visiting friends there! – so take this with a pinch of salt, but the author describes a hellish vision of a city where people don’t put down roots, nobody trusts their neighbours, and nothing is sacred.

So what does this mean for Hamburg?

Firstly, this churn phenomenon is partly to do with the UK setup, which is much more polarised between London and not-London than Germany vís à vís Berlin. In fact, Germany has several cities that are richer than the capital and their populations aren’t way behind it. Birmingham, my home city and the second largest in the UK, is merely an eighth of the size of London in population; Hamburg is over half the size of Berlin.

Secondly, I think “churn” is not a problem Hamburg should really worry about. Hamburg could probably do with more internationalisation, even if some of those people come and go within a short space of time. (You can’t force them to stay here!) It’s only when it starts hitting high levels that it becomes a problem. I’d say this is like inflation in that respect. Or another comparison that springs to mind is the default fear that some organisations have when using social media or online forums: they decide not to do it because they worry about their capacity to moderate responses. In reality, their problem is not having enough interaction, rather than too much. The same goes for Hamburg as an international city: it would take a lot of work, and is probably impossible, to attract too many members of this “creative class” because Hamburg won’t go viral.

Thirdly, and on a similar note, I think places like Hamburg need to see the positive in not being a “viral city”.

Another social media analogy: not everyone is Stephen Fry, meaning the lessons we can learn from how he uses social media are limited. I think we can look to similar cities, and think about how we can do more low-level marketing instead of trying to compete with London and New York. This is a rather vague idea at the moment, but think more spear-fishing (addressing smaller groups, and having excellent “customer service” for startups thinking of relocating, the kind of stuff that requires a CRM system), instead of blunderbus-style catch-all marketing.

In all of that, I suggest there is a role for our long-term international people, who are rooted in the city, know it well, and have an interest in promoting it and ensuring that people have a good experience and stay here. After all, who wants to see their group of friends evaporate?