Tech Open Air in Berlin: a pioneering role for future meetings?
Tech Open Air is above all an event full of contrasts. It’s where the digital world presents itself in an analogue form, where technology meets art and business meets science – with plenty of keynote talks and on-stage interviews, set in a laid-back, party-like atmosphere.
Very attractive programme
Experienced founders talked about their experiences and visions for the future. The main points of attraction at this year’s event included successful German startups such as Rocket Internet, Zalando, Lieferheld and Dubsmash. But there were also international companies from more than 20 countries, e.g. Native Instruments, SoundCloud, Shazam, Twilio, Elite Daily and the designer Erik Spiekermann.
Chris Barton, the founder of the music recognition program Shazam, gave an account of the important elements required to set up an innovative company. Compromises and second-best solutions, he said, are definitely not the right way. Rand Hindi, CEO of Snips, talked about interfaces which will become so smart, thanks to artificial intelligence, that the user can happily ignore them, as they will be running invisibly in the background. Another highlight was a presentation by Dirk Ahlborn, the developer of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, a project by the PayPal founder and billionaire Elon Musk and a totally new transport solution based on vacuum tubes. The first test run is about to open shortly.
On the fringe of the event, at a “Pitch-Nic”, ten startups pitched themselves to ten financially powerful investors, following the speed-dating principle. Each startup had exactly five minutes to present themselves and their business plan, hoping to persuade a potential investor.
One event, lots of venues
Another special feature at Tech Open Air is its approach to geographical space. As before, the TOA venue was the Alte Teppichfabrik (Old Carpet Factory) in Berlin’s district of Friedrichshain. Occupying three floors in this historic brick building, there was plenty of space for numerous presentations and workshops, while a large number of further programme items were on offer all around the building, set in its park-like grounds. Anyone who needed a break could relax on floor cushions, deckchairs or stacks of hay over a cocktail or a smoothie and could network with others, play table football, fly drones or just listen to the musical programme.
In addition to the programme at the Old Carpet Factory, another 140 satellite events took place throughout Berlin. What made them so special was that they were not held by the TOA organisers, but by members of the network that has formed around Tech Open Air, so that the satellite events were effectively “organised by the community for the community”, as TOA founder Nikolas Woischnik put it.
Revolutionary – not just evolutionary
The community also played a central role in the conceptual design of the event. “We created an event,” says Nikolas Woischnik, “that was exactly what visitors wanted. From the very first edition onwards we started to hold so-called Town Hall Meet-Ups. We gathered the community and asked them what form the event should take. The result was more space for inspiration, but also for external disciplines and impressions from art, music and science.”
Another point that was important to the TOA network was practical relevance. In addition to workshops, therefore, the organisers created several “knowshops”. Apart from the content, the network was also involved in the organisation, as it provided the necessary resources and developed the TOA logo. Moreover, there were 150 volunteers who ensured the smooth running of the event. “Obviously an event like ours lives on the commitment of creative young talents and their endeavour to bring out the best and to connect with the art & tech scene,” says Woischnik as he explains the success.
And so Tech Open Air has developed into a mixture of a convention, an art event and an art & tech scene party. In this casual atmosphere visitors were not given name tags, but armbands – with the results that they felt more challenged to talk to one another and to find out who the others were. This disruptive element helped to give the “un-conference” some of its unusual festival-like character – or, as some of the media put it, made it “perhaps the coolest tech conference in Europe”.
TOA as a trend for the future?
Has Tech Open Air started a trend with plenty of potential for the future – an event format created and organised with the help of a network, geographically distributed venues, greater involvement of visitors in its content, a focus on mutual exchange, discussions in small groups and collaboration in workshops?
Marie Luise Blau from the Fraunhofer Institute of Labour Economics and Organisation (IAO) believes that the TOA format is exciting. She is also involved in the Fraunhofer innovation network Future Meeting Space which aims to explore new formats for events. The way she sees it, the ultimate aim is to “create a unique event and to find a suitable venue for it”. Under this criterion, TOA has clearly succeeded in “presenting itself as innovative and forward-looking”.
Tech Open Air website: www.toa.berlin
Alte Teppichfabrik (Old Carpet Factory) website: www.teppichfabrik-berlin.de
Impressions and views about the event: www.youtube.com/watch
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