Berlin questions 2021 – Conference for a “New Now”

From August 11th to 14th, the “Berlin questions” conference took place for the fourth time. The annual event is organized by visitBerlin in cooperation with the City of Berlin. The focus is on transdisciplinary dialogue to discuss current problems and issues and to stimulate structural changes regarding the city of tomorrow. At the conference, politicians, journalists, scientists and creative professionals come together to face the challenges of the pandemic and this year’s motto “Metropolis: The New Now”. We interviewed Lutz Henke, head of the culture department at visitBerlin, and asked him about the course of the multi-day event, its results, and the role of creative professionals in Berlin.

Berlin questions 2021 – Conference for a “New Now”

During the pandemic, life in urban centers like Berlin changed dramatically. From one day to the next, all the cultural offerings that make up a large part of the attractiveness of Berlin as a place to live were no longer available. In addition, there was a sudden lack of opportunities for exchange, discourse, networking and friendships, as well as safe spaces for marginalized groups. Urbanity is always linked to issues of coexistence and equitable land use. The pandemic has not only made these more urgent, but has also made it impossible to discuss possible solutions in analog space. The annual “Berlin questions” conference is one such space; it too could not take place in 2020.

Post-Pandemic Problems

In 2021, fortunately, it was possible again. The multi-day conference was able to take place as planned from August 11th to 14th at various locations in Berlin. “Berlin questions” is organized by visitBerlin in cooperation with the City of Berlin and sees itself as a platform for open dialogue that can react flexibly to the current requirements and problems of the city of Berlin or urban space as a whole and bring them to the panels. This year’s motto “Metropolis: The New Now” addressed the pandemic and the question of how we want to and can live with it in the future. And since this pandemic is not only the subject of debate, but also changes the space in which it takes place, “Berlin questions 2021” as an event under pandemic conditions was also exciting in this respect.

Lutz Henke – © Kevin McElvaney

Lutz Henke is the “Director of Culture” at visitBerlin, where he is also responsible for “Berlin questions”. He and his team are responsible for the content, conception and implementation of the project, which brings together politicians, academics, journalists as well as cultural and creative professionals in an international and transdisciplinary dialogue. In addition to the Governing Mayor of Berlin and host of the conference Michael Müller, mayors from other metropolises such as Zurich, Warsaw or Freetown were also present this year to stimulate an international exchange between metropolitan regions.

We asked Lutz Henke a few questions about the course of events under pandemic conditions, their results and the role of Berlin Creative Industries.


MICHAŁ ANDRZEJ OLSZEWSKI, Mayor of Warschau, at the main conference – © Kevin McElvaney

Can you briefly tell us about your role at visitBerlin?

At visitBerlin, I am the ‘director culture’ and head of the culture unit. Together with my colleagues, we look after ‘culture’ in its broadest conceivable definition, i.e. from the creative solo independents to the big institutional ‘battleships’. They are all fundamentally important for the cultural metropolis of Berlin. We like to see ourselves as ‘competent accomplices’ of all actors and try to understand their concerns, to support them in their work and, of course, to connect them locally and globally. It is particularly fruitful when we succeed in bringing like-minded people together and in overcoming still existing barriers between independent projects, institutions, administration, science and business.

Last year, “Berlin questions” did not take place due to the pandemic. How did the pandemic affect this year’s event in terms of organization?

The pandemic has played a central role in our conference. The ‘Berlin questions’ always wanted to be a present day conference. The world has rarely changed so directly and fundamentally in recent decades as it has in the last 18 months. Our conference picked up on this and asked what our global metropolises need to change today in order to shape a common tomorrow after the pandemic.

“We don’t want to be a monothematic event.”

Has the pandemic meant a break for the “Berlin questions” series in terms of content, or just increased the urgency of certain questions, possibly shifting the focus?

The San Gimignano in Berlin Lichtenberg as Location for “Berlin questions” – © Kevin McElvaney

For one thing, the pandemic motivated us to expand the format technologically into a true hybrid conference. On the other hand, it has above all confirmed the original concept of the conference. We want to deliberately address the major issues of the day and not be a monothematic event that may only have relevance in one ‘scene’ or discipline. It is also a social conference that can provide orientation in special times and promote international exchange between thought leaders, decision makers and experts. The pandemic has shown that we need to work more closely together on a supra-national level. That’s why a focus on international metropolises makes sense: these are often the progressive centers beyond the nation-state affiliation. There is a lot of common ground here, despite physical distance.


How is the evaluation of the event going, are you satisfied?

We are very happy about what we have achieved and even surprised that we have received so much encouragement from all over the world. Sometimes one forgets that this conference was organized under extreme conditions and for many it was the first event after 18 months. I am particularly pleased that the spectrum is so wide: we receive positive feedback from international mayors’ offices, from experts from science, but also from culture or from ‘hands-on’ urban designers. In addition, everyone is enthusiastic about very different things. For some, the content was crucial, others were excited by the design or our hybridity and virtual conference environment.

The event is all about transdisciplinarity. Interfaces are created between politics, science and the cultural and creative industries. What role do the latter play for “The New Now” in Berlin and the “Berlin Questions”? How are creative professionals integrated into the debate?

From my point of view, creative people play a very crucial role. However, the term ‘cultural and creative industries’ is more of an auxiliary term for a very small-scale and diverse industry in order to better capture the economic added value. This does not really do justice to the task and the performance by ‘soft power’ and would have to be considered in a much more differentiated way. What is clear, however, is that this mix and a transdisciplinary approach to work are what make Berlin special and what have  added incredible value. They not only contribute to the individuality and fascination of the city, but also help to break new ground, to be pioneers and to find creative solutions.

Science and art follow similar processes in their work on experimental fields, which in turn are only practicable to a limited extent in politics or business. Creative research and a sense of possibility are often missing in institutions and administrations, which have to make pragmatic decisions and bring creative people back down to earth. This process of negotiation seems fundamental to us in shaping a ‘New Now’.


Lutz Henke and Burkhard Kieker from visitBerlin at the main conference – © Kevin McElvaney

In addition to discourse about the city’s future, “Berlin questions” is also about representing the city. How important are such events for Berlin tourism?

‘Berlin questions’ makes  a part of what the city stands for as a cultural and convention location visible: creativity, research, free exchange of opinions, but also great places and, of course, entertainment. We can offer a stage to Berlin and its players  and communicate this message directly to visitors and experts on site, but also indirectly via digital channels. But it always remains a small section of the abundance of offers that are decisive in all their individuality. That is why this cross-section is so exciting, when for a brief moment congress business, art, politics, etc. mix.

“The city’s free spaces and creativity became its decisive capital.”

How do you assess the importance of the cultural and creative industries for Berlin as a business location?

Culture is probably the area in which Berlin can undisputedly be considered a world metropolis. It shaped the city after the fall of the Wall and made it what it is today – a city of creatives and artists. The city’s free spaces and creativity became its decisive capital when finance and industry failed to materialize. This is a quality whose importance can hardly be overestimated, even in the future. However, it is not only part of the economy, but also and above all part of the city’s identity.

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