culture, architecture, sustainability
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Last night’s catwalk show by designer Charlie Le Mindu and make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench at the Berlin Fashion Film Festival was spectacular–I think the photos speak for themselves. Thanks to Emily, who was left holding the camera while I was stuck at the bar (tbf there are worse places to be stuck).

 

Designer and inventor Werner Aisslinger doesn’t just come up with ideas – he also designs the technology that turns them into functioning items. His exhibition at Haus am Waldsee is a Wunderkammer of jaw-dropping innovations, inspired by and employing nature to create sustainable solutions for 21st century living.

 

Grow your own chair!

Hydroponics in the kitchen

Grow your own mushrooms!

Beehive-inspired relaxation furniture

"Anti-digital" sofa facing out towards the garden and lake

"Book" shelf

I’m writing today from Italy. It’s pouring intermittently and the countryside resembles a rainforest: lush, green and stubbornly overgrown. Yesterday I arrived from Barcelona, that sweaty city with surprising architectural pleasures, should you choose to look beyond Gaudimania. But the whys and wherefores of my trip are less important, this time, than the hows:

I flew here. From Berlin. For the first time in four years, I walked, sweaty of palm and slack of principle, onto a magnificent mechanical albatross and soared across the continent, covering almost 2000 kilometres in just over two hours.

Initially I’d been petrified of this moment, convinced that my decision to fly would be punished with some kind of horrific “accident.” Irrational fears overruled, I boarded the plane confidently; a few shallow breaths perhaps belying a lingering hangover. I placed my complete trust in a man I’d never met, and accepted a fate that was totally out of my control.

But I didn’t give up air travel out of a fear of flying. I quit because I wanted to make a meaningful stand in the fight against climate change. That was back in 2009 when, though skeptical, I feigned optimism until I actually started believing it. I developed a faith in the power of the individual. Anyway, what’s the point in writing about sustainability if your message is one of hopelessness?

Four years on–I’m going to come out and say it–things aren’t looking good. I’m not going to sit here and link to the articles and scientific papers that continue to paint an ever more depressing picture of our planet’s future. You’ve all seen the headlines, maybe even scanned the text, and then, like me, you’ve closed the tab or clicked another, less harrowing, story.

Does it really matter whether I separate my recycling, while fossil fuel giants and governments remain cosy bedfellows? The fracking craze is in full swing. The Arctic is drilled for oil even as it melts. Nuclear plants are replaced with dirty coal in a post-Fukushima panic. Once upon a time, I’d have said, categorically: Yes. It matters. And funnily enough, I still can’t bring myself to stop obsessively sorting papers, plastics and metals. We need to lead by example, I’d have said. Be the change.

But I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve lost what little faith I had in our leaders, those who can make the most significant impact. How can I board a plane, if I can’t trust its pilot?

Biking trends from Berlin

Posted by Natalie in Places - 19 March 2013 - (0 Comments)

March finally arrived in Berlin to barely restrained euphoria from its residents. The greyness was interrupted by flashes of colour from exposed human skin and optimistic crocuses; not forgetting that glorious blue sky. Bikes all over town were tentatively awoken from their winter slumber, fed a dose of oil and TLC, and resumed their place at the top of the transport food chain for another season.

Alas, it was not to last. We should have known not to trust those early signs of spring. As the mercury slunk back below zero and the streets disappeared under a blanket of snow, cycling could easily have been the last thing on everyone’s minds.  But whether it was that sunny little teaser or–more likely–just because, deep down, Berlin is a bike-loving city whatever the weather, this year’s Bike Show at STATION was packed to the exposed rafters.

Families, couples, singles, old folk and young, all turned out to sample the city’s tastiest two-wheeled offerings, from sleek single-speed steeds, handsome handmades and vintage classics to gnarly, suspension-heavy mountain bikes. Lesser-spotted species like a chainless tandem and bamboo bike also made guest appearances alongside cutting-edge and design cycling paraphernalia.

