By using a few clichés about Germany, I tried to explain in my very first column for IO that Germany could do so much better if it took a look in a more practical and creative way at how innovations are taken advantage of and at government intervention. This view has been bolstered by my own experiences and the countless moaning Germans around me. There is an enormous need for more momentum. And above all, for speedier government action where social innovation is concerned. The Dutch could certainly lend a helping hand with that.

My next column should have been about how the Dutch sometimes rush into things, act too often like merchants and can perhaps learn something from German solidity and desire for structure. It is very illuminating to work with Germans when it has to do with guaranteeing quality through structure and process. Then that’s it, as far as comparisons are concerned. Or so I thought.

But this was soon followed by a splendid response from Christiane Manow-Le Ruyet to my intentionally provocative stance in my introductory column. She now thinks I’m a bit of a know-it-all. I would like to respond to that in a somewhat provocative way yet again.

Classic German defense

Actually there are many things we agree on and Christiane is very good at describing what can be improved in Germany. In my first column, I touched on a number of things that I think Christiane generally acknowledges as well. But she also tends to go on the defensive. Which kind of confirms what I often see happening in Germany.

Let me start by saying that, as a resident of the German capital and a regular traveler in Germany, I am very familiar with the classic German defense.

  1. What can be done in your country in the Netherlands (or Denmark or Sweden) is out of the question here. We are so huge, we have states as big as the Netherlands – and mega-suburbs. That’s why it works differently (as in slower etc).
  2. Yet it’s not going badly at all, because we are basically an export success story export thanks to the quality of our products.

However, I am convinced that the first of these points is not true. Germany can really move faster and the government needs to be more agile and is quite capable of learning from other countries. I understand the second point and it rings true. But it does not detract from the first point. Society is not benefiting enough from the innovations that go overseas if Germany itself is still just now starting to slowly digitize. All in part due to an unwieldy government.

Hipsters in Kreuzberg

Christiane also mentions the Dutch D66 leader who recently presented Berlin as a shining example for the Netherlands. I have to admit that I didn’t know what I was seeing when I read that sentiment. (I actually burst out laughing). Previously, liberals always looked to NYC – and all of a sudden it’s now Berlin? The Berlin that I think I know quite well, that I love. But would not consider a shining example for a successful model.

I know plenty of Dutch people who base their image of the German capital on their perceptions of Mitte and Prenzlauerberg. However, you would expect that a liberal leader of a Dutch governing party would do a bit more research. A bunch of start-ups and a few hipsters in Mitte and Kreuzberg don’t necessarily turn Berlin into an innovative and open city. Berlin is much more than just the hip “core.” It is paradoxical and oftentimes very conservative. Munich is much more of a D66 city (- but that comparison should be made in another column ; ).

Go Germany!

For the record, I do feel positive about Germany. In the face of an impending crisis and with a budget surplus, a lot can be done. Moreover, Germany will really start shifting over the next few years. This will benefit innovation, even in cities and general society. At long last we are seeing some signs of change. For example, where electromobility is concerned.

The latest news this week is that Germany has turned a corner and is now fully committed to electromobility. After years of holding back, a master plan for electromobility is on its way. And 3.3 billion euros will be invested between now and 2023 (also some investment in hydrogen). There is talk of one million charging stations. 10 million electric cars should be driving on German streets by 2030. Volkswagen is going fully electric. They’ve started producing the ID.3, an affordable e-car for the masses. BMW is installing 4100 stations, although mainly for its own employees. Doesn’t this so-called German inertia eventually steer the country in a direction that ultimately leads to a competitive edge?

Risk of deferral

In the coming years, considerable investments will also be made in bicycles: transport minister Scheuer has promised an extra €900 million. Numerous cities are planning upgrades to their urban infrastructure. Yet the risk of deferral is always looming in Germany. Or as Raoul Schmidt-Lamontain, a governmental policy-maker from Dresden, recently said: “In the meantime, money has been made available for trams and cycle lanes from new subsidy programs. But if, for example, I want to convert an intersection into a bicycle-friendly one or extend a bridge for pedestrians, then I also have to invest in the roads at the same time. So, I always need money from several subsidy sources all at once. If one stimulus program fails, investments in the other areas can’t be carried out either. And that money will stay put.”

So, no jumping for joy quite yet. Let’s see the results first!

Incidentally, Christiane is right and we were in agreement on this too – collaboration is worthwhile as (international) solutions can be found together … but sometimes by looking in the mirror as well.

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Floris Beemster, Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.