Last year our team completed a Regional Development Plan for a part of Niederlausitz in Brandenburg, an area physically marked by open lignite mines and poor lands, by structurally low economic performance, high unemployment and an aging population (s. my open questions about such plans here). At the same time, during a rather different process – our Economic Development Plan 2020 for the City of Potsdam – we identified the existence of enormous talent, coming out of regional higher education institutions. Yet, as soon as their studies are over, for many reasons I will come back to later, young talented people leave the area. This is how we came up with the idea to start a new project, linking these two areas with each other – a project that we called COBRA (Collaborative Labour Opportunities in Brandenburg). We got funding from the European Social Fund and the State (Land) of Brandenburg, got three more partners on board (the Polish town of Gubin on the other side of the river Neisse, the Institute of Place Management in Manchester and the region of Crete in Greece) and started last November. Here is how we’re proceeding:
At this phase we are looking to identify local businesses (and different types of initiatives) that are open to cooperating with talent from outside. The idea is to find those ventures that have unanswered challenges and would enjoy tackling them in a collaborative process. One thing that all our talks had in common and was repeated again and again was that the lack of skilled staff is in everybody’s mind. The main reason behind it seems to be that there is strong competition from other areas in Germany that offer better pay and a better quality of life, while the rather mediocre image of the area seems to aggravate that existing weakness. The possibility to address either of these issues is rather limited in our project, but I will come back to that below. For the time being there are several very different ventures on board:
1. A medium-size enterprise (ca. 600 jobs) that produces synthetic yarn, and which in the GDR used to be a major local industrial player. They are thinking of getting back to R&D locally and need to reflect more on the future of synthetic materials.
2. A traditional craftsman with a small enterprise (metal workshop) who is looking to find ways to reuse metal waste produced in the process of his work.
3. An initiative to revive an old apple cultivar that needs fresh ideas, marketing and distribution networks
4. A transportation business looking to rejuvenate its image in order to attract both new clients and young skilled staff.
Our target is to collect a maximum of 10 different projects like the ones above, from a vast range of branches and with various challenges. At the same time, we are working with local universities to identify the students interested in working on the above questions on a long-term (6-12 months) basis.
Our central creative method is going to be a series of collaborative workshops, that will take place in the town of Guben, our main project partner. During one week in May we are gathering together all the project partners (local and international, businesses and students), to experiment on new forms of knowledge production and implementation. Accompanied by external moderators and with the inspiration of key-note speakers or other similar successful projects, these workshops will refine the questions, figure out how we can work together and start looking for the first answers.
Limitations and opportunities
We are well aware of the fact that we are addressing only a small fraction of the problems in regional development. Spatial inequality is extremely resistant in time and tends to reproduce itself. In the territory of the former GDR, there is a need to understand the political process that turned huge portions of land into a desert after 1990. We are working inside an area that is clearly a loser of the German reunification process and its problems (in particular the lack of purposeful public and private investment in the area) are at a very different scale from the one we are addressing.
That being said, even small-scale projects like our own have their place and contribution in a much larger picture. We are convinced that we can create a very fertile local temporary ecosystem that experiments on new ways of collaborative work, beyond the classical business development schemes. We’ll keep you posted on our progress!