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!