Munich is one of Europe’s most important IT hubs. A group of corporate players, politicians and tech experts want more: through an association, they hope to promote more networking and creative exchange to make the city a leading tech epicenter worldwide. Is the idea working?
Where, if not right here? Claudia Linnhoff-Popien has no doubt that a home-grown Silicon Valley is emerging in and around Munich. Dubbed “Isar Valley” after the river flowing through the city, Munich’s digital hub has what it takes. “All the resources are here: according to numerous studies and rankings, the city and its environs are
Europe’s most important IT hub,” she argues. The number of people working in Munich’s IT and communications sector tops 140,000. Employers can recruit from a pool of some 360,000 STEM experts and numerous education & research institutes specializing in technology – way more than other cities have.
Famous names are the second reason cited by IT professor Linnhoff-Popien. As a board member of the non-profit association “Digital City Munich”, she’d like to see the Munich region mentioned in the same breath as the world’s leading tech hubs. “Google, IBM, Microsoft, Fujitsu, Apple, Intel, Cisco, Salesforce…you name it, nearly every global player is here.” Into this mix come numerous mid-sized software companies, digital start-ups and big German names such as Allianz, Munich RE, Siemens, BMW, MAN, Bosch, Sixt and Burda.
There simply aren’t enough touchpoints where decision-makers and creative minds can meet face-to-face.
Old-school business – or a dynamic Isar Valley?
But if everyone is already here, why is Munich traditionally viewed as a safe, conservative place to do business, rather than as a dynamic, creative thinktank? Where are the major disruptive innovations and business models for digital transformation made in Munich? “There simply aren’t enough touchpoints: places, opportunities and inspiring occasions where decision-makers and creative minds can meet face-to-face,” says Linnhoff-Popien. Munich is a relatively small place, so the worlds of business, politics and science are close together. At least in geographical terms. “But we’re still a long way from the
dynamics and culture of Silicon Valley,” says Linnhoff-Popien.
In California’s Silicon Valley region, entrepreneurs, start-up founders, political decision-makers, researchers and tech luminaries routinely meet up at a range of events. “This feeds into shared ideas, projects and pitches,” says Linnhoff-Popien. “Granted, there is a strong ethos of competitiveness in Silicon Valley. But there is also a culture of give and take, and curiosity about new opportunities: If a really good idea comes up, people help each other to make it a reality.” Even if only to prevent someone else getting there first.
This widespread culture of openness, competition and a greater desire to experiment together is what the “Digital City” association aspires to create in Munich. The association, which acts as a moderator, coordinator and catalyst, was founded in 2016 with 17 partners from industry and science. It now has 119 members. “One goal is to instigate specific digital transformation projects in the city and in business,” explains Linnhoff-Popien. “Silicon Valley is not our only role model. We also look to smart cities such as Dubai and
Singapore, which are on their way to setting new standards as business and innovation powerhouses with global influence.” Networking in Isar Valley
In its bid to do the same for Munich, the association began by staging events for companies, start-up founders, scientists and political decision-makers. One is the “Digicon” conference, held annually since 2016. Another is the “Digi-Talk” event format, where club members lead group evenings on a dedicated topic every six weeks. “Companies such as Google, Deutsche Bank and Munich Airport open their doors to us for panel discussions and targeted networking.” Linnhoff-Popien indicates that these meetings have resulted in several major contracts and joint projects between association members over the last two years. She does not wish to get into details – confidentiality clauses protect members from IP theft. “When bilateral projects do happen, for legal reasons the members implement them outside of the association’s structures,” she explains. “We see our task as bringing the companies and experts together up to this point, and helping them to co-develop ideas. The follow-though – actually taking the project into action – takes place directly in the companies, which is also where the value is generated.”
To make as many projects as possible reality, association members meet in special-interest groups working on issues such as smart cities, security and personnel. “The Smart City workgroup, for example, led to a project between Munich’s public utility company and the University of Munich, using artificial intelligence as a way to identify problems in the water supply faster,” reports Linnhoff-Popien. She is allowed to talk about this project; her own team at the University of Munich is involved.
The background: some of the pipelines in Munich’s 700-kilometer water supply grid are more than a hundred years old. It often takes too much time to identify leaks, allowing clean water to seep away unchecked. Before the project, specially trained experts armed with stethoscopes used to descend into the underground network and attempt to identify leaks by subtle differences in the sound of the water flow. “We are now installing sensors at critical points in the systems to pick up the sound and transmit it to our servers in real time.” These recordings are currently being used to train artificial intelligence, which will soon be able to automatically detect problems in the water pipes – even before a leak occurs.
Until now, experts had to find weak points in water pipes on site; thanks to artificial intelligence, this will soon no longer be necessary. (Image: iStock/Firmafotografen) Networking, not selling
When the association was first founded, some companies were skeptical. “An incredible range of conferences, events and workshops are staged on topics around digital transformation, and in most cases people want to sell the companies something,” says Linnhoff-Popien. The companies took a lot of persuading to sign up. “What did help us was that we had some big names on board right from the start, and the city of Munich also supported us,” she recalls. “It also mattered – and still does – that I come from the research and university side. I don’t represent any business.” This made clear that the association was not pursuing business interests of its own. It is all about networking, and building the region’s standing as a technology hub.
The association does not aim to make a profit. It budgets just enough to cover costs. Depending on their company size, members pay an annual subscription fee of between 600 and 2,600 euros. They can sponsor projects about digital transformation at schools and universities, and should also above all contribute their own workshops and projects as well as participating in the association’s events. “When we as an association invite people to a workshop or event, everyone knows it’s totally about the topic under discussion. It’s not a sales ‘do’, with some consultant or IT provider or other touting their latest offers,” emphasizes Linnhoff-Popien. This creates an open atmosphere.
Three years after its foundation, the new network structures are showing an impact, says Linnhoff-Popien. “This year we won a project with Munich University to research new applications for artificial intelligence,” reports the scientist. “Through the association, we asked around for ideas on how to make the project even bigger, enabling as many actors in the city as possible to benefit and get involved. Within two weeks, there was a workshop with 80 entrepreneurs and decision-makers. It sounds as if “Isar Valley” is slowly taking shape.
Header image: iStock/jotily