Saturday, June 02, 2012

Euro Diaries - Copenhagen

I was enjoying the travel by rail instead of by plane, so I chose a train to get to my next destination, Copenhagen. I made a short stop to visit an old room mate and good friend in Bremen, which turned out to have a lovely old city including  both beautiful historic buildings as well as very narrow streets sprinkled with tiny shops and restaurants. The whole place is really worth exploring.

Continuing my trip I had to catch the ICE to Copenhagen in Hamburg. As the train was just rolling into the station it was announced that the train was cancelled due to a technical problem. You can imagine the excitement this caused to the people waiting on the platform to board the train (including a brief panic by yours truly). The following ten minutes were characterized by chaos and conflicting information given by the platform officials (who all wear red hats to be better identified) about what to do now. But within further 10 minutes, a new train of equal quality and even with the same wagon and seat numbering was brought to the same platform.

I had to admire the German efficiency at logistics, their handling of such a complex situation and the convenience of continuing my trip with no change to my seat reservation despite the swap of an entire train. The electronic  technology used to display wagon and seat numbers probably helped a lot, but nevertheless impressive.

The trip continued smoothly. Ever increasing numbers of wind-mill generators appeared in the green landscape of  Germany's North. At the coast the train drove onto a ferry boat and once on board passengers were asked to leave the train and head to the upper deck of the ferry. On my way there I noticed trucks and cars loaded onto the same boat, so it must have been a sizable ferry to accommodate all this load. The time to grab food and drink from one of the cafeterias and consume them while soaking the sun on the upper deck like any self-respecting Nordic must do, we had to return to our train to disembark from the ferry and continue towards our destination.

Upon arriving to Copenhagen my first impression of the city was the astronomic number of bicycles everywhere. Many of them drove with frightening speed. You actually were at a higher risk to be run over by a bicycle than by a car! Check out this view of the parking lot in front of the central train station on Sunday.

How would one even find their bicycle upon return? Every conceivable model, size and configuration of bicycle (and tricycles and quadcycles) can be found in Copenhagen, with open or closed basket, aft or forward child seat, pushed or towed cart (for passengers or cargo), open or with rain/wind or sun covers. Apparently over 60% of cyclists continue to use their bicycles in the winter. On the streets of Copenhagen you could see clear signs of the bicycle parking crisis: two-level parking stands:

Emil Tin, who works for the Municipality of Copenhagen's traffic division in the bicycle department told me that 35% of all trips to work/school in 2010 were on bicycle. The city has the ambitious goal of raising this to 50% by 2015. Emil in fact pointed me to the Social Lab web site where ideas were been sought and collected for achieving this and other goals related to bicycling in Copenhagen. You can find the details by clicking here.

In his spare time Emil (who is also a graduate of Kaospilot) among many other things is part of a group that drums, plays music and sings together that participated in the Copenhagen Carnival. Although I had scouted part of the carnival, I did not know at the time about Emil's group and so missed their performance. I just caught a glimpse of various carnival activities like this one:

 When we met with Emil on a holiday Monday, the group members (who were very multicultural) had just spent two days playing at the Copenhagen Carnival, were exhausted and just relaxing around a barbecue in the back yard of the Samba School.

In typical danish way we were simply invited to join in and engaged in an interesting conversation with Emil and his friends. A young man to my left was on an MBA program. When I asked him what his research interest was, he said he wanted to understand how Islamic financial principals worked. Seeing the surprised expression on my face, he smiled pointing out to his lovely girlfriend next to him, who turned out to have an Iranian background.

Professionally, Copenhagen was also a rich experience. I visited Mindlab, which with 10 years under its belt is probably the longest standing centre dedicated to public sector innovation. There, I was able to ask many of the questions I was seeking answers to courtesy of Christian Mason, Director of Mindlab, who granted me generous time despite his busy schedule. I also attended a session with Tom Bentley, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Australian Prime Minister, in which a range of topics related to public sector innovation were discussed and the dynamics of relations in the triangle of politicians, civil servants, and citizens were deeply investigated. I left with new connections, much learning and stronger ideas on how sLab could contribute to this movement.

In Copenhagen I also had opportunity to meet the Managing Director of the Niels Brock Copenhagen Business  College, who had just returned from China, and the college's Executive VP International. I was pleasantly surprised by the strength of the College in China and breadth of its educational spectrum that could open interesting collaboration possibilities between the College and the SFI program at OCAD University.

