Speech from Berlin Wall 30- on 6th November 2019

Hello. It is wonderful to be back in Berlin. I have always appreciated the warmth with which I have been greeted when visiting Germany – and it has been no different today. So, thank you for inviting me to join this conference – and thank you for coming this evening.

I am a newly elected Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament. Until last April, I was like you. Interested in politics, but not elected to any role, I really am a voter who got angry – and stood up and got involved.

In the European Parliament, I sit on two Committees that cover Culture and Education and also Industry, Research and Energy. What unites these two roles, for me, is Innovation.

That is why, today, I have decided to talk with you about the culture that I have seen and enjoyed here in Berlin and why I think that art, music and technical innovation are, here, are so comfortably wrapped up together. And why this really matters for Berlin, Germany and the rest of the world.

Thirty years ago, there was an energy then about Berlin that was unmissable, and remarkably it has not faded. Of course, people were innovating here, before the wall went up, before the wall came down, but those 28 years – those 10,316 days – that Berlin spent as divided city somehow changed the way Berliners think and the way they work. It brought art and science together in your innovations many, many years before the rest of Europe – or even the rest of the world – were even thinking about it.

I have a friend, and artist – a German artist who has lived in the U.K. for more than twenty years now – who, under threat of Brexit, has been bringing his art to Berlin. He is a sculptor, whose early series, Immaterial, uses granite and metal to crate a negative space – usually a human form, sitting and in conversation, so poised for action that you wonder if they will move when you look away – but essential when you enjoy his work, you are looking at the air at a space, at something which you cannot quite lay your hands on, which is… intangible, immaterial, inspirational.

My first time in Berlin was in 1991. I was filming for a science documentary series called Tomorrow’s World. It was on prime time tv, a science magazine show, and by then I had filmed all over the UK. I had filmed inventions elsewhere in Germany and here, there was different feel high tech – but with a twist that has to be put down to your own unique history.

On that trip I was privileged to visit Potsdamer Platz station while still closed and a part of Hitler’s bunker which had been caught between the walls. These visits were unsettling. In the bunker – stark murals, poised, stylish – but knowing what they represented, repellent. From there we went directly to the underground station – Potsdamer Platz – stark, dark and empty. A strange reflection of the inhibition of the communist era where the lack of imagination, the lack of freedom, left a powerful impression.

But I was in Berlin to discover innovation – architecture, design, Potsdamer Platz, VR – and remember this was 1991. VR was completely new. Very advanced, very exciting and – very Berlin. Art and tech coming together to build a better world.

Your engineers were similar, drawing on natural and environmental ideas, the curve of a leaf, the feathers of flight. I do not remember the names, now, but people building natural lines into urban design, an idea which is fashionable now – growing in Berlin as the wall came down.

On a more practical note, I spent time with an environmental community in Kreuzberg which practised environmental, sustainable living. – words which were not common in the nineties. Now, every time I see a green wall, I think of Kreuzberg. Berlin was working out how to cut water consumption and develop sustainable ways of living, while the rest of world was asleep on the job!

Just thinking – we filmed with the children in the Kreuzberg nursery flushing the loos, turning taps on and off and on and off again – they thought we were nuts – they would have been just 3 or 4 years old – which would make them about 34, 35 years old now. If you know anyone who was there – tell them the crazy film director says hi.

FUTURE SKILLS – so why does this all matter?

As an educationalist, I attend a lot of talks, discussions and meetings about what skills we need to address the future. The only thing that is clear is that cross fertilisation between disciplines is going to be critical. Also, empathy and diversity – places like Berlin and London which bring together people and ideas from across the world – are the places expected to thrive.

Innovation that brings together unlikely disciplines, unlikely aspects of art and science and music and tech and play – the kind of innovation that we see here in Berlin is going to be the bedrock of our new society. Innovation drives employment, drives taxes and services and so drives the good of society. It’s also fun, stimulating and makes life worthwhile.

Here, it seemed as if crazy, fantastic innovation sprang from 28 years of confinement and repression, even in the West Berlin, which was called ‘free’ and of course was essentially ‘free’ but enjoyed a strange crazy half life for 28 years – clear confinement for East Berlin, but also a strange semi confinement for the West. Although West Berlin was free, we outsiders often forget that the city was surrounded on all sides by East Germany and USSR.

People could leave and have safe passage, but in the course of everyday life, not many people would leave. You live where you live. And some life for west Berliners seems to have had a semi-caged quality. And I think this was important – certainly in the 90s it was as if ideas were falling like fountains. As if the pressure of confinement and restriction gave people time to think, pushed them to lift their eyes and their hearts beyond the day to day

Add to that the fact that the city is even now too small for culture to divide itself into narrow silos. The science, it seemed when I was ere, could not escape from art, and the art that I saw at the time acknowledged and embraced the influence of science. Where else would you see – as we did here in 2012 – opera performed in the turbine hall of a former power station. {Staatsoper Unter den Linden at the Berlin Power Station, Luigi Nono’s socialist opera Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore.}

Even today, you have 3 opera houses, the world class BPO with our own SIMON Rattle and something like 20,000 artists, in a city that is less than half the size of London.

In some magical way your city and your institutions seem to be managing to build in that inspiration – so often when the big players get involved they squeeze the life out of things, but not here.

So, we see the collaboration between the Arts university and the Technical university which brings together artistic practice with scientific research in the Berlin Open Lab. We have the Fab Lab – a fantastic hub of the Berlin maker community, with spaces that young inventors and makers can work in and kit – 3D printers, laser cutters and the very latest design software for them to use.

When the wall came down in 1989: there was no internet. The work of Kreuzberg and the German Greens, notwithstanding, we had never heard the words ‘climate change’. For goodness sake, Ed Sheehan was not even been born!!

If I may take the liberty of echoing JFK’s speech from 1963: Berlin has been and, amazingly, still is a cradle of change.

HERE IN BERLIN – You HAVE lifted your eyes beyond the dangers of the past and towards the hopes of tomorrow.

And the fantastic culture of invention that goes on here has had and will have repercussions that reach beyond this city, Berlin, and maybe even beyond Germany.

This city is still a symbol of peace and the CHANGES and inventions WROUGHT HERE carry a greater weight

Wherever the next 30 years take us in terms of culture, art, music and innovation, I have no doubt that you, that Berlin will be leading the way


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