What I’ve learned from “Why Hamburg?” and Plans for 2015

It’s been just over a year since I started this project, aiming to get to the the bottom of why exactly people choose to move to Hamburg from abroad. I was motivated by personal interest and my professional background, having completed my graduate traineeship at Birmingham City Council, followed by a stint in Hamburg working in the area of online citizen participation, or e-participation. There is a close link between decisions for or against a particular city and the field of urban development. Much of the theory around why people move to a city is summed up by, or based upon, Richard Florida in his book “The Rise of the Creative Class”.

Since then, I’ve done ten portraits of other international people here in Hamburg and spoken to many more. I think I’ve got a better idea of why people choose Hamburg: in a nutshell, it’s not because Hamburg is their dream city, and many know little about it before they come here. Generally, either through a personal recommendation or personal circumstances (love or work) people end up here. But they usually fall in love with the place once they’ve spent some time here.

The two sides of Hamburg: “viral” nationally, “non-viral” internationally

To some extent, what Florida says applies to Hamburg. It particularly applies to Germans migrating within Germany, it would appear, as shown in this study by the Hamburg Institute of International Economics about attracting talented individuals. I think the reasons he lays out also align with the reasons that international people want to stay here, but not necessarily why they come here in the first place.

I think things are more complicated where what I call “non-viral” cities are concerned. Cities like London, New York, and Berlin have “gone viral” in the sense that they are very well known and have an incredibly strong international image. Hamburg is not one of those places. To make things more complicated, I would argue that Hamburg, within the German-speaking countries (DACH), is viral. So Hamburg has to operate differently in attracting internationals vís à vís attracting people from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In the former there is work to be done; in the latter, Hamburg is very successful – and justifiably so.

Goals for “Why Hamburg?” in 2015

The question, though, is where to take “Why Hamburg?” from here?

When I set out to start this project, I planned for it to be feasible as a pastime project. So it had to be enjoyable, and not take up too much time. That has worked out, so at a very minimum I will continue the project in its current form.

I am, however, seeking ways to extend it but this will mean finding other parties who have an interest in promoting what this blog is about. (This doesn’t necessarily mean extending the website, rather promoting the underlying values and goals.)

Making the case for an international Hamburg

It’s one thing to make demands of people, companies and public organisations within the city, but in order to be taken seriously we need arguments and voices that can convince these people that it’s worth the considerable effort. After all, Hamburg doesn’t have a problem attracting highly-skilled Germans so we need to demonstrate why throwing some internationals into the mix is worth the extra effort.

This project does that already: by showing examples of international people who have settled in Hamburg, in many cases learned the language, and are making a contribution through their businesses and employment we can show the unique perspective that internationals bring.

And the project itself, if I may say so, is an example of an international person (me!) marketing the city to outsiders with testimonials from people they can relate to. Each time one of the participants shares their story via social media, they are personally recommending Hamburg to hundreds, if not thousands, of their friends.

Doing the thinking and backing it up with facts

Selling Hamburg internationally is not easy. Not because Hamburg is not a nice place – of course it is, as I have outlined many times. The challenge is getting the message out there, competing with other places without being just a commodity, and reaching the right people.

My current thinking is that Hamburg needs to act very differently when marketing itself internationally, and in the case of attracting talented people to the city, it needs to think very differently about how to approach people it would like to attract. I’ll be writing more about this soon on the Hamburg Startups blog – but suffice to say, it’s more akin to customer relationship management than large-scale image campaigns.

Another aspect, which logically fits in with the niche campaigns that I think Hamburg needs to carry out, is about solving problems that international people face. I’ve identified a number of these through this project, and as Hamburg is reliant on recommendations for people choosing Hamburg, something comparable to good “customer service” is paramount.

All this thinking is very well, but at some point it has to be backed up with facts, statistics, and may even inform the basis for new research. Obviously I don’t have the resources to do all this myself, try as I might. Help would be appreciated!

Forging alliances

Next steps must be to find out who has an interest in supporting international people in Hamburg, and how they can help.

This means finding actors who want Hamburg to be promoted in a good light, who are interested in making life sustainable for international people in Hamburg, and are interested in how we can attract international people to Hamburg so that they can make a positive contribution to this great city.

