degewo, Smart CityBerlin, Ulrich Jursch, Christoph Beck

Credit: Christoph Beck (left): Frank Nürnberger; Ulrich Jursch (right): Tina Merkau

Christoph Beck and Ulrich Jursch of degewo

Founded in 1924, degewo is Berlin’s leading housing company. In many of their projects and together with various Smart City Berlin stakeholders, the company works on new solutions for smart housing and a new, intelligent neighbourhood development. One of these approaches is the smart_up Innovation Award, that is going into its third year now. Start-ups, founders, entrepreneurs and employees were able to apply until the end of February to help shape Berlin with future-oriented pilot projects. We spoke to degewo Chairman Christoph Beck und Ulrich Jursch, Managing Director of degewo netzWerk GmbH, about this year’s competition, the projects implemented within the framework of this initiative and the main challenges for building and housing in the future.

Mr Beck, the degewo smart_up Innovation Award is about ideas and new solutions for housing and building of the future. Why did degewo initiate this award?

Christoph Beck: We started this award in 2017, when we were primarily interested in getting to know the entire range of solutions and providers for everything to do with Smart City, the digitalisation of the housing industry and the energy industry. At the same time we wanted to be recognised as co-operation partner among innovators and start-ups. Of course, we also want to point the way – towards a digital future in the housing industry. Now we have started the competition for the third time and incorporated other aspects into our concept.

And what are these aspects?

Christoph Beck:  We now use smart_up much more to have an internal impact on the company, for which we have created a dedicated smart_up innovation team and we opened the competition to external idea generators. Furthermore we are looking for specific solutions for the challenges and the needs of degewo. All in all, smart-up is no longer a singular event. We now see the award as a highlight of many innovation efforts that are more firmly embedded in the degewo company culture. smart-up is a tool for us to find matching ideas for our very specific needs. We don’t want an innovation show, but rather useful solutions for us and our tenants.

Which smart projects have been implemented so far within the framework of this competition?

Ulrich Jursch:  Together with our competition winners we have prepared and implemented pilot projects, some of which are still running and some that have just begun. We also cooperate with other competition participants – in one case with our own research and development partnership. Our experience has been that the solutions found in the competition need to be adapted to our actual needs. This process requires much more attention and intensity than expected, from us as well as from the start-up involved.

28 February was the application deadline: How many teams have applied this year? And can you already reveal something about the submitted ideas?

Ulrich Jursch: We currently have 74 applications, 23 of those came from within the company, which we are particularly happy about. In total, there are about as many as for previous sessions, but in times of Covid-19, we are working under more difficult conditions. We have previously recruited many participants at trade fairs; that wasn’t possible in 2021. We can’t yet reveal anything about the ideas that were submitted this year: We are currently evaluating and choosing the ones that we will accompany intensively until the end of April – before the winners are selected in the finals.

A new feature this year is an accompanying coaching of the participants after the application stage. What are your expectations?

Ulrich Jursch: We have learned from our experiences: If we want quick implementation, we need to find solutions that are ready-to-use and can be adapted to our challenges and framework conditions. It is not uncommon for the application to contain (just) wonderful promises on the slide, and the pitch is won by those who are good at giving presentations. But this is not enough if we want pilot projects to hit the streets within six months, which is our aim. This is why we have integrated a coaching stage into the competition this year before we select the winner. During this stage we want to thoroughly examine the submitted ideas and solutions and give the participants the chance to adapt their solutions to degewo’s needs in such a way that we can implement them quickly after the finals.

What are the future key challenges that will shape housing and building in the city?

Christoph Beck: We are already experiencing them now, and they will remain the same: Affordability for tenants, cost development, acceptance of projects, availability of space, neighbourhood integration, sustainability and attractiveness of the buildings, especially in terms of customer expectations, climate protection, architecture and digitalisation. Nothing new there, actually.

And how can they be met?

Ulrich Jursch: Above all, by establishing contact – in whatever form – through good cooperation at eye level and with as many innovations with “wow-effects” as possible.

Are there already best practice examples from degewo for future-oriented building?

Christoph Beck:  There are many. And we are not thinking of lighthouses first – such as the degewo House of the Future – or our neighbourhood developments: including Gropiusstadt, the degewo neighbourhood “Mariengrün” in Marienfelde or new buildings with special technical features. It’s much more the learning curves from the lighthouse projects that we will later use in structural examples in our day-to-day business, because these learning curves constitute future viability. At our company, they are integrated into the planning specifications that are binding for all our building projects – such as our “werkFibel” (works manual) for new buildings.

Participation is a pillar of Smart City Berlin. To what extent do you involve degewo residents in planning and design activities?

Christoph Beck: For us, this is now implicit and standard procedure for all large building projects. We have developed our own participation concepts and are looking for solutions how we can digitally support tenant participation even more in the future. This, by the way, also applies to the current smart_up competition.

Where do you see the biggest potential of Smart City Berlin? And the biggest weakness?

Ulrich Jursch: The potential, above all, is in the diversity of this city, the number and the mixture of entrepreneurs and stakeholders who are attracted by this city. Added to this is the spirit of Berlin of constantly having to change in order to survive. There are simply a lot of committed smart people here who want to make a difference. There are also some weaknesses, but not “the one”. We’d rather look ahead and see the positives.

What does the city of the future look like to you?

Christoph Beck: At this point we can only provide generalisms. We therefore contend that no one really knows. Try to put yourself in the view of the time and the cities of a hundred years ago and compare the fantasies from that historic point of view with today’s possibilities. The reality will overtake our imagination.

Could you please finish the following sentence: “Berlin is smart because ...”

Ulrich Jursch: ... this city constantly needs to reinvent itself. It manages time and time again to be the  place for a good life.