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Transatlantic Cities of Tomorrow: A View from Magdeburg

The City of Magdeburg, with a population of 240,000, is the state capital of the German Bundesland Saxony-Anhalt. I work in the field of business development, and it is my task to attract companies to Magdeburg and to help start-up companies boost their business in Magdeburg. In my daily work, I often get in touch with people with very creative ideas that have the potential to change business models and use technologies in an innovative and unseen way. Due to my professional focus, I was most interested in learning about job creation and strategies to help start-ups through this exchange program. During the site visits and discussions in the United States and in Germany, I was astonished to find out about the multitude of initiatives that already exist in the different cities we saw.

I was especially impressed by the activities in the United States because of the massive private effort invested in initiatives related to helping underprivileged groups in society. There is a big difference in how both countries approach this. In Germany, a lot of publicly financed projects are designed to help people in need while in America, there is heavy reliance on private initiatives to solve problems. From a European’s point of view, this is very daring, but somehow it seems to work. Certainly, this is a financially more efficient way of tackling at least some social problems. However, it is important to remember that not all social problems can be handled by private initiatives alone.

This exchange with American and German peers taught me to appreciate the benefits of more private initiatives in formerly solely publicly-run programs in an effort to both broaden perspectives and strengthen projects by increasing participation and engaging private knowledge and resources.  Within the campaign Gründerstadt Magdeburg (Start-up City Magdeburg), I used my new insights to broaden the network by inviting new partners to participate. This redirected the focus of the campaign, but simultaneously activated people that were not involved before and thereby helped to increase the speed and social relevance of the initiative.

I also was impressed by how Americans embrace of technology in almost every part of daily life. Digitalization is not seen as a risk to society but rather as something that can make life more convenient and can ease cooperation within society. German society is a lot more reluctant to embrace new technologies. Related to the current corona crisis, the impressions from the study tour helped me to organize my daily private and business life by using more technologies. During my time in quarantine, I was forced to handle my business digitally from my living room.

Through this exchange, I learned how much American universities do to support start-ups. They take an interdisciplinary approach in working with start-ups, and this helps add new perspectives and ideas to the business models. It is a very promising way to lay the foundation for later economic success. Within my professional work, I will use this experience to advise founders to be open to ideas from people who may not come from their industry.

Germany’s dual system of vocational training has many advantages compared to the American system. However, there is no rose without thorns. Especially less educated and disadvantaged people, like migrants, don´t fit well into the German system because of language and formal education barriers. If people are not able to attend and succeed in the vocational school system, they will have long-lasting difficulties in starting and developing their career even if they are terrific in their profession. The lack of professional certification won´t allow them to take advantage of opportunities because companies won’t hire them. In Germany, efforts to qualify people already in the workforce also use state institutions to train people for the future. The state-run labor offices (Agentur für Arbeit) urge unemployed people to qualify for the future labor market and many state programs support employees so that they can improve their skills. Even people that are employed can use some of the programs to improve their individual skills.

In comparison, the U.S. system is less regulated and more flexible. State institutions offer a basic framework for the employment of people, but there is a lack of a nationwide system of basic vocational training. Every employer must develop its own method of finding and qualifying the staff it needs. Every employee is responsible for keeping up with the knowledge standard demanded on the market if he/she wants to maintain the job. Because of the lack of a nationwide basic vocational system with certificates for professional skills, the employment of new people is riskier than in Germany.

If Germany expands its vocational system, the system will be even more successful in producing the right workforce for industry. In this respect, some U.S. flexibility and pragmatism can make a well-organized German vocational system even better.

In our local community action plan, we have already adopted ideas from the exchange. The network Gründerstadt Magdeburg was restructured by inviting more partners to participate. In our cooperation with the Otto-von-Guericke-University, the University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg, and the municipal department for economic affairs, since January 2020 we have met regularly to improve cooperation between the various partners.

The ACG’s Transatlantic Cities of Tomorrow exchange program has widened my view on my work. It really was an enriching experience to meet so many bright, open-minded people. I am looking forward in staying in touch with everyone even after the program ends. The network created by Transatlantic Cities of Tomorrow is not only a professional but also a personal gain. It is good to know that there are people in my own country and on the other side of the Atlantic who you can turn to when dealing with these important issues for our respective societies.

Jörg Böttcher serves as the Head of the Entrepreneur Services in the Economic Affairs Department of the City of Magdeburg. Since 2017, he has also chaired the strategy board for “Gründerstadt Magdeburg” (Start-up City Magdeburg).

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