Thirty years ago, I found my real passion when I visited Soweto, a township in South Africa, as an architecture student shortly after Nelson Mandela was elected president: to help enable the collective effort of people, community organizations, businesses, and governments to achieve real change.
Architecture, I soon realized, was not the tool for change I envisioned. But the skills of planning, designing and problem-solving with communities proved invaluable as I set out to find out how best to enable this collaboration. And so, I became a serial social entrepreneur, building organizations to help cities become more collaborative in meeting their challenges, and creating better futures.
First, I began to help leaders in government, business, and universities reimagine cities as more inclusive places for the science-based innovation economy by helping to develop innovation districts in dozens of cities, in Europe and Asia. Advising leaders on the intersection of government policy, community development, and a rapidly changing economy brought me to co-initiate a global network of living laboratories in 2003, to put these collaborations to specific use, and service to citizens. These labs proved highly effective at producing solutions that work. But together with my team, we uncovered a deeper problem, one that was holding back real change. City procurement, the $6 trillion a year business that has a big impact on the quality of public services that shape the world around us: education, social care, transport, climate, safety, economic opportunity. Despite its size, public procurement was never intended to surface and reward the most meaningful solutions. Instead, it replicated old patterns and behaviors that held back progress on tackling our most urgent challenges.
In 2008, we began to apply the workings of architecture design competitions to public procurement more broadly, going on to found Citymart, an organization that by 2020 had helped 135 global cities adopt this new method and was replicated by countless organizations. Over the course of a decade, I had been a leading advocate to reimagine what was considered a stale bureaucratic function into a creative public service.
My experience in Soweto, as well as countless other engagements in over 150 cities around the world, didn’t just spark my entrepreneurial journey. Having grown up in a firmly Fast Lane environment in Germany, working in these places and alongside their social innovators, I encountered an alternative. That alternative grew in urgency, as I began to experience the limitations of my own Fast Lane leadership as a social entrepreneur, and a parent. A Fellowship at New America in 2020-21 helped me connect the dots with clarity, laying the foundation for this book. In late 2021, I joined Ashoka Innovators for the Public, a global NGO where I help make Ashoka’s vision of creating an “Everyone a Changemaker” world a reality, by changing mindsets and empowering more people to contribute to real change.
Along the way, I have taken my message around the world by lecturing at universities like the London School of Economics, and the University of Chicago; by being a trusted adviser to philanthropies and think tanks, like the Rockefeller Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and The Aspen Institute; and by advising governments and public institutions like The Government of South Africa, The World Bank Group, and the Nordic Council of Ministers. My work has been profiled by global media, including the New York Times. In 2011, I was awarded the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship.
I am married to Julia, and we live in Berlin with our two daughters, and two dogs.