With his new portal nebenan.de, Christian Vollmann – the founder of online platforms like eDarling or myVideo – wants to improve how we live together in cities. In our interview, the patron of the smart urban pioneers idea contest talks about the future of cities, the power of grassroots movements, and the true impact of virtual media.

Mister Vollmann, are you a city boy at heart?
Christian Vollmann: Definitely, and with a passion. Although I grew up in the countryside, I deliberately moved to a metropolis – in my case, Berlin. And I have never looked back.

What do you love about life in Berlin?
Christian Vollmann: The sheer diversity of big cities is truly astounding. All the different people from around the world, all the different cultural and culinary offerings. Berlin offers an additional benefit: a sense of freedom. Here, anyone can be who they want to be. Live and let live is a leading motto.

Modern cities face their own challenges – could you pinpoint the most important ones?
Christian Vollmann: Increasing urbanization and the growing demand for living space – against a climate of rising house prices – are becoming a social challenge. And then there’s the mounting pressure on infrastructure, from traffic to institutions like schools and daycare centers. At the same time, ever-growing cities also mean more anonymity and this, coupled with demographic change, increases loneliness among older people.

Isn’t solving these tasks a matter of politics and administration?
Christian Vollmann: In my opinion, an active civil movement can achieve a lot more. If we expect the state, city, or community to solve all of our problems, these problems soon rule our lives. What’s more, social engagement and initiative speeds up the process. Each and every one of us can have an effect – with small activities or changes that take very little time or effort.

Why and when are residents better placed to effect change?
Christian Vollmann: Bottom-up projects, i. e. those started by residents for their own neighborhoods, otherwise known as grassroots projects, rely on the intelligence and creativity of the crowd. If you really think about it, it’s only obvious that 100,000 people will come up with more, and more different, approaches than a few individuals, like local administrators. This is why I am convinced that the neighborhood platform nebenan.de – a project I founded with a few others – will generate plans and ideas we can’t even imagine today.

“A successful urban project involves social media“

What does it take to make an urban project successful?
Christian Vollmann: The most important thing: It has to be very easy to get involved. Anyone needs to see straight away what’s in it for them and for society. It needs to have potential to go viral. And, this is key: Modern urban projects make smart use of social media – they use them as tools to create a kind of movement.

And which mistakes should be avoided?
Christian Vollmann: No innovation should be purely virtual. It needs to have a real impact on our lives; an impact on society. With this in mind, we designed nebenan.de to be a social network with strong ties to the real world. While I can use the virtual platform to look for a ladder or power drill, I still need to go and knock on my neighbor’s door to actually get it. Here, social media are just handy helpers to spread my idea and generate a greater buzz and impact.

Starting from scratch, what’s the best way to encourage innovative ideas and their generation?
Christian Vollmann: Awards and contests are a great way to support projects and spark new visions. Take the $10 million X-Prize in the USA: It has given private and commercial space flight a decisive boost. In Germany, we most of all need better conditions for founders. This requires a seismic shift in terms of mentality: Failing needs to lose its stigma.

"We designed nebenan.de to be a social network with strong ties to the real world."
“We designed nebenan.de to be a social network with strong ties to the real world.”

Let’s move on to smart urban pioneers: What’s unique about this idea contest?
Christian Vollmann: It offers the perfect balance of a subsequent, professionally supported crowdfunding campaign and prize money. The latter is paramount since such campaigns require excellent preparation, including exact timing and high-quality images and videos. smart urban pioneers offers all of this.

Why did you decide to become a patron of this initiative?
Christian Vollmann: smart urban pioneers wants to help solve future social challenges of urbanization – and that’s exactly what we are aiming for with nebenan.de as an independent civil society. I also appreciated the jury selection and the general thrust of the campaign: smart seeks entrepreneurs and personalities willing to kickstart change, something I can identify with 100 percent. It’s exactly what I would have welcomed as a founder and what I have been doing as a business angel.

All image incl. the header image: nebenan.de