Our last meeting in Copenhagen got cancelled despite the valiant efforts of Ian Choo, a true citizen of the world,  to link me with another innovation group in the city. Ian is helping organize a large music festival in Nepal in an attempt to support peace efforts in that country.  I am very grateful for his support and generous time and wish him the best for his Nepal project. My colleague Jeremy and I used the couple of hours idled by the cancellation to take a  bus tour on one of those double-deck  tourist buses. We discovered that despite our (very) extensive walking through the city over the long weekend there were still many many beautiful places to see and discover in Copenhagen.

All in all I can say that I fell in love with Copenhagen and its people. I definitely want to plan another more leisurely trip with my better half to explore it further.

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Euro Diaries - Germany (Part 2)

After the activities of the reunion, I was booked for some quality time with my friends Jan and Heidi. They probably recognized what I need. The next two days were a wonderful and serene tour of the many castles surrounding Dresden. All have been refurbished and renovated. Some of the blue-blooded original owners of the castles had returned to live in them, opening the castle gardens to the public. Many have become again sophisticated wineries and hosted fine restaurants.

For me it was a rediscovery of the beautiful surroundings of Dresden and as the weather warmed up and became sunny, the leisurely touring was exactly what I needed to recover from the tumults of the preceding travels and celebrations. But it was time to continue the journey. The next stop was Berlin.

I took one of the modern electrified Inter City Express (ICE) trains driving frequently between German and European cities. It displays rich information on the screens of each wagon, including speed. I noted a sustained speed of 226 kph for good stretches! We could use an ICE between Toronto and Montreal and Ottawa for sure.

After its reunification Berlin has undergone a remarkable metamorphosis. It is a city that I have come to love not only because of its revival and character, but also because it has become the location of many good friends. I was invited to a "senior" dinner of the Sandbox network hosted by Hans and Ida. Along with homemade Pasta Arabiata, wine, a healthy dessert and fabulous conversations the time flew away and I made several new friends in the city. Ida is a graduate of Kaospilot and together with Hans they are working on a start-up in the reproductive health area that could have tremendous implications globally if successful. Interestingly enough, two of the people attending the dinner are also working on projects related to incubation/acceleration of new companies. This topic seems to be popping everywhere and is encouraging me to complete my new concept for incubation/acceleration.
Mostly I was inspired by the energy of these bright young people and their quiet determination to change the world. It restored some of my optimism in the future. When it was time to take my leave, my host ordered a taxi using an app. It showed all the cabs in the vicinity, flagged which one accepted the order, displayed the driver's photo and registration number, provided the ETA of the cab and showed the cab in movement on the map towards us. Very cool. Toronto, wake up from your slumber!

In Berlin I linked up with my friend and colleague Jeremy Bowes, who teaches systems at the graduate Strategic Foresight & Innovation (SFI) program at OCAD University. Jeremy is a practicing architect, and being married  to one myself, I had also developed interest in aspects of architecture and urban planning. He was on a similar tour to mine and had just visited Vienna. Together we set on a discovery tour (not withstanding the ubiquitous construction works literally on every street!) culminating in a boat cruise on the Spree river, which provides an interesting perspective on the architecture of the city, both old and new. Berlin is known for its Spree beaches and for integrating art works in many aspects of the city, such as the sculptures on the bank of the river below.

Another interesting discovery in Berlin was my visit to the Heinrich Boell Foundation. There I discovered a world of peer-to-peer (P2P) activities and among other things an interesting study on the reasons international oil companies are pursuing unconventional oil sources. Much food for thought (and a separate blog probably).

Between the various work events there was always opportunity to enjoy a drink, a good meal, or just a good conversation over "Kaffee und Kuchen" in one of Berlin's uncountable cafes and restaurants. In the process Jeremy introduced me to the fad of documenting your love to your partner by adding a lock with (and sometimes without) inscriptions of the names or initials of the lovers. It is  usually affixed to the railing of a bridge. I was to discover later that the same fad is popular in Copenhagen as well. It is probably a better idea than sinking coins in every water fountain or river lovers encounter, but I suspect a very clever person from the lock industry must have had a hand starting this. You can see a small sample of a huge collection encountered on one Berliner bridge below.

