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For many, Dortmund is still the city of heavy industry, breweries and the soccer club Borussia Dortmund (second in the Bundesliga competition at the time of writing). The municipal council is trying hard to change this image. With success: in November Dortmund won the title ‘European Capital of Innovation‘ and € 1 million in prize money. And with good reason, because while its wealth came from coal and steel until the last century, it is now attributable to innovative companies. The German city has 55,000 students, 2500 new start-ups (2020), 20 research institutions, 17 start-up centers, 7 (technical) universities and universities of applied sciences and 1 tech park.

Dr. Ronald Kriedel
Dr. Ronald Kriedel

Because of Covid-19, it is quiet – except for a few students and researchers – on the Science and Technology Campus, where over three hundred tech companies have established themselves. Although the grounds are slightly larger and the hip coffee places are absent – the campus clearly shares similarities with the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven in The Netherlands. Also twenty minutes from the city center, people here also ‘just’ drop in on each other, and there is also a direct link here between innovation and a technical university.

Start-up ecosystem

For Ronald Kriedel, the campus has been his workplace for the past 12 years. He began his career at the Technical University of Dortmund. He is now Managing Director at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Transfer, one of the city’s largest start-up centers.

The start-up ecosystem in Dortmund is difficult to encapsulate in one word. IT, logistics, green tech, smart city and production technology are popular sectors. Kriedel: “It has historically always been the case that companies in Dortmund provide products and services to other companies.” One example of a leading company in Dortmund is Wilo. It started out one hundred and fifty years ago as a copper and brassware factory. Today, it is a leading global manufacturer of high-tech pumps.

“You also see this same mentality in our start-ups,” says Kriedel. Comnovo GmbH is just one of the success stories based here. The start-up developed a vehicle localization system that emits warning sounds or vibrations to alert people in hangars, buildings or warehouses of approaching vehicles. “The ingenious bit is that the system can ‘see’ through pallets, roller doors and walls by using high frequencies. It’s accurate to the centimeter.”

How do you turn a (tech) campus into a vibrant spot in the city? You can read more about that in this article.

De Science and Technology Campus vanuit de lucht. Beeld: TechnologieZentrumDortmund GmbH
The Science and Technology Campus from the air. Image: TechnologieZentrumDortmund, Hans Blossey

No Volkswagen, but start-ups instead

Anyone who strolls through the center of Dortmund won’t be struck by anything when it comes to architectural wonders. This is hardly surprising – during the Second World War 98 percent of the inner city was bombed to oblivion. Consideration was even given to not rebuilding the city at all. Fortunately, that did eventuate.

According to Arturo de la Vega, manager of strategy and planning at the municipality, Dortmund stands out from other large, German cities because there is not one big company in charge here. “Wolfsburg has Volkswagen, Munich has Siemens and Stuttgart has Daimler. Dortmund has start-ups and small businesses. The biggest business in Dortmund is the city itself, the municipality.” The presence of many small businesses means that the city is not dependent on one large industry and that knowledge is shared more quickly, De la Vega points out.

Arturo de la Vega
Arturo de la Vega

Wir sind die Normalen

Despite the compelling numbers as far as innovation is concerned, Dortmund is still known to many Germans as the city of coal and steel, much to De la Vega’s dismay. “Germans are used to pigeonholing things. The ‘heavy industry ‘pigeonhole has long since ceased to hold true for Dortmund, but it seems almost impossible to break free from it.” Becoming the Innovation Capital of Europe seemed like a step in the right direction to him, and he entered Dortmund into the European Union’s iCapital competition back in 2019.

De la Vega and his team learnt a lot from that attempt. “Try explaining in one sentence to an outsider why your city is so special. What makes us who we are? We were forced to really think carefully about our city.”

Wolfsburg has Volkswagen, Munich has Siemens, Stuttgart has Daimler. Dortmund has start-ups and small businesses. The biggest business in Dortmund is the city itself, the municipality.”

Arturo de la Vega

Ultimately, the key message behind Dortmund’s first participation in the competition was: Wir sind die Normalen (We are the normals). “With that message we wanted to show: if we can do it, any city can do it. We have come a long way. In 1997, 20 percent of residents were unemployed. Nowadays, that rate is under 10 percent,” says De la Vega.

Innovation Next Door

They did not win, but neither did they give up. Researchers were brought in who conducted hundreds of interviews with entrepreneurs, professors and residents of the city. In the conversations, one aspect clearly came to the fore: a sense of community is important to Dortmunders.

Innovation Next Door: Future from the Neighbourhood’ became the key slogan of its second entry. De la Vega is not yet wholly satisfied with it. “I hope I wake up one night and the slogan pops into my head. Take ‘I love New York‘, four words that sum up the whole city. We’re not there yet in Dortmund, we need another competition for that.”

#wshd and iResilience

Dortmund is a city of neighbors, one in which innovation and a sense of community are strongly linked. According to the jury, this vision is expressed, among other things, in the ‘New Strength Strategy’ that the city launched at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. A concrete measure of the strategy was the digital platform ‘Wir stehen hinter dir‘ (#wshd, ‘We are behind you’). More than €800,000 was raised through this platform to support the local economy.

Carolin Bauer. Image: Roland Gorecki
Carolin Bauer

The iResilience project is another example of Dortmund’s sense of community. The project aims to increase Dortmund’s resilience to climate-related phenomena, such as long-lasting high temperatures and heavy rainfall. This is done with the help of volunteers. “Everyone can contribute ideas and help run pilots. This is how people get involved in the city, the climate and with each other,” says Carolin Bauer, project manager of iResilience goes Europe.

For instance, a heat information campaign was organized last summer. “The densely populated and built-up downtown area tends to trap a lot of heat in the summer,” says Bauer. “A local action group ran a campaign on the dangers of a heat wave. We also set up a heat hotline. People who are affected by the heat can call the line for tips.”

‘A place where people are willing to do something for each other’

Arne van den Brink, projectmanager Hafen Quartier Speicherstrasse. Beeld: Wirtschaftsförderung Dortmund
Arne van den Brink

The transformation of the port district also earned it bonus points. The port of Dortmund is one of the most important canal ports in Europe. The bulk of it is in regular use, but the Speicherstrasse is not. “For twenty years, nothing ever happened here. It is a rough, industrial area in a part of the city that is struggling both socially and economically,” says Arne van den Brink, project manager of the Hafen Quartier Speicherstrasse. It takes a bit of imagination, but the area should become a vibrant place for start-ups, businesses and cultural initiatives in five years’ time.

What is the key factor for success behind the innovation ecosystem in Dortmund? Kriedel, De la Vega, Bauer and Van den Brink – they all point to the sense of community. Kriedel: “Everyone can drop in on each other for a chat. That is what drives innovation. The municipal council is facilitating that innovation by creating meeting places where entrepreneurs, researchers and students can come together.”

Jan Weisser, a dockworker who, when we speak to him, is busy unloading a container, describes the city where he was born and raised as “a place where people are willing to do something for each other.” And that does indeed seem to be how, after a day of interviews, impressions and tours, the European Capital of Innovation 2021 best sums itself up, By all accounts, Dortmund is a city for love at second sight.

Cover photo: Roland Gorecki, City of Dortmund