Somewhere in the mess is an opportunity

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Germany's answer to TED Talks is the Q Conference, held in Berlin last week and featuring 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 presented for about 15 minutes, all touching on the unofficial theme, "In what kind of future do we want to live?"

Dr. Max Neufeind: Worried artificial intelligence will eliminate your job? "Embrace messiness."
Dr. Max Neufeind: Worried artificial intelligence will eliminate your job? "Embrace messiness." Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

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 bring in speakers from four continents to talk about ideas that only touch tangentially on tourism (I heard the word "travel" mentioned only once) and most presentations had no direct connection to Berlin.

Kieker views the conference's totality in a broader connection to Berlin, particularly its post-war tradition of tolerance and as a magnet for free spirits and forward-thinkers. At its heart, he believes, the Q conference itself is reflection of "Brand Berlin."

The one speaker who mentioned "travel" was digital policy advisor Dr. Max Neufeind. He discussed artificial intelligence vs. human intelligence, and cited travel professionals among those who are not 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, constructed 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 embracing messiness and turning it into success.

Don't misunderstand -- the hotel is not "messy" in regards to housekeeping, service, design or F&B. It is well-organized, with a vibe that suggests attention to detail and a fine-tuned appreciation of the 2019 zeitgeist.

After windows at Orania.Berlin were damaged by protesters, the hotel's managers decided not to repair the panes, but embrace the damage as part of the hotel's history.
After windows at Orania.Berlin were damaged by protesters, the hotel's managers decided not to repair the panes, but embrace the damage as part of the hotel's history. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

I had noticed earlier that a few of the window panes In the lobby were laced with a webs of impact cracks. After ordering dinner, I asked what had happened.

As mentioned in my previous dispatch, the Kreuzberg neighborhood, where the hotel is located, has become a focal point for those fighting gentrification in Berlin. Vogel said that when the hotel had opened two years earlier, there were protests -- a luxury hotel in Kreuzberg was the most prominent symbol yet of changes in the neighborhood.

One night, she said, after all the dinner and bar guests had left, someone had 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 instead to embrace the messiness of the situation. The protests were, they realized, now part of the hotel's history. They decided, 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 programming a computerized hotel maintenance system, even one that learns to mimic human thought, to not automatically have the windows replaced.

The enormous success of their 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.

Ordering this massive Peking duck oven was a mistake. It's now integral to the Restaurant.Orania's success.
Ordering this massive Peking duck oven was a mistake. It's now integral to the Restaurant.Orania's success. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

He thought an 80-centimeter (34.5 inches) oven would suffice, and ordered one from China. When it arrived, he was in for a shock -- it was large enough that he himself could fit into it. It turned out that 80 centimeters was the width only of the lid.

There wasn't time to replace it, but it inspired him to wonder: 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.

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