Before I moved to Leipzig, when I was just visiting on holidays from Chicago with my German wife, I never imagined I could live in a place where the stores closed on Sundays. I still remember shaking my head at a young American man I met in Berlin, who loudly proclaimed how happy he was to be an expat, to be away from capitalism and its greed.
Being away from “the best country in the world” didn’t make sense to me, even if it was broken. The diversity of cultural backgrounds, the drive of the people fighting for change, the pushing of boundaries for something more, whether it was social justice, music festivals or dining concepts.
That was my America.
A few years later, and just over a year living in Leipzig, I’ve gotten over the turbulent cycles of hating and missing home. I haven’t been back yet. And as much as I miss those weird, wonderful parts of America, I understand now that the driving, the pushing comes from discomfort, from pain. From having to work long hours, in fear of losing your job, the threat of “random” violence and the constant friction of a rising wealth gap.
My wife says people in America look sick.
Leipzig, as my friends I’m sure will say, has made me softer. I don’t look over my shoulders so much. I’ve left my personal items out in public, two lost wallets returned and nothing stolen… yet.
My German isn’t good enough to effortlessly understand the conversations of strangers around me, an unexpected gift for maintaining sanity.
And here, I don’t worry about homelessness or hunger. For the first time in my life, I’ve quelled the voice in my head that berates me for not moving fast enough – not through some spiritual advancement, but because I know that no one is waiting on me. Rather, I’m the impatient one in most rooms.
So why do I need to move faster? What is coming to get me if I enjoy my weekend instead of working more hours?
I don’t, and nothing is coming.
The existentially scarier, more impactful, experience that I’m having is the power of collectivist living. Individualism has long been a trait I’ve defended and exercised to the fullest extent. Leipzig has me slowly backing away from that ledge. Never before have I seen so many community-organized and -funded activities or initiatives.
Indeed, Leipzig is brimming with potential.
A beautiful city, affordable cost of living, tons of public funding for “innovation,” a large pool of educated young people, and a developing creative infrastructure. Despite these noteworthy highlights, nothing gets me more excited than the people working everyday on building something beyond the next big tech company.
An infectiously charismatic health junkie, bent on empowering people to be their own health expert. A “New Work” geek who spontaneously organizes communities to build festivals and learning spaces. A lovely couple who build digital tools for dozens of schools across Germany, to improve collaboration between students and educators. A growth hacker and web developer who impulsively spends his time helping amazing people tell their stories online. A young innovation manager who builds bridges between different creative organizations.
I could go on. This is a tiny sample of the energy in Leipzig, people who catalyze others to improve the world in their own way.
Will they build the next tech giant? Probably not, but what would the world look like if we invested in them to do more of what they love instead of investing millions to support the next enterprise software?
This is the idea behind the “New Economy:” creating an infrastructure that incentivizes and supports the solving of problems, rather than maximizing profit.
The terms “New Economy” or “New Work” are becoming commonplace in social entrepreneurial circles, in response to the failures of our current systems. Fresh approaches at a fundamental level are necessary if we expect to achieve new results in the future.
I, among many others, believe that Leipzig could be the place to grow and realize such aspirations. This is Part One, the introduction, of the case I want to make: that Leipzig could be destined for more than a reboot of Silicon Valley, that it can help lead the way towards a more humane future.
Cover photo: Irakli Shubitidze, from 2bAHEAD, and other participants in the SeedSpark workshop, organized by Venture Playground earlier this year in Basislager Coworking. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Harvey)