I was in Berlin earlier this month to take in celebrations surrounding the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall on Nov. 9. Among the activities I attended was the Q conference, Germany's answer to TED Talks. It featured 14 speakers, ranging from last year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nadia Murad to avant-garde musician Holly Herndon.
Scientists, writers, urban planners, feminists, computer theorists and social activists each spoke for about 15 minutes, all touching on the unofficial theme, "In what kind of future do we want to live?"
Although I had been invited to attend the conference by VisitBerlin, I was surprised to discover that the conference itself had been created by VisitBerlin CEO Burkhard Kieker and was run under the auspices of that organization.
It's an extraordinary undertaking for a destination marketing organization to aggregate speakers whose ideas only touched tangentially on tourism; I heard the word "travel" uttered from the stage only once. Most presenters didn't even mention Berlin.
Kieker views the connection of the conference to Berlin in a broader context, particularly the city's postwar tradition of tolerance and as a magnet for free spirits and forward thinkers. At its heart, he believes, the Q conference is itself a reflection of "Brand Berlin."
The speaker who mentioned "travel" was digital-policy advisor Max Neufeind. He discussed computers displacing human workers but cited travel professionals among those who aren't likely to be replaced by artificial intelligence. Travel is a field that taps individuality, he noted, as opposed to repetitive tasks, which are likely to be automated.
I had heard that observation before, but what particularly struck me was his admonition to "embrace messiness." Humans are less than perfect, and our messy lives stimulate original thinking and spur creativity, Neufeind asserted. Computers, on the other hand, are rules-based and designed to impose order.
That concept was fresh in my mind when I returned to my hotel for dinner at the five-star, 41-room Orania.Berlin.
It's run by a young couple, general manager Jennifer Vogel and managing director and chef Philipp Vogel. I had dinner with Jennifer that evening, and by the end of our conversation, I saw in their operation two near-perfect examples of how embracing messiness can result in success.
Don't misunderstand. The hotel is not "messy" with regard to housekeeping, service, design or food and beverage. It is well organized, with a vibe that suggests attention to detail and a fine-tuned appreciation of the 2019 zeitgeist.
But I had noticed earlier that a few of the windowpanes in the lobby were laced with a web of cracks. I asked what had happened.
The Kreuzberg neighborhood where the hotel is located has become a focal point for those fighting gentrification in Berlin, Vogel said. When the hotel opened two years ago, there were protests. A luxury hotel in Kreuzberg was the most prominent symbol yet of change in the neighborhood.
One night, she said, after all the dinner and bar guests had left, someone struck the windows, likely with a hammer, leaving the cracks I saw.
Jennifer and Philipp's first instinct was to replace the windows, but upon reflection, they chose to embrace the messiness of the situation. The protests, they realized, were now part of the hotel's history. They chose, in essence, not to clean up the mess. The cracks are an authentic and now integral part of the hotel.
It's hard to imagine a computerized hotel maintenance system, even one that learned to mimic human thought, deciding not to replace the windows.
The enormous success of their hotel's restaurant, Restaurant.Orania, is likewise the result of embracing messiness.
As their first Christmas approached, the kitchen staff gathered to decide what to feature on the holiday menu. Goose or duck were the customary choices. Philipp (who had previously earned a Michelin star) had worked for a period in Shanghai and thought that offering Peking duck would be a good differentiator. It would, however, require ordering a special oven from China.
He thought a 31.5-inch oven would suffice and ordered one online. When it arrived, he was in for a shock; it was large enough that he himself could fit into it. It turned out that 31.5 inches was the width of just the lid.
There wasn't time to replace it, but he wondered: If he was stuck with an enormous duck oven, what could he offer diners year-round that would make such an oven a good investment?
Thus, X-Berg Duck was born, a four-course meal for two that incorporates almost every aspect of the duck except the bill, webbed feet and feathers.
Since then, orders of X-Berg Duck have kept the restaurant full every night. The huge oven stays busy.
There is, of course, a difference between sloppiness and messiness. And it's instructive that, in both instances, the Vogels didn't plan messiness. To paraphrase a well-known expression, messiness happens. The challenge is to convert mess to success.