Most cities would probably jump at the chance to host a new Google facility, bringing with it the prospect of translating Silicon Valley riches into local jobs and business. Not Berlin.
Last week the search group announced that it was shelving plans for a Google campus in the German capital. The move followed local opposition to what the company said would be an enabler of digital innovation and co-operation. It would have been the latest centre in a global network that already includes London, Tel Aviv and São Paulo.
News of the decision to scrap the project raised more than a few eyebrows. Who says no to Google? Was it more evidence of an anti-business culture in Berlin and, more widely, Germany’s uneasy relationship with tech? Politicians there rarely pass up an opportunity to profess awareness of the challenge of “digitalisation”. Yet action so far has been mixed. Meanwhile, popular suspicions about “surveillance capitalism” abound.
On paper, the Google project had its attractions. It would underscore Berlin’s pitch to be a player in global tech, giving the city a stake in the industry of the 21st century. In the wholesome, soy-latte jargon of the sector, the campus would be a “beehive” to attract, connect and encourage tomorrow’s innovators and disrupters. Google would facilitate, but have no direct business links.
At first glance this might have been seen as a no-brainer and the idea was welcomed by local politicians. But a significant section of the local citizenry in Kreuzberg, the neighbourhood in which Google had earmarked an impressive, canal-side former electricity substation for a bit of post-industrial transformation, disagreed. They feared the campus would be an engine of gentrification, further fuelling a process of escalating rents and commercialisation.
Once a rundown bolt-hole for dropouts and creatives, and home to a fair number of Berlin’s Turkish community, Kreuzberg has always delighted in running against the mainstream. In the decades of the city’s concrete division, the district slammed up against the Berlin Wall, underscoring its sense of edgy marginalisation. Its annual May Day riots were accorded the attention and reverence other communities might grant festive pageants.
More recently, though, change has swept through Kreuzberg. An influx
of self-professed hipsters has driven gentrification that has also sucked in investors. Rents have shot up. There are fears that a distinct local culture is under threat. As the owner of a record store opposite the proposed campus site told local media, “a hipster café will always be able to pay more rent”.
As such, it is a symptom of a wider trend across Berlin where the prospect of an attractive and comparatively cheap lifestyle has lured thousands of new residents — who in turn drive up prices. Similarly on the commercial front, businesses have rushed to locate themselves in the city’s coolest spots, hoping to tap the energy and boost their corporate image. As many citydwellers know, it does not always turn out that way. Prices rise, the character changes, the cool types move on. “They end up destroying what they hope to profit from,” says one Berlin business leader.
In Kreuzberg, another force is also at play: the backlash against big tech. Berlin has become home to a vibrant community of international privacy activists and internet enthusiasts seeking to develop online alternatives to the Silicon Valley giants. It is a spirit which blends well with Kreuzberg’s tradition of radical, alternative politics. The district also has form when it comes to taking on global corporations. It initially blocked attempts by McDonald’s to set up shop there. “If they had picked anywhere else in the city — there are lots of areas with space — they would not have had a problem,” says one tech industry executive.
Having accepted that the project was no longer viable, Google has decided to hand the Kreuzberg site over to two social enterprises. What was planned as a campus will be a “House of Social Engagement” — less West Coast vibe, more utilitarian purpose with a splash of eastern bloc directive. Google will foot the bill — an arrangement no doubt in keeping with Kreuzberg’s preference for a different type of capitalism.