Hearts really started racing in the events arena, with its ramped racetracks hosting tournaments and tests all weekend. Helmet-clad hopefuls of all ages hurtled around the circuits to a soundtrack of punk rock music and screams from the sidelines. But with such a vibrant and enthusiastic crowd of visitors and participants, this weekend’s true hero was the Bike Show itself, and the overall winner was–and still is–Berlin.

Find a short stay apartment with Be My Guest and get to Berlin this weekend for VELO, another of the city’s big biking events.

It all started with a picture. A bright white building soaring countless storeys from the drab riverside below, its sides aglow like a spacecraft coming into land. The hypnotic structure, with its inexplicable incandescence set in stark contrast to the darkness of the surrounding city, was nothing if not daring. At this stage, it’s only an architects’ impression, but the headline below foretold every neophobe’s nightmare: Berlin Wall to be torn down for luxury flats.

Though the plans had been public for some time, a canny editor somewhere reignited the story with impeccable timing, “breaking” the news on a grey Wednesday in late February, as the city’s arduous winter continued its oppressive regime. Berlin’s blogosphere immediately set the well-rehearsed wheels of petition and protest in motion, but construction work started the very next day, causing an already exasperated opposition to balk in horror.

Berlin means something different to each and every one of its three and a half million residents. To some, it’s an affordable playground of hedonism. To others, it’s the setting for a bitter battle of split cultural identities and torn loyalties. To many, it is simply home. To me, and probably countless others, Berlin continues to uphold the illusion that some things really do last forever. Ironically, it is because the city is changing so quickly that time appears to stand still. It’s as if the fact that we’re all moving together somehow negates the passage of time; like a jet hurtling towards earth, its passengers floating weightless in zero gravity.

“I can’t understand how destroying something so integral to the city can be justified. It almost seems like a work of evil,” tweeted one angry resident in response to the news. “It’s the best place for me to come and have any sort of an inkling of what it must have been like to live in a divided city. If this goes, then that opportunity goes too,” a Spanish tourist told the Guardian.

And it was not just a crumbling piece of the Wall under threat, it was Berlin’s longest remaining stretch, named the East Side Gallery for its colourful murals by international artists. The juggernaut of disapproval continued to gain seemingly unstoppable momentum, with around 600 protesters turning up at 9am on the Friday to form a human chain, which–although predicted and intercepted by Police, who arrived hours before–succeeded in disrupting the Wall’s removal. By the Sunday, thousands of impassioned demonstrators descended on the site, forcing the developers to call a temporary hiatus until mid-March.

Though the fiasco attracted attention from local, national and international media, the underlying narrative is already old news to the city’s long- and medium-term residents. Since the first time the Wall fell at the end of 1989, those mysterious, complex forces of globalisation and gentrification have been attempting to drag Berlin, kicking and screaming, up to speed with its contemporaries.

During the early 90s, expensive cars were routinely set alight by anarchist groups in a violent socio-political struggle whose symbolism retains its potency to this day. In 2011, the problem of car torching flared up again, with around 400 cases over the course of the year, proving that opposition to gentrification still burns strong. Indeed, for those neighbourhoods currently going through the painful metamorphosis, the writing is on the wall. Between self-consciously shabby bars and calculatedly cool cafes, the streets of southeastern districts Kreuzberg and Neukölln are ridden with rough graffiti inciting residents to “kill your landlord,” and “yuppies” and “tourists” to “fuck off.”

Every time an old building is destroyed or a new one erected; for every venue that is forced to close to make way for whatever is to replace it, there is a protest–online, in person, and usually both. Although demonstrations are predominantly peaceful, these confrontations represent a deep ideological divide between those implementing changes and those opposed to them.

“Emotions were running high, facts were scarce” reported Berlin podcasters Maedels with a Microphone in their coverage of the East Side Gallery protests. “It’s not as if they’re moving it for for us, the citizens. It just shows that they’re selling out Berlin, no matter what,” one protester told them. “Messing with history makes it inauthentic,” said another.