This could be companies that recruit internationally (because the international market is larger, and international people bring benefits in and of themselves), or organisations that are interested in encouraging international startups and other companies to set up shop here. Incubators and public bodies spring to mind, as well as research institutions.

Any ideas? Get in touch!

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?

Career progression for international people in Hamburg

Recently I’ve been talking with quite a few international people in Hamburg about issues affecting them, because I’m brainstorming about where to take “Why Hamburg?”.

One of the issues that keeps coming up is employment.

My take on it is this: we’re really lucky to live in a lovely city like Hamburg, and even more lucky to have friends both from the local community and from all over the world. In order for this to be sustainable (apologies for inflational use of this word!), we need to have employment. Otherwise we’re not reaching our potential, and life is less enjoyable.

There are many international people in Hamburg who have good jobs. But if their company were to make them reduntant, or go bust, they would have trouble finding employment at the same level.

Some people work in jobs for which they are over-qualified; others are in danger of leaving altogether. I say “danger” because for me, when other international people leave Hamburg, that’s a threat to the lifestyle I enjoy. It’s also bad for the city, because international people who are rooted in Hamburg also root for Hamburg as I argued previously.

How do we enable career progression for international people in Hamburg?

I don’t think this is necessarily Hamburg or Germany-specific, and partly it is because – no matter how well you speak the local language – as a foreign person you will never be chief editor of the newspaper, or the person writing press releases.

But how do we ensure that international people can stay for the long-term, safe in the knowledge that they aren’t dependent on one employer and can progress through their career at successively high levels of skill and seniority, just like everyone else?

We can only succeed if Hamburg succeeds

Yesterday (11th December) I gave a talk at Absolute Software’s offices in central Hamburg as part of the 12min.me format. The concept is simple: speakers are allowed 12 minutes (and strictly no more!) to present a topic, followed by an equally strict 12 minutes of questions from the audience.

Thanks to Olli Rößling for inviting me. It was a great opportunity to spread the word and also to think in a structured way about what this project has taught me so far and where I want it to go next. There are so many things I could say about Why Hamburg? and I packed a lot in. Here are a few of the things I said.

We can only suceed if Hamburg succeeds

My message was: internationals are rooted in Hamburg, and rooting for Hamburg.

Continue reading We can only succeed if Hamburg succeeds

A growing international community at Shhared, Bahrenfeld

Yesterday (4th December) I went to my first “CIC” at Shhared, CIC standing for Creativity, Inspiration and Conversation. Alex Ahom, founder of Shhared, and Sabela Garcia organised the evening of talks, activities and conversation.

Since interviewing Alex for “Why Hamburg?” I have worked at Shhared on several occasions. It’s really to see things coming along there, and yesterday evening it was nice to meet other people from the wider community around Shhared and feel part of an emerging community.

The atmosphere was very relaxed and it felt like a good bunch of people from diverse backgrounds. The group was very international: at one point we did a round robin and everyone said their name and what country they came from. At the very least half of the people were originally from outside Germany.

So all in all, an enjoyable and productive evening and I’ll gladly go along to the next Shhared event! (Especially if there are beer and sausages again.)

Germany’s media capital gets a startup accelerator

I’m probably biased, but for me Hamburg is Germany’s undisputed media capital and recent events only confirm that: Twitter Germany recently located its main office from Berlin to Hamburg,  and now DPA (Deutsche Presse Agentur) has chosen Hamburg as the location for its new media startups accelerator.

As reported by Vocer, DPA chose Hamburg because they see more potential for angel investors (Hamburg is one of Germany’s most wealthy cities), and the network of actors within the media scene.

Twitter too cited Hamburg’s strong media scene, proximity to large customers, the presence of advertising agencies and the startup scene as justification for its move to Hamburg.

A bit of historical background: Germany’s largest and most well-known media organisations were founded in Hamburg. These include Axel Springer, Gruner + Jahr, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit. Over 70,000 people are employed in the media industries, with a total of 14,063 companies.

The startup accelerator builds nicely on Hamburg’s rising startup scene. For more information about that, see my interview with Sina and Sanja from Hamburg Startups.