We parted company as we each headed to our next destination. Jeremy was heading to Helsinki and I was bound to Copenhagen. My next blog would be from that city.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Euro Diaries - Germany (Part 1)

This whole travel project started with an invitation I received to a class reunion at my University in Germany. We were celebrating 40 years after graduation (yep, that much time has already gone by). The idea emerged that if I am going to be in Europe for the reunion, I could plan for a little longer visit. From there the idea developed into using that longer visit to explore some of the centres doing interesting work in innovation. What followed was a long and complicated process of planning and logistics. Finally, I had itineraries, tickets, reservations and meetings more or less lined up. And off I went.
The first stop was in Dresden. After the long transatlantic flight I could have used a nap, but arriving in the morning, there was no chance of getting into my hotel room before noon. Luckily had my friends Jan and Heidi this situation predicted. They picked me up at the airport and drove me direct to their lovely house out in the green fields surrounding Dresden. The weather obliged with 28-30 degrees and I was seated in the beautiful sunny garden with drinks and light conversation. The sunshine helped me adjust faster to local time and after lunch I was driven by my gracious hosts to my hotel.
My first challenge was with getting an Internet connection. The hotel's system requires that you register through your laptop's browser including providing your mobile number. You then receive an SMS message with a code that you need to enter into the browser to gain access to the Internet. One small problem: my European cellular number needed to be activated and I needed the Internet to do so! There was no way to break this vicious circle without outside help. Luckily some of my classmates, who were staying at the same hotel, arrived soon after and I finally achieved connectivity courtesy of the “handy” (as the mobiles are called over here) of my friend and then class president Uwe.
Soon it was already time to go to the initial gathering of the class. I met the first group of three classmates at the hotel lobby. Two I could recognize immediately, but for the third I needed a while (and some hints) to do so! We took the streetcar (tramway) to our destination, a restaurant near the landmark Blaues Wunder (Blue Wonder) bridge over the Elbe River. The public transportation is excellent and Toronto could learn a few things from the Germans in this respect. Just as we were stepping out of the streetcar a violent shower erupted. We took refuge in the entrance of a bakery/café and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw hail rebounding from the street’s surface. So much for my weather expectation mid May!
 After the storm passed we finally got to our destination, a pretty restaurant overseeing the Elbe river. The other classmates were already there. Big round of greetings and hugs. To be completely honest, after 40 years I recognized 4-5 right away but could not recognize many others. Time had taken its toll on all of us and a few had even passed away. At a certain moment in the evening (and with my jet lag kicking in) I wondered what I was doing there among these almost strangers. But with the bier flowing and the taste of German food, long-lost memories emerged suddenly. Speaking in German became easier and easier. And by the end of the evening, I felt almost back among peers and friends. Then the first product of the meticulous preparations of this reunion was unveiled: a beautiful bound volume titled "Kompendium der HF2/68" with highlights from our student years, main reunions, two pages for each class mate summarizing their path in the last four decades. A nice touch: pages were also produced for those mates who were not among us anymore. Leave it to the Germans to organize something; the book was high-quality production with many photos in black & white and in colour. Many of the moving life stories told were also a witness of the turbulent times that followed the reunification of Germany and what they meant to an entire generation.

The next day had a full program. We started by walking through the garden of the Zwinger palace to the anchoring place of the river cruise ships. On the way I caught a rarity from the old GDR days: a limousine made out of 3 old Trabant cars! 

There we boarded a steamship aptly named "Dresden" for a short cruise towards Pillnitz. The conversations around the tables started removing the fog of time and replacing it with concrete persons, names and events. We steamed under the new bridge that for the sake of economic development has cost Dresden its UNESCO designation of "Human Heritage Site". The discussions were still very passionate about the subject. The steam machine was made visible to passengers and it was a jewel of mechanics

In Pillnitz we disembarked for a hike through the green hills where  we sang our first song from the songbooks (two no less!) produced specially for the occasion.

Our destination was a local winery. There we settled for a tasting of the wines with cheese, olives and copious amounts of freshly baked breads in a hall decorated with remarkable sculptures by an artist, who happened to also be the wine master's wife. The sculptures were beautiful and everywhere including the winery. The one displayed here is also a fountain; water drips leisurely from the woman's hair.

I wasn't sure what served as a muse to the other: the beautiful sculpture to the wine master or the good wine to the artist. Probably a case of mutual inspiration :)

The way back was punctuated by stops at a few Biergarten and ended at another nice restaurant on the bank of the Elbe river, where we enjoyed a merry dinner (with some more folks songs authorized by the restaurant personnel) and a celebration of life.
The next stages of the trip follow in Part 2.

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