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Berlin - Experiment City
Alex Steffen, 3 Sep 06

Over the coming month, Berlin will be the stage for some of the most exciting conversations about the future of urban spaces in world.

It's a strange place, now: still half-dilapidated from wartime destruction and forty years of Cold War divisions, with a declining population, massive unemployment, a nearly bankrupt city government and serious tensions between and its ethnically German and Turkish communities (Berlin being the second largest Turkish city after Istanbul). Hedonism thrums through this city, with dark-clad Berliners stuffing the bars and clubs, drinking and smoking until the morning hours, while legal prostitutes troll the sidewalks for customers. And, of course, history weighs heavily here, where books were piled and burned, people were stuffed into cattle cars to be shipped away and murdered, and the worst war the world has yet seen was plotted and launched.

But all of that darkness has also created, at this particular moment, [a willingness to think new thoughts which is different from almost any other city]. "There's an amazing climate for doing new projects here now," says Michael LaFond, sitting in the cafe outside his office in Berlin's UfaFabrik center.

It's an affordable city, so artists and other creative class people are still swarming here, jobs or no; there's available space, so creating studios or community spaces or new living arrangements is comparatively easy; and while the government is broke, "that's an interesting advantage for these kinds of project. When the money is not coming from above, you must get creative and participatory, and then miracles can happen." (In other words, being a shrinking city has its advantages.)

That kind of energy has brought a number of new conversations to a head, and Berlin seems determined, suddenly, to chart a new course for itself.

The German Council for Sustainable Development is holding a major conference here at the end of the month, on "The art of thinking the future." Also this month, Dropping Knowledge will be seating 112 leading thinkers around a huge table in Bebelplatz square (the Nazis once piled huge bonfires of books there), where they will do their best to answer the best 100 questions asked by the public about the future. 24 Hours for Tomorrow is a sort of youth-oriented ideas competition starting this weekend. A host of smaller meetings, conferences, shows and festivals are erupting here as well, all in one way or another engaging with the future, the idea of Berlin as a city or both.

The coolest initiative, though, is one being headed by LaFond's group, id22: Institute for Creative Sustainability -- ExperimentCity:

experimentcity SUPPORTS participatory and sustainable (re)uses of vacant buildings and land. This offers urban pioneers and innovative housing and cultural projects a platform to publicize their ideas.
experimentcity DEMONSTRATES that creative and integrated uses of otherwise idle space with ecological, cultural and cooperative initiatives increases urban quality of life.
experimentcity CREATES public interest, mobilises available resources in the civil society, and works with local government, media and the business community in taking steps toward sustainable development.
experimentcity INITIATES an exchange of experiences, networking and cooperation and is a Model Project for the implementation of the Local Agenda 21, designed to communicate with people where they are: in a diversity of languages and spaces, locally and internationally.

The idea, LaFond says, is to engage the creative community with the principles of sustainability, networking together an impressive array of existing efforts and bring forward new arts, design and communications efforts that will inspire Berliners to break out the mental prison in which their presently dire circumstances have boxed them. "We don't want to talk about what's good to do," he says, "we want to battle for their hearts."

To that end, ExperimentCity is partnering with Berlin21 to hold not only the usual discussions and workshops, but city-wide "Experiment Days," which will identify and bring forward 50 cutting edge projects, and weave a network capable of enticing Berliners into supporting them. The focus, LaFond says, is on "stories, projects and people," and creating new ways of bringing forward visions of the city (like art exhibitions and fashion catalogs) rather than on the mechanics of sustainability themselves (which are increasingly mainstream here anyways).

It's cool stuff, recognizing that, as we can't build what we can't imagine, cultural work is at the core of building a better future.

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Berlin is indeed interesting because of all these historic and ideological layers forming a kind of palimpsest, where growth, decay and rebirth are continuously mixing up.

Maybe more than any other city, Berlin can formulate some interesting visions on the future, precisely because it has been everywhere you can go in the past (rationalism, idealism, romanticism, nietzscheanism, industrialism, nazism, communism, post-modernism and neoliberalism... all the -isms one can think of). Where do you go when you have been everywhere and when you've seen that there's no real ideology left to guide you?

Is anyone from the Worldchanging group going to any of these events? It would be nice if someone could share the experience.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 3 Sep 06



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