A co-lab for the challenges of the future

by NION Berlin April 15, 2018
A co-lab for the challenges of the future

People who look for jobs these days are not just attracted to money. They look for a complete quality of life. That is what we try to establish here.

Dr. Henning Heppner, Partner of NION

Dr. Henning Heppner ist not only a partner of NION. He’s also a founder of greenbox, a co-creation lab focussing on energy and infrastructure sectors to establish leading smart city concepts. In this interview he talks about the connection between Japan and Berlin – and how working together in creative tech hubs can help to find innovative solutions for our future.


NION is at many levels an incredibly innovative project and you have been onboard from the very beginning. You know the Japanese working culture well, so we would like to hear from you. What are your reasons for opening up a location in Berlin to bring Japanese and German culture together?

Dr. Henning Heppner: For me, the question is not only why Japan in Berlin, but also why Berlin for Japan. The two places have a long-standing relationship: as industrial nations, they have a strong and proud heritage of cooperation.

When I was working for Siemens Japan, we celebrated
our 100 year relationship. That is a really long time. We are dealing with a rich and industrial heritage with the same kind of focus on quality. I learned hands-on how Japanese people do business. I see it as a long, mutual and beneficial relationship: if you have established the trust, the network works, no matter what.

Similar to InfraLab and greenbox, both of which you founded, at NION you are working on creating a lab situation. Here, Japanese entrepreneurs from companies of any size, and researchers can get together with German experts to focus on challenges of the modern world.

Dr. Henning Heppner: When we talk about NION I do not see a project that is small but a project embedded within a bigger picture. On a global scale, we are facing a lot of challenges, but also recognize the opportunities ahead of us.

We are talking about urbanization, mobility, health and energy. These are all megatrends. At the NION Lab, we pick them up and ask the following: who has the background and the right kind of platform to develop it further? We develop, we meet again, and then we see who brings what to the table. It will be a hub situation.

The hub, to me, is the place where traditional and modern technologies come together. Not in a conventional way, where everybody does whatever they did before, but where we have a chance to put together and merge different markets, players, and technologies.

Our role is to bring them together. How? I would put assets together in fields where both parties are strong and then identify the clusters instead of putting something together artificially where nobody has a clue. It could be blockchain, digital tech, fintech – whatever. You can only be competitive if you are playing in the right league.

That is why I believe we have a good chance of working together with Japanese companies and their government to create something, which is the right answer to the challenges that we want to tackle. Japan has – on a global scale – a similar role to Germany: While Germany is strongly involved in the European Union, Japan is deeply embedded in the Asian market. Together they could bring a harmonious balance to other global markets, such as North America.

Why is the hub situation so important to you?

Dr. Henning Heppner: It is something I learned through my involvement with InfraLab: here we can test out things without disrupting the whole industries by being just a bit offside. We do
it on a small scale, we show things relatively quickly – which is also good for the people who invest money. Once we are ready, we can introduce our solutions to the stakeholders and let them see: People can see it, feel it, taste it, smell it.

When you talk about the hub or lab at NION you introduced the term “comfort level”. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Henning Heppner: At NION at a small scale, everyone can experience a path of what is possible. People can see Japanese food and technologies and they are good. People will realize: I know my stuff, but other things work too, are not that bad and I can combine them in a way that is even better. We have created a comfort level and can expand from here, because if new things are happening, it can be a bit scary, but you try it and show it and realize: it isn’t scary after all. Only then, are you ready to take the next step.

NION will be far more than the sum of its parts. How do you feel about the idea of a Japanese Sento within the development? How does that feed into your idea of the lab or hub?

Dr. Henning Heppner: There has already been a trend in Berlin, 250 years ago, where people had a natural synergy of working and living together: you even call it the Berlin model. Here we have a big chance with NION! Separation of work and life and private life is not there anymore. People who look for jobs these days are not just attracted to money. They look for a complete quality of life. That is what we try to establish here.

Since we are talking about the creation of NION, what kind of housing do you envision for your lab / hub?

Dr. Henning Heppner: What I see is always some sort of organism, something that lives. For me, the physical environment is a modular and flexible space. That’s something I would strongly vote for – that we start immediately in some sort of temporary environment and see what works. Here at InfraLab, we are very proud of our containers, because they are a representation of our temporary environment. You live in there, you need some more space? Just stack another container ontop of it. If you say, okay, now I need a bigger building, then that also works: you remove the containers and build your beautiful big building. So you can see the architectural process goes hand in hand with the project. We need to be able to be dynamic, and the building environment is an element of that. It is an ongoing process.

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