In this factual vacuum, exacerbated by many media reports, most demonstrators remained unaware that a 22 metre section of the (already gappy) 1300 metre stretch of the Wall is planned to be removed, and that the piece is going to be moved, intact, only a few feet from its current location; that the work is mainly to make way for a foot and cycle bridge, and that this bridge, the Brommybrücke, actually predates the Wall, the original having been destroyed in WWII. Few thought to cast their mind back a couple of years and consider that the East Side Gallery, adorned with art and scrawls in those blissful early days of freedom, had its “authentic” history effectively wiped out when local authorities decided to paint it white and start from scratch in 2009.

By the time work started, it was far too late for constructive discussions and reasoning. Protesters felt, and openly said, that they believed this was a trick; that “they”–some obscure but omnipotent forces–had kept it quiet until the last minute to prevent protests. Basically, people acted exactly as humans tend to when faced with shock: emotionally.

Berlin is clearly anomalous, having taken lessons not only from its own heart-wrenching history but also from that of its European neighbours, to whose generic modern narratives it refuses to conform. Sometimes protests fail, sometimes they succeed, and compromises are often reached, yet what remains constant is this emotion and ideological violence that ends up reducing a complex set of interrelated issues and agendas into an irrational and one-dimensional story.

Maik Uwe Hinkel, CEO and owner of Living Bauhaus, the company behind the planned high-rise, called Living Levels, stated that “contrary to what has appeared in the media, our project does not interrupt the East Side Gallery.” The company has held planning permission since 2008 and made no attempt to keep their plans for the site secret. The removal of the Wall “has nothing to do with to do our building, but is a requirement of the district,” said Hinkel. Living Bauhaus is quick to point out that Mr. Hinkel had already been involved in roundtable talks earlier in the year to consult with various groups about his project’s impact.

This much is true. The roundtable they refer to is an initiative called Forum StadtSpree, and is organised by the Stiftung Zukunft Berlin (Berlin Future Foundation), an independent platform for civic responsibility. Starting out as an association in 1993 and operating as a foundation since 2008, the Stiftung Zukunft has, for the past year or so, been working to address the city’s problems of urban regeneration by ensuring that conversations between all stakeholders–politicians, developers, local businesses and citizens–happen, and that decisions about Berlin’s future are made jointly.

“Our main question is where the city should be in 20 to 30 years. What are the strengths we can depend on, what are the challenges, and how can we turn them into assets?” explained Anett Szabó, a project manager at Stiftung Zukunft Berlin. We meet in a serene office near upscale Tiergarten, the walls crowded with the art collection of one of the founders. “Berlin, as any other urban society, is made up of people with a variety of interests. What hardly ever happens, is that these people sit together in the same room and talk about not only what is good for them as individuals but also for Berlin as a city.”

The area between Jannowitzbrücke and Schillingbrücke has long been earmarked for development, with the instigation of the MediaSpree investment project dating back to the 1990s. As plans start becoming a reality, with the closure of institutions like Bar 25 in 2010 and the threatened closure of other long-standing venues such as Yaam, Forum StadtSpree held its first meeting on 30th January this year, and not a moment too soon.

The series of three roundtable events involves Berlin’s senator for urban development Michael Müller, Mitte mayor franz Schulz and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg mayor Christian Hanke, Mr Hinkel of Living Bauhaus, along with around 40 other interested parties from a cross section of society, including ecologists, waste authorities and organisations and companies such as the Deutsches Architektur Zentrum, the University of Art, and former Bar 25 owners Katerholzig–who also have popular plans to develop another Spreeside plot into a cultural venue called Holzmarkt.

