Burkhard is the strategic mind behind Deutsche Bahn's new coworking service, everyworks. For the past two years, he has been part of the innovation team at Smart City Deutsche Bahn (Smart City DB) as the Director of Coworking where he is responsible for the development of and the expansion of this business arm of DB. In this conversation we are going to be speaking about train stations, train travel, the future of train travel, and the signature coworking space of Deutsche Bahn, which opened in September 2020 in Berlin Central Station, and how and his team are jointly developing the future and the expansion of everywhere coworking spaces everywhere around Germany.
What follows are snippets from our conversation with Burkhard - edited for length and clarity - make sure that you listen to the entire conversation for great insight. To know more about the work of Burkhard and Smart City DB visit: https://smartcity.db.de/
Agnes Uhereczky: I love it Burkhard, that on your LinkedIn profile it says work-ride balance which is a very clever play on words on work-life balance, but also encourages anyone to use trains. Please, tell us a little bit about how you got into this, what were the main trends or driving forces that led Deutsche Bahn and Smart City to start thinking about coworking spaces and integrate this concept together with the business they are doing anyway?
Burkhard Rönnefrath: Hello Agnes, thank you for inviting me, it is a pleasure to be here. As you said we started this initiative already years ago. There were certain trends that drove us to do it so, one of which is the major trend that our urban areas are dominated by cars, by traffic and traffic jams. If you take for example Hamburg which is the leading city in Germany within the ranking of traffic jams. As a driver within Hamburg, you, on average, lose 130 hours per year in traffic jams. This means that urban areas like Hamburg, but also other cities like Berlin or Frankfurt, have challenges to tackle. As traffic load, CO2 emissions, and noise emissions all have a huge negative impact on our personal and working life this was our first trend that based all our thoughts on how we could work against that. Once in a while, I do this nice exercise, and I like that very much, that when you think about closing your eyes for a second and you just imagine your neighbourhood or any other beautiful parts of your city, without thousands of parking cars. That is something that always pushes me to go forward and to do more in order to get rid of this traffic.
The second driving force is the number of business travels as there were about 200 million travels in Germany in one year - at least, before the COVID-19 pandemic. Deutsche Bahn, the company that I am working for, accounts for about a quarter of this volume. We do speak about 45 million business travels in our train network. This also includes a huge number of people that are commuting every day from home to office, from the office back home. Usually, for the commuting people that takes more than 45 minutes each day. So, all these travellers, they have specific needs and demands when travelling. We want to offer solutions to problems when travelling. That is where Smart City DB comes into play. Smart City DB aims at changing the current situation by finding solutions for the residents in terms of mobility and following from that also for improving the entire environment in cities especially.
Agnes Uhereczky: How can listeners imagine Smart City DB? Is it like a startup inside this big transportation company? Is it a lab or an incubator? How does it work in the larger context of Deutsche Bahn?
Burkhard Rönnefarth: Let's put it this way: at least we always feel like we are a startup within this huge group of Deutsche Bahn. From a formal perspective, it is a very agile product development team. Smart City DB as such is a branding, we were able to get our own branding without the DB group for this team, which is an organisational unit of Deutsche Bahn's Station and Service, which is that organisation and subsidiary in the DB group which operates more 5000 train stations all around Germany. Speaking about the train stations, that is exactly the focus of Smart City ideas and projects. Smart City, as I mentioned before, is tackling those challenges of improving train stations in order to develop products which ideally are digitally driven and also time-saving for the end-users. We have changed our perspective on customers in DB Station and Service. In the last years, we thought that our clients are not only train operators, that send our trains into our stations which is still our core business and it is still a major part of our business to earn money with those station fees, but our perception has very much changed and now we understand that travellers and users at our train stations as our end-customers regardless whether those are private or business travellers.
Therefore, we want to rebuild and reinvent the train station as a mobility hub and as a place where people like to work but also to be.
