Learning the language: someone’s got to give

Given the topic of this article, I should quickly explain the word play in the title. When you say “something’s got to give”, that can mean that there are two opposing interests or opinions and one person has to compromise, or just give in. Until yesterday, I thought this to be the case for the language issue.

The language issue?

Yes, the language issue. I mean this apparent paradox: people come to a foreign country, usually wanting to learn the language. But in order to survive here long enough to learn the language, they need to get up-and-running – getting a job, getting registered, finding a network of friends – without speaking German so that they can support themselves long enough to stay here and … learn the language.

So on the one hand, we shout at everyone here: “speak English!”

But everyone who has ever learnt a foreign language knows that you can’t learn a language without speaking it. So: “speak German to us!”.

I can imagine this gets confusing for the locals. They must think: “Can these people please make up their minds?”

German for beginners

Yesterday I interviewed Rebecca from the UK, who works near Johannes-Brahms-Platz (named after the world-famous composer who was born and lived a long time in Hamburg). The article will be appearing in the next couple of weeks – please be patient!

Rebecca came up with a great idea: how about events that are in German, but aimed at people who are non-native speakers? This makes expectations clear from the start of the event: everybody is there to speak German, including during the networking afterwards; it’s ok not to understand everything (and to say so); and you don’t have to worry that people will snap into English as soon as you look puzzled.

We’re in this together: someone’s got to give

Hence the word play in the title. Not “something’s got to give” because we’re all in this together. In return for help learning the language, we can provide immersive environments for non-native speakers. This is a big advantage for people who do business internationally. It’s also just nice.

By having events for English learners and German learners, and making expectations clear, I think we can make Hamburg a better place for international people, and do our bit to make our city more successful internationally. We’ve all got to give – and can only benefit by doing so.

Why do people move to a city? What Richard Florida says and whether it applies to Hamburg

My aim when starting this project was to find out why people move to Hamburgand to shed a bit of light on whether conventional wisdom – that cities are in competition with each other and need to do all they can to attract mobile, talented people who can move at the drop of a hat – applies to Hamburg. I’m also interested in what cities have to do to attract people.

This is especially relevant as Germany and other countries increasingly find themselves in need of highly-skilled workers, the so-called Fachkräftemangel.

Richard Florida and the Creative Class

One of the major thinkers and writers on this topic is Richard Florida, author of the 2002 book “The rise of the creative class”. A while ago, I got hold of the Revisited version.

From page 183 onwards, you can read the story of a graduate who was recruited from a Pittsburg university by an Austin company. Florida suggests that the real reasons people choose a city. It’s not about impressive buildings:

The physical attractions that most cities focus on building – sports stadiums, freeways, urban malls, and tourism-and-entertainment districts that resemble theme parks – are irrelevant, insufficient, or actually unattractive to them.

As it happens, I was having a chat to friends the other night about whether Hamburg’s hugely expensive world-class concert hall complex, the Elbphilharmonie, will do anything to make Hamburg more visible internationally. According to Florida, it will not. (For more on this, see below.)

What is it that attracts these people? Florida says its more about other people like them, but not too like them – diversity is very important.

What creatives look for are abundant high-quality amenities and experiences, an openness to diversity of all kinds, and above all else the opportunity to validate their identities as creative people. […]

A big part of [the] success [of places where creatives live] stems from that fact that they are places wher creative people want to live.

Does this tally up with my experience? Yes and no

Firstly, “Why Hamburg?” isn’t just about the creative class that Florida describes, but there is a big overlap.

All in all, I very much agree with Florida in terms of what makes a city attractive to internationals: in simple terms, it’s the people. Spouses, friends, recommendations from friends – usually there is somebody who has given the person a nudge to move to Hamburg. Diversity, too, is often mentioned by participants.

However lots of people come here because of work, which Florida says the creative class aren’t so bothered by.

It’s also slightly different with Hamburg, because although other people generally cause someone to come here, it’s usually individuals giving them that nudge for a wide range of reasons. That’s much different from a community radiating an image about a place that attracts more members.

Most interviewees love Hamburg also because of its amenities like parks, lakes, greenness, public transport, night-life etc., which contradicts what Florida says. But I think the group of friends and acquaintances, even a network of like-minded people to do business with, is the most important factor in making people stay.

So was the Elbphilharmonie a big mistake?

Elbphilharmonie
The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, pictured in 2011.

I mentioned above that Florida says amenities such as big prestige projects aren’t the way to attract members of the creative class. (At one point he says it can even be a turn-off.)

I’m not an expert on this, but I think the Elbphilharmonie can – possibly – play an important role in attracting tourists and creating a buzz about Hamburg. But I’m sceptical about its power to do so on its own, and also think that for attracting long-term new residents Hamburg needs to have people and processes in place to assist people in setting up in Hamburg. (More on that another time.)

However, don’t forget that the Elbphilharmonie is part of the HafenCity, Europe’s largest urban development in terms of size. The HafenCity will only be completely finished around 2025 – and if they do it right it could combine affordable housing, offices, collaboration spaces and more to foster open innovation in a walkable neighbourhood. Until now, it has had a reputation as an extremely expensive ghost town, but it is gradually coming to life as more people move in and the Hafencity University moved its campus there in 2014. I don’t know enough about it yet, but there is a possibility that by 2025 it will be very different and will be home to a community that will be attractive to talented people from overseas.

Possibly more on this topic in a later post.

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!