“During the first discussion, we tried to work out how to bring this all together,” said Szabó. She admits that for the East Side Gallery debate the conversation may have begun too late. Yet the date in mid-March everyone is holding their breath for is actually the 18th, and refers to the second installment of the Forum StadtSpree. “The events of the past few days are proof that this process is necessary and helpful.” Though initially time consuming, the procedure could save time and money in the long run if it helps prevent protests and delays that currently characterise Berlin’s development discourse.

While the Stiftung Zukunft represents the people of Berlin, and brings together interested parties, the discussions are independently moderated. On the 18th March, the plan is to hammer out over several hours questions like “What are the main aims of the area? Is it predominantly industrial, cultural, residential…? Everything will be put on the table and we will work out, plot by plot, what is important for Berlin.” Keeping the big picture in sight is no mean feat when you have over 40 separate, and often opposing, opinions.

Recognising the importance of structures such as the East Side Gallery and what it means to generations of locals and tourists as a moving memorial to significant historical events, whilst looking to the future and embracing change, is an incredibly fine balancing act. And while the Stiftung Zukunft’s initiative is still in its infancy and may stumble along the way, it is still leaps beyond anything that’s existed in Berlin before.

Whether Forum StadtSpree can affect what happens to the East Side Gallery remains to be seen, but as Szabó points out, “it’s the process that is most important. Even someone who is against the final decision might find peace with it if he has been consulted, listened to and informed, rather than merely appeased and talked at. If people have to gather and shout and confront the police, that’s a sure sign that the discussion has gone wrong, whatever the result. Berlin belongs to all of us, and we should all be able to decide what its future looks like.”

The Internet has been subtly shaping the bonds between us for over three decades, but it is only much more recently that the development of the social web, in combination with increasingly sophisticated mobile hardware, has brought to light the potential power of the 21st century individual.

In their 2012 book, Networked, researcher Lee Rainie and theorist Barry Wellman coined a new term for this influential combination of software, hardware and connectivity; they called it The Triple Revolution. The authors note that with Internet access becoming progressively ubiquitous, making each and every one of us more instrumental than ever before, it is our newly extended networks that render opinions and actions particularly meaningful.

Indeed, leading American thinker Dan Tapscott believes that new, web-enabled networks are key to solving contemporary worldwide challenges, harnessing collective influence to sway governance, policy, advocacy, and global standards across all manner of organisations, from nations to institutions, large or small. According to Tapscott, author of bestselling book Macrowikinomics, these multi-stakeholder networks should consist of four pillars: the nation state, the private sector, civil society and–now–you. This newfound influence of individuals is shifting the political and personal landscape, reinventing democracy based on active citizenship and true transparency. “The future is not something to be predicted,” he argues, “but something to be achieved.”

Many commentators have lamented the rise of the social web, anxious that it breaks down traditional ties such as the family and local community, increasingly isolating individuals to the detriment of themselves and wider society. Yet as as Rainie and Wellman quite rightly point out, “people are not hooked on gadgets – they are hooked on each other”. Now, more than ever, we are accorded endless opportunities for development through extensive networks that, though perhaps looser, are much more far-reaching and person-focused.

During these times of economic and environmental turmoil, our interconnectedness is one of our strongest assets. Thanks to the Triple Revolution, the power to make meaningful and lasting change is finally at our fingertips. So how will you use it?

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Our Velocity

 

Some people will tell you that Berlin is like a different city during the depths of winter, and they’d be right. Different yes, but not worse than in the friendlier seasons. Actually, now I’ve lived here for the best part of four years, I’ve come to embrace the icy innercity, with its snowy streets fading to slushy brown. At any other time of year, you’ll share the parks and pavements with hoards of other revellers all enjoying a slice of Europe’s party capital, but between November and March, you can enjoy some quality one-on-one time with this most enigmatic and dynamic of cities.

Having started the day with cup of freshly brewed coffee (courtesy of my neighbours at Five Elephant), it’s time to get outside and face up to whatever the day has in store. It’s invariably not as bad as it looks from the cosiness of a warm flat. I always take my dog out — sometimes we walk, sometimes we jog — and his general enthusiasm and complete indifference to the weather are infectious. Cutting through the scruffily charming Görlitzer Park, a former train station forced into obsolescence by the Wall, we head towards the banks of the mighty River Spree.