We have a number of different teams at Smart City. We, for example, have a team called Places. This team deals with all questions around upgrading the areas around train stations, for example, by developing and providing modern and smart furniture or organising special pop up stores or events around the train stations in order to improve the neighbourhood bonding. Besides that, we also have logistical issues that we deal with. One of our Smart City teams just started a couple of months ago the so-called Hamburg Box initiative, which is a box for retailers, courier express and parcel service providers to deliver and distribute their parcels without any restrictions. So, clients can collect them on their way to work or back home. Besides that, we also have a logistically driven Micro depo service, which sets up a logistical depo within a city to optimize the last mile delivery on an e-bike or cargo bike. What we do besides that is we have a project that is supporting the last mile problems for a person travelling, in order to take them from their home to the train station, or from the train station back to their home, because that often is a hurdle for people to enter the public transport network. Besides that our analytics team of course always supports us with all kinds of information regarding passenger movement or traffic volumes. Last but not least there is our new coworking service, everyworks. With it, we want to provide coworking capacities right within train stations. At the Berlin Central Station we have opened up in September our very first coworking, and we want to create and open up other coworking spaces in a number of other train stations throughout Germany.
Agnes Uhereczky: The ongoing pandemic has totally disrupted and grounded air travel. Is this a new chance or boost for train travel and train stations? I also think that with the COVID-19 pandemic people have realised that there are actually some things that we can do about climate change, for example, using more video conferencing instead of extensive business travelling, or people started appreciating more the countryside. How has this pandemic impacted train use, train travels and train stations? Can you make any predictions whether some of these trends are going to be sustained even beyond 2021?
Burkhard Rönnefarth: In the first place, of course, the pandemic has hit us - our sector - dramatically. This is clear. Only a few people, at least, in comparison to the time before the COVID-19 pandemic, are taking the train. So, it has done huge damage to our Group as well, and to the whole transport area. Besides that COVID-19 has of course some positive effects in connections with pushing positively on some of the trends that we had before such as climate change. Yes, it is going to be a lot easier for Europe or Germany to reach CO2 emission goals without anybody travelling on planes. On the other hand, we need to ask for what price. So, one year ago nobody actually dared to think about Lufthansa getting into severe financial trouble. There are a lot of jobs that depend on the aviation business as well. So there must be a wall between economical and ecological goals and a good and sustainable balance. There are jobs and people connected to that business but of course, we hope that it is going to be a push to the train use. This balance should include some restrictions on ourselves in connection with travelling. All of us have become spoiled by always having full flexibility when travelling. I mean, I think, we do not need two flights an hour from Berlin to Frankfurt. That is not necessary especially if the trip by train is only about 45 to 1 hour shorter.
In my opinion, every individual should have a greater seriousness with regards to sustainability and mobility as well.
Flying within Germany, in my opinion, in regular cases, is absolutely not necessary. So of course here comes my but, and my but isn't order to say that to keep people from taking plains within Germany or to keep people from driving cars between cities or into the cities we need to provide them with some good product, that is ecologically green and exciting and time-saving and a reliable alternative. We need a product which adapts to the travellers' needs within trains but also when the travellers have arrived at their destinations. So, this would be all along the travelling chain. Therefore, we definitely see train travel as a major mode of transport in the future, and train stations as a very crucial mobility hub, where customers will have more and more facilities in connection with work and in connection with life, like retail offers, and also overnight stays, for example.
Agnes Uhereczky: If I could ask you, what would be your key argument to convince managers, employers, senior management, that they should think about allowing or enlarging their office space offerings to employees, and integrate this whole concept of coworking - such as everyworks - into their offering of workspace or places of work, what would be your main argument?
Burkhard Rönnefarth: I think, employers should be as flexible as possible, that's probably what I would advise. They should trust their employees and provide them with a well-balanced set of options to work from home, at the offices of the companies, and also granting access to coworking spaces. Of course, we are happy if this is everyworks but there are also others. They should offer access to coworking spaces but close where the people live. From our own experience and at least my experience, I can say that working in a coworking space usually feels a little bit like working offsite, in a workshop. Usually, I have the impression that that actually improves creativity and that is probably what employers really want from their employees.