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Transatlantic Cities of Tomorrow: A View from Charlotte

It must be stated early and often the overall value this program has provided me. From the human connections with both the Americans and Germans to the sharing of ideas, perspectives, and views on life and the world, I have learned a great deal. This exchange also has impacted my work by exposing me to new ways of thinking and new methodologies around community engagement, digitalization, and the future of work.

There are a number of high-level takeaways:

  1. Rethink education and workforce training models. It was clear to me that Germany and its education and workforce training systems are better prepared to adapt to support industries need for a new or reskilled workforce. While the level of complexity in these systems at first seemed overwhelming, it became clear to me that under the right leadership these robust systems could be retooled to support new and developing needs of industry. The varied pathways and on-ramps to those pathways also have the opportunity to provide more equitable access to jobs that provide family-sustaining income. Conversely, while parts of the U.S. system may be more quickly adapted to support industry needs, as a whole I would see the U.S. education and workforce training system lagging behind. I would attribute this towards the lack of regulation and unwillingness to change of these systems.
  2. Foster entrepreneurship and start-up cultures. Well-developed systems and structure were clearly a hallmark of most bureaucratic systems in Germany. While reasons were presented why this may hinder innovation, it also appeared to help create clear pathways for citizens to learn new skills, trades, etc. Conversely, the lack of well-developed and regulated systems in the U.S. often prevent equitable access to these pathways. Those who have the skill and knowledge to navigate more complex pathways often already have both the social capital and privilege to be viewed as successful. If it were to be phrased in a question, one might ask, “How might the U.S. adapt German systems that foster entrepreneurship and start-up culture in a more equitable way?”
  3. Make investments in digital and physical infrastructure. While previously I mentioned the bureaucratic systems in Germany that may be perceived to slow innovation, never was the opposite clear to me more than when we visited the Salt Lab in Halle. When I asked the question related to internet speeds at the Lab and was met with a seemingly simple answer that they were able to pull fiber to the building from a network provider several meters away, I was astonished at how simple he made it sound. While it may not have been the case, in the U.S., this would have likely been a much more complex problem to solve. Business cases would have had to be made, and immense pressure would have to be put on providers to act as they are historically slow to move unless clear and obvious economics are at play – in which case they would have already acted. On a different note, it appears that there is a huge market opportunity for coworking and flexible work facilities to emerge. We saw some of this developing, and I could imagine this industry continue to grow throughout Germany aided by its robust public transit system.
  4. Engage and collaborate more with citizens and community stakeholders. While on one hand in both the U.S. and Germany it was clear that governments are developing systems that are intended to help them become quicker, more effective and citizen-friendly, it is clear that in both places there is much more work to be done to include the voice of the citizen. There were highlights on both sides of the exchange that showed efforts to include citizens in the process, but for the most part it came across to me that we are all still operating in top-down controlled decision processes that may consider citizen input but are not driven by them. One question that might be presented is, “How might we prepare citizens, starting at the earliest ages, to participate in the decision-making process of cities?”
  5. Address social equity in a rapidly changing environment.​ This trip provided a great deal of insight into the opportunities provided by geo-political issues typically manifested in the refugee crisis. Hearing from community-based organizations when visiting the Digital City Unit in Leipzig was particularly enlightening on this subject. While it was clear that the government has been forced to act to support refugees, it was also clear that the actions have to this point fallen short in some areas. Rising tensions from right-wing populist groups and their growing popularity, mimic similar trends we see in the U.S. This presents several challenges in the face of digitalization that is known for breaking down barriers between humans.

The most memorable impression I gained from this exchange is the high-level of similarities among all our communities. Both in Germany and United States, at the end of the day, many of the issues and opportunities we had in front of us were the same. While constraints varied, and systems operated differently, the opportunities felt the same. The good part about it was that it felt easier to create connections and bonds amongst the cohort. The possible negative was the fact that many of the problems still existed within our communities, and if a solution was identified, it is still difficult to adapt or transplant to another city. However, these types of exchanges increase the likelihood of those solutions being transported and accepted within a community.

I envy what comes across to me as a focus on the people and their quality of life in Germany. A simple example of this is the robust public transit networks. Coming home from Germany, I found myself angered by the obvious lack of investment in similar systems in the U.S. I knew this was the case before I left but seeing it first-hand really drove the distinction home for me. This lack of investment makes it harder and harder for people to connect, see family, and thrive in a modern world. Related, was the care and emphasis put on the quality of life of its people through systems like worker rights, paid family and medical leave, and universal health care. While these items cost money and it shows in the tax rate, I don’t recall anyone from Germany saying that they wanted to do away with these systems to save some tax dollars.

While this is changing due to the increase in the number of refugees in Germany, the lack of diversity in many of the places we went was clear. While there may be more overall diversity in the U.S., both countries still lack diversity in positions of power and decision-making. This may hinder the future development of both nations as societies become more global.

As some of the ideas presented above suggest, I am focused on how to take advantage of the new knowledge and experiences this exchange has provided me. How do we ensure this trip isn’t relegated to just a memory, but how do we take action on the learning that took place? While the memories will serve us well in being more open and willing to engage different cultures, especially for me Germany’s, to me the real value is in what comes next. The American Council on Germany has done a world-class job in conducting this exchange and providing the platform for those ideas to flourish. Now we, as participants, must take the lead on the next steps.

Bruce Clark serves as the Executive Director of Digital Charlotte, an initiative of the Knight School of Communication at Queens University. In this role he leads an effort to empower community organizations to engage in the work of digital and media literacy.

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