Now well into what was once the East, grand avenues gradually morph into forest as the impressive villas become fewer and further between. This is Treptower Park, a sprawling labyrinth of towering trees and vast green spaces, the river at the northern edge providing a peaceful waterside promenade made just, it seems, for dogs and joggers.

We’re warm now, and my cheeks glow red. It’s time to head home, make myself presentable and jump on the bus to check out one of Berlin’s inexhaustible supply of exciting exhibitions. My final destination is often the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, host to any number of pioneering international initiatives from renowned Transmediale festival to the new and compelling Anthropocene Project. Then again, it could be the Hamburger Bahnhof, once the main hub for trains to Hamburg, now an innovative museum for modern art with a permanent collection featuring the likes of Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

Another great thing about winter is that it justifies a perhaps unhealthy amount of visits to the pictures. I’m addicted to the handful of Yorck arthouse cinemas that show films in their original language with German subtitles. Forget generic blockbusters in a faceless multiplex, this is movie-going as it’s supposed to be done, with thoughtfully selected features, painstakingly restored cinemas and fairly priced tickets.

After all that solitude and reflection, a salubrious dose of socialising is probably in order. On its lesser-known list of benefits, winter also offers the opportunity to go to bars much earlier than is usually acceptable. When it gets dark just before four in the afternoon, 6pm can feel like the middle of the night, so meeting friends for a hearty German beer in a gemütlich bar is just what the doctor ordered. Some (most) continue late into the night at one or more of Berlin’s world-famous clubs. But me, I make sure I’m tucked up at a reasonable hour ready for tomorrow morning’s date with the great outdoors, well rested and ready for whatever this wonderful city has to throw at me.

This post is published as part of the 100 cities to home swap before you die initiative from Knok.com

Detroit, Michigan and Naples, Italy are two very different cities with diverse challenges in urban regeneration. Yet remarkable parallels can be drawn between their development strategies – and what’s more, they seem to be working.

Lafayette Greens urban gardens, Detroit

At first glance, the cities of Detroit, Michigan and Naples, Italy could not seem more different. The former, a chilly high-rise metropolis flush with the Canadian border in America’s lacustrine midwest; the latter, an ancient coastal city with UNESCO heritage status, lapped by the balmy Mediterranean. Look a little closer, however, and similarities begin to emerge. Thanks to a truly globalised economy, these two disparate cities sit at the bleeding edge of their respective countries’ social and financial crises, poster boys of our post-capitalist discontent.

Detroit’s Deputy Mayor, Kirk Lewis, and Mayor Luigi de Magistris of Naples both outlined their myriad challenges and working solutions at the Urban Energies Congress in Berlin last month. Organised by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, the Congress marked five years since the Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities, and aimed to not only take stock of the last half decade’s progress but also draw learnings from wider global scenarios.

Michigan’s largest metropolis, Detroit has a shrinking population. In 1950, at the height of its success as capital of the US automobile industry and heartland of Motown Records, the city had a population density of 21 people per acre. In 2010, that figure had reduced to just eight. Foreclosures are rife, with one in 30 homes repossessed, leaving over 80 thousand domestic vacant lots, in addition to the 105 thousand abandoned industrial spaces.

A perfect storm of soaring unemployment (the inhabitant to job ratio is 4:1), a struggling education system (125 schools have closed since 2007) and stagnant public services has further contributed to mass migration from the former boomtown, leaving Mayor Dave Bing’s administration with a gaping hole in their tax revenue. Exacerbated by this deficit, along with the global financial crisis that is both its cause and effect, a feedback loop ensues, dragging Detroit into a downward spiral; its citizens’ morale at an all-time low.

