What American Cities Can Learn from Warsaw

warsaw stanglerDuring Global Entrepreneurship Week, Google officially launched its new Campus Warsaw, similar to its existing campuses in London and Tel Aviv, and with more on the way in three other cities. The Google campus is located across the Vistula River from the main part of Warsaw—and, incidentally, the part of the city that was not destroyed by the Nazis.

While there are many good business reasons that Google chose Warsaw—including, as I noted in the last post, the density of IT talent and startups in the city—it is also a testament to the energy of Warsaw’s vice-mayor, Michał Olszewski, with whom we had the pleasure of meeting several times during our time in Warsaw. Olszewski deserves a great deal of credit for what’s going on in Warsaw, and his efforts were recognized by his nomination for the inaugural Startup Nations Policy Awards at the Startup Nations Summit in Monterrey. And, Olszewski’s work in Warsaw carries some lessons for American cities looking to foster vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Olszewski began working for the city in 2007 and was in the charge of the European Union funds received by the city. He was appointed vice-mayor in 2011. One of the first decisions that the new mayoral administration in Warsaw made—and one that Olszewski was intimately involved with—was about the future of a large technology park on the edge of the city that had been established by the previous mayor. They decided to abandon it. As a result, the city lost some EU funding, and there is still a lot of consternation today over the decision.

But, as Olszewksi put it, a large technology park is an anchor company proposition, so you’re always focused on pulling the anchor up, sustaining it, rather than building something new and moving forward. And, not incidentally, the research on technology parks is not flattering to their purported economic benefits.

Instead, the city has carved out a particular role for itself—brokering, not initiating, and not competing with different programs. As in all major cities, there are many events, conferences, and programs going on in Warsaw devoted to entrepreneurship. The city defines its role in connecting the events and programs, helping fill gaps, but not sponsoring. They will provide a venue or finance the catering, but the city tries to remain a neutral platform and encourage as much activity to take place as possible.

An example of how the city has built on existing efforts and fostered entrepreneurship is with Virtual Warsaw, a system of beacons and open data across the city. The city has worked with a company to install thousands of beacons around the city that send signals to smartphones and create an Internet of Things ecosystem around city space and transportation and buildings. Startups can plug into the beacon system through the city’s APIs, and use beacon data for their business (the city plans to install millions of beacons). This has created a platform for different entrepreneurs to address problems and pursue ideas, but without specific direction from the city itself. (A startup we met later at Idea Bank was doing exactly this with transportation data.)

The city does picks certain areas of focus, of course—it concentrates on biotech, nanotech, photonics, ICT (especially gaming), energy, and the creative sectors. But, most interestingly, even though the Warsaw city administration and vice-mayor Olszewski are gaining a reputation for an enlightened approach to entrepreneurship, it is not really confined to just one city department. For example, the beacon installation that forms the core of Virtual Warsaw began in the city’s department of social policy because it was aimed at helping the visually impaired navigate public transportation, city buildings, and other areas. It did not originate as an entrepreneurship-related activity.

The Kauffman Foundation has been working with American cities and regions to figure out what works and doesn’t work in fostering vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems. In our 2015 Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship, we looked at what could constitute successful recipes for growth, in contrast to approaches that focus on collecting discrete ingredients. Based on what I observed in my admittedly brief trip to Warsaw, there are three things that American cities can learn from vice-mayor Olszewski:

  • Be a neutral broker, not a competing participant.
  • Entrepreneurship policy is as much about indirect activity as it is about direct action. (I expanded on this observation in remarks to the Startup Nations Summit and I’ll write a future post on this idea.)
  • Don’t confine your entrepreneurship strategy to a single entrepreneurship policy.

  • And, one final takeaway: listen to entrepreneurs. Olszewski clearly spends a large chunk of time out in the city meeting with founders and absorbing lessons from their journeys. He doesn’t focus exclusively on entrepreneurship, either, and the diversity of his policy portfolio likely helps inform his approach to promoting entrepreneurship. I look forward to following Olszewski’s work and figuring out what other cities can learn from Warsaw.

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