In 2007, scientist Dr. Joana Breidenbach founded betterplace.org, a digital support platform for charitable projects. In our interview, the smart urban pioneers jury member explains why contests are vital for the German start-up scene and what we can learn from Berlin.

Ms Breidenbach, as an anthropologist you have studied human nature. What explains the increasing attraction of cities?
Joana Breidenbach: It’s almost an evolutionary movement. In cities, diversity arises, people from very different areas and backgrounds come together, and there’s more scope for energy and creativity. Many people associate urban life with hope since they assume the city will offer them better chances and opportunities. Sometimes this is true; sometimes it isn’t.

You have made Berlin your home. What is special about this city?
Joana Breidenbach: Its sheer diversity. No other German metropolis lets you encounter so many people from different backgrounds. Berlin attracts people who don’t necessarily focus on making money, but who want to realize things and add their own potential to life. I think that’s great.

So, could other cities learn from Berlin?
Joana Breidenbach: Sure. While there are plenty of international investors buying up local real estate, compared to other European metropolises Berlin still remains very affordable. That’s something I really appreciate. And there are plenty of initiatives trying to establish some kind of cultural residential mix – commercial use, private, old, young, poor, and rich. Berlin keeps coming up with successful examples.

Joana Breidenbach and the betterplace team
Joana Breidenbach and the betterplace team.
Photo: betterplace.org

I guess it was this kind of spirit that informed your decision to found betterplace.org in 2007?
Joana Breidenbach: Yes, we started out as some kind of ebay for charitable projects – a global platform where social initiatives could showcase their projects and also do their fundraising. The basic idea was to make local grassroots projects more visible. And the internet makes it all a lot more transparent and participatory.

What prompted you to embark on this path?
Joana Breidenbach: My husband and I travelled the world for five months and encountered plenty of local development projects that we thought deserved a lot more recognition. At the same time, we realized that many people don’t really trust large aid organizations any more. Just how much of the money really ends up in the right channels? And are the recipients really doing good work?

What kind of ideas can we find on betterplace.org?
Joana Breidenbach: The sheer variety of projects is really interesting. While established fundraising brands like SOS-Kinderdorf, Unicef or the Red Cross use our platform, we also host several very innovative social approaches. Take “Die Schlaufüchse” from Munich, an educational project, or refugee-related initiatives that might only need very little money to take children from a refugee shelter to the zoo once a month.

You also founded the think tank betterplace lab. How does it differ from betterplace.org?
Joana Breidenbach: Just like betterplace.org, the betterplace lab is part of our non-profit incorporated company gut.org. The lab serves as a think tank for trend research with a focus on innovations arising at the interface of digitalization and the common good.

Your projects are imbued with a pioneering spirit that’s often missing in Germany. Do we need more of a start-up spirit?
Joana Breidenbach: I think so – Germany’s still lagging behind when it comes to entrepreneurial spirit. One of the reasons is the obvious lack of start-up funding. So, contests like smart urban pioneers are incredibly important as they can set a lot in motion – especially during the early project stages. Once founders have run through their own savings or money from friends and parents, such competitions are often the next step and stepping stone.

betterplace office
The betterplace office in Berlin increases the visibility of social projects from all over the world.
Photo: betterplace.org

“Competitions are important innovation drivers“

In your experience – what makes a non-profit project successful?
Joana Breidenbach: The most important factor is the founding team. Just how on-the-ball, enthusiastic, and competent are the very first people involved? Are they good at listening to the market and identifying a need? In the long run, they also need to be able to develop and evolve a product in line with user behavior.

Do we need fundamentally different conditions to help the German start-up scene catch up?
Joana Breidenbach: Yes, we need to dismantle bureaucracies. When you take a closer look at the start-up scene, you will notice that German founders can’t even exploit the EU markets due to the myriad different regulations. And traditional foundations don’t usually support smaller projects like the ones entering the smart urban pioneers contest – despite the many great examples. A lot more innovation capital would help.

Can smart urban pioneers set an example?
Joana Breidenbach: Yes. Competitions that don’t offer, say, 1,000 euros prize money, but a lot more substantial financial aid, are a great vehicle for promoting innovation. smart urban pioneers is all about supporting a bold get-go spirit, about projects that might start out without a firm result in mind, but that take shape throughout the process.

After reviewing the competition entries and initial voting results: Do the projects meet your expectations?
Joana Breidenbach: Definitely. There’s a great wealth of different projects ranging from festivals to revive urban space right down to innovations designed to raise the overall quality of life among urbanites. There are many projects that deserve funding since they are run by capable people and promise to improve our cities.