From one motor city to another: just over 4500 miles away at the foot of Italy’s mighty Mount Vesuvius, Naples is the country’s third largest municipality. Despite its standing as one of the Mediterranean’s most important ports, as well as a popular tourist destination, Naples continues to battle with heavily congested streets, unemployment and – most famously – organised crime. Hard hit by Italy’s Eurozone debts, the city itself is home to just under one million people, around a quarter of whom are jobless.

Faced with these undeniably dire urban development challenges, the Mayor’s Office of both metropolises made similar decisions, a fact which stands to reason: in the absence of a substantial monetary budget, they looked at other available assets and seized upon the one piece of capital to hand – public land.

66,000 of Detroit’s vacant industrial lots are publicly owned, which adds up to a significant amount of land. Though some of the space was auctioned off last year as part of a revenue generation strategy by Wayne County, much of the remainder presents what the administration sees as a tremendous opportunity.

After tearing down the dilapidated buildings, public land is being used to encourage growth through “community cohesion areas”. Detroit has seen new industries in urban agriculture and community gardening emerge and succeed on plots that used to house factories and processing plants. Providing not only employment but also affordable, locally produced, healthy food, Detroit’s urban agriculture movement has proved exemplary, drawing attention from across America as a pragmatic solution to a multifaceted problem.

In addition, land conversion has led to successful projects such as the Dequindre Cut, a former railway line turned urban recreation path; the Eastern Market, a local food market of over 250 independent vendors (many selling produce from the urban agriculture projects); and Belle Isle Park, a 982-acre island in the Detroit River with a nature centre and swimming beach.

Of course, this reinvigoration of public land comprises only a small part of the Bing administration’s necessarily complex urban development strategy, yet its scope is surprisingly wide – not least due to its potential for positive social interaction, which in turn leads to a sense of pride and place, increasing morale and finally putting that negative feedback loop into reverse. As Deputy Mayor Lewis himself points out, “Transforming Detroit will only work if everyone is involved”.

Mayor de Magistris of Naples is similarly enthusiastic about how the reinvention of public space can harness human capital, which can then be effectively employed to combat challenges that money alone has previously tried – and failed – to overcome. Frustrated by the dominance of motor vehicles on the streets of an already overcrowded city with an outdated infrastructure, de Magistris decided to temporarily pedestrianise Via Caracciolo, 5km of Naples’ most valuable but most congested coastline – a move which provoked powerful opposition from local businesses and Camorra bosses.

Naples' new cycle path

At the same time, the Neapolitan administration installed a 27km-long cycle path along the coastline as part of a wider sustainable mobility network. De Magistris believes that the creative use of public space can even be used to combat criminality, by strengthening civil society. In his words, “Cities become safe when people are out on the streets; crime is overcome by culture”.

Though some may accuse the Mayor – who was elected in summer 2011 – of idealism, no one is more surprised than he at the transformative power of developing public spaces. “I was a judge for 15 years, and could never have imagined something like this as a solution”, he said. Indeed, Via Caracciolo is now permanently pedestrianised, creating the longed-for Lungomare, or seafront promenade, essential for any serious Italian coastal city. Revenue from tourism has increased by 10 percent, silencing the complaints of previously oppositional factions, and vindicating the Mayor’s refusal to bow to intimidation tactics. Purchase of bikes has increased since the cycle path path was installed, with delighted citizens reporting savings of up to €500 per month in petrol.

Problems persist, of course, in Naples as in Detroit, and it is clear that there is no silver bullet for sustainable urban development. What is true, however, is that public access to beautiful spaces can and does act as a catalyst to economic development, provoking the pride of current inhabitants and the interest of potential investors, both residential and industrial. The lack of economic capital, though undoubtedly damaging, has encouraged the emergence of creative solutions based on human capital, encouraging a return to local, decentralised modes of production that also happen to be key elements of a sustainable urban lifestyle.

