Right next-doorBringing neighborly help to the big city
If you live in a large city, you probably know very little about your neighbors. Yet the daily stresses of big-city life, often far away from parents and family, mean we all need a little help now and again. A new initiative is building villages in the city, bringing together people who would never otherwise have met. Read More
The only thing constant about Berlin is change. Visitors to the German capital soon discover that no quarter is like any other. You can be strolling through an elegant shopping district one moment, then round a corner and be surrounded by buildings with crumbling plaster and grungy graffiti. Washed-out concrete gives way to marble, grime replaces chichi.
Non-committal is the order of day in the German capital. The typical Berliner – an eternally youthful hipster between the ages of 20-55, if we believe the clichés – refuses to be tied down, professionally and privately. And most certainly not to any one given location, as hip residents hop from quarter to quarter in search of their next Club-Mate soda. All very anonymous and non-committal. Even the clocks run differently in Berlin. Meeting up with friends is more by accident than design, and certainly never at the appointed time. So much to the the hipster cliché of Berlin.
But normal lives are taking place outside the realm of the soy-chai-latte drinkers, lives with needs and concerns that can only be solved through commitment. Whether washed-out concrete or marble, it makes no difference – everyone needs a helping hand now and again. But finding such a hand is a challenge in this city that flirts with anonymity. You could search far and wide for the kindness so natural in a village or the countryside: the help of neighbors. Berlin is not unique here, of course. Every large city shares the same fate.
Three Berlin natives had an idea: They thought bringing the village to the city might get neighbors more involved in helping their fellow residents. Brothers Christian and Michael Vollman and their friend Till Behnke developed a platform designed to do just that: nebenan.de. The name means “next-door” and it is basically a digital notice board with public messages, like items wanted or for sale, events or other information, on typical neighborhood issues. Tutoring available, looking for a babysitter – but in the virtual space.
We talked to Michael Vollmann about this new form of exchange among neighbors.
Bringing the village to the city might get neighbors more involved in helping their fellow residents.
Michael, how did you come up with nebenan.de? What gave you the idea?
A sense of community among neighbors is often ignored or impossible today. Yet after our families and friends, and our workplace, our neighborhood is the third most important point of social contact and support in our lives. My brother Christian discovered this first-hand almost three years ago. After moving with his family, he really wanted to get to know his new, anonymous neighbors. Not knowing how else to go about it, he gathered all his courage together and just started knocking on doors and introducing himself. The range of reactions ran the gamut from initial skepticism to very positive. He then spontaneously decided to set up an online forum for his street to keep these new contacts alive, and he has been obsessed with the neighborhood as a community ever since. I loved the idea, as did the other of the initial founding team because we had experienced pretty much the same thing.
Anyone who wants to get involved can start their own neighborhood.
What cities do you offer your service in and how many users are there?
Nebenan.de is available throughout Germany. Anyone who wants to get involved can start their own neighborhood. We are happy to help them contact as many neighbors as possible and encourage them to join the online neighborhood. We are especially active in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Leipzig, and Nuremberg, but also have users in Wiesbaden and Düsseldorf. Around 400 neighborhoods are already networking on our platform.
How many need to join a virtual neighborhood to get it up, running and actively exchanging information?
Over the past few months, we have noticed that around 100 neighbors is the critical mass needed. If someone wants borrow a long ladder, chances are good that another neighbor has one he is willing to lend out at around 100 members. That is the quantitative element. But it is also great to see that very active neighbors often have a huge influence on activities in the neighborhood, just like that one person at a party who gets everyone out onto the dance floor.
What has your best neighborly experience been so far, something initiated through nebenan.de? What was the most memorable?
Oh. That’s a tough call. I hear great stories every day. What I personally am most excited about is that pretty much every single story we hear about would not otherwise have happened. Nebenan.de is a tool people can use to initiate contact, give recommendations and help people they have never met or only know in passing. I do have two favorite examples. In one neighborhood, neighbors of all ages, from 65 to their mid-20s, meet up regularly to do arts and crafts. These people would never have gotten together otherwise. Then there was the team of neighbors who organized a spring neighborhood bash. They would never have known there were others who really wanted a block party too without nebenan.de. Another great story was about neighbors who started watering the flowers on the graves of loved ones for each other, so they didn't each have to go to the cemetery every day. Or the neighbor who posted a help notice for an elderly lady who needed some assistance with her every day chores.
What are the most common services / exchanges your members offer and look for?
There are a few real classics that people a) frequently request and b) almost always get. In city with a lot of older buildings, a really long ladder is a very popular request that is usually met. Doctor recommendations are also very popular, or suggestions for good cafesand restaurants. A lot of neighborhoods have started meeting up at the local watering hole or organizing regular game nights.
What is the average age of your users?
We only gather user data that is really relevant for the neighborhood, so providing your age is voluntary. We have noticed that our users tend to be a bit older overall than users on other social networks. “Typical” user profiles include families with young children, who are very interested in exchange and assistance close by, and neighbors over 45. They are often very active, tend to know the neighborhood very well, and enjoy the social contact. The oldest user we are aware of is 89, by the way.
Last but not least, a bit about all of you: Who are you? What are your backgrounds?
We are six pretty different people, which has made working together and developing nebenan.de so exciting and successful. Till Behnke and I are both from the non-profit sector, while my brother is from the start-up world. It is fun to experience “social business” up close and first hand through nebenan.de.