The End of the World

Posted by Natalie in Places - 27 October 2012 - (0 Comments)

I was lonely and tired as the solitary boat ferried me slowly but steadily across the grey Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego – Argentina’s Land of Fire. Having travelled south overland all the way from the equator at Quito, Patagonia’s glaring and desolate beauty seemed suddenly to highlight the glorious futility of my journey. Never was I happier to be alone, wearied, and on the road.

An archipelago at the southerly tip of South America, just under 1000 km from Antarctica, Tierra del Fuego’s otherworldly landscape is a mixture of marshy flatland, soaring peaks and windswept forests. In December, the height of summer, the sun graces spectacular scenes with an almost ubiquitous presence, dipping briefly below the horizon before rising again like a forgetful child caught up in the joys of play.

Famous as a destination of the Beagle, the hallowed ship that carried an inquisitive young man named Charles Darwin on a fateful journey almost two centuries ago, the area is awash with familiar names. Inspired, I jumped on a boat from Ushuaia, the main island’s capital and world’s southernmost city, and retraced my hero’s adventure along the Beagle Channel.

Despite the rough waters, cold air and jagged banks typical of a place so close to our white and unforgiving continent, that aqueous artery is breathtaking.  Welcoming seals signaled their approval with a round of applause, colossal condors kept an eye from above, while their flightless cousins, the King Penguins, entertained at the shore. Back on land, alienesque arboreal asymmetry provided more proof, if any were needed, of the strength of the elements at this merciless latitude.

Once upon a time, back when the Earth was presumed flat, explorers approaching this island believed they’d reached the end of the world; and I for one don’t blame them. The Land of Fire’s rugged finality is all at once apocalyptic and comfortingly sublime.

For ‘the world’s biggest tech festival’, Campus Party Europe has already had a surprising number of ‘technical issues’ to contend with. A confusing website twinned with an equally baffling registration system meant we were kept queueing for an hour last night just trying to get in to see Hard Hob play the opening ceremony (which I unfortunately ended up missing).

Things seemed to be running smoother this morning, however, as I settled down to my first talk of the festival by Kate Andrews from LoCo2. I blogged about LoCo2’s beta site back in March 2011 and have been watching the development of the business with interest ever since, so was excited to find out how things were going and finally put a face to a name.

LoCo2’s ultimate goal is simple – to make trains as easy to book as flights. According to Kate, there are three factors that people take into consideration when booking travel: price, length of journey, and ease of booking. The business – owned by Kate and her brother Jamie – focuses on the latter and works backwards from there: a smooth and comprehensive booking website allows users to find their most suitable route and the best price.

It all sounds pretty simple so far. If Skyscanner can do it for flights and Direct Ferries for boat journeys, why isn’t there already the equivalent for trains? Apparently, it’s all a matter of data. More to the point, it’s about getting train companies to share this data so that LoCo2 can provide a consolidated, user-friendly pan-European train booking service.

Unfortunately, each national train provider has built and run their timetable and booking system independently, and moreover, they are tentative about sharing it. LoCo2’s challenge is to convince these companies – and rightly so – that working together will bring more ticket sales to all parties, rather than divert or divide profits. Eurostar, for example, has not only taken 80% of the market share in travel between London, Brussels and Paris, but also actually increased the market.

Then there’s the environmental benefits of travelling by train, of which 80% in Europe are now electric. As more countries follow the lead of Scandinavia and switch to renewable energy sources, train travel will only become more environmentally friendly. Plus, as I’ve long maintained, it’s a lot more fun!

It was a breath of fresh air to hear Kate speak about these issues, as I find myself having the same conversation with people who are already sold on the idea of slow travel, but stumble once they start looking to book. (Apparently only 2% of people fail to make a flight booking, compared with 67% for trains). I often end up offering to do the painstaking research on behalf of others, but this of course is no solution. The answer, in 2012, is surely technological and, ideally, instantaneous. That’s why I’m glad LoCo2 are taking on the challenge and, it seems, – slowly but surely – conquering it.

LoCo2′s Off The Rails hack day takes place in London on 13th October.

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