Ideas '
Łukasz Cioch
Reading time: approx. 12 minutes

The City as an Idea

Let’s start by stating the obvious: everything starts with an idea! Although it is often elusive, it always originates with an individual; soon it is backed by a group which expands to a community, and goes on to acquire a brand and a reputation. Ideas give rise to innovation, prototypes, small companies growing into multinationals; local and global initiatives, organisations, think-tanks, and opportunities for fruitful meetings, conferences, congresses, fairs and festivals bringing together people devoted to ideas, hungry for knowledge and driven by a common vision of a better world.

 

But to translate ideas into action – turning them from a personal dream into a statistical fact – we need key skills and predispositions, as well as more intangible elements such as charisma, talent, energy and passion. Is today’s Kraków an example of a successful idea?

History of aspirations

In recent decades, Kraków has seen a veritable explosion of myriad ideas and urbanist processes going hand-in-hand with scientific, technological and social progress, spreading over the city’s collective consciousness like wildfire. They evolve along the way and as they encounter the realities of life in the city – or, to put it more poetically, as they push the boundaries of its imagination, faith and confidence. An interesting recent example has been city authorities reluctantly withdrawing Kraków’s bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The clash between supporters and opponents of the bid was put to the test with a local referendum; the overwhelming result against the proposal put an end to the idea.

 

In recent years, we have also seen many new ideas supporting the concept of Kraków as a brand, and a number of specialisations focusing on the city’s dormant creative potential. Some, such as the “festival city” concept, are elements of an important experiment in the process of building a strong, international community around ideas. Kraków’s flagship festivals are far more than (intellectual) entertainment and far more than the educational events accompanying them.

 

Certain specialisations serve as examples of this fascinating evolution. Like all other ambitious cities, Kraków has been exploring all aspects of innovation in all aspects of economic and social spheres. Just ten years ago it seemed almost inconceivable that Kraków’s human capital and competitive rates would rapidly turn the city into a European capital of business services, or that its activities in this sphere would surpass many other accomplishments. No other industry has created so many employment opportunities for graduates from Kraków’s universities or driven up average salaries in the city; no other industry has evolved so rapidly from outsourcing simple financial and accountancy services at the start of the previous decade into a highly-complex ecosystem of companies and corporations offering a wide portfolio of services on the global scale. As a result of this evolution, Kraków resounds with dozens of languages and in recent years the municipal budget has been able to take on new, bold challenges with a positive impact on the quality of life in the city.

Paradoxes of the brand

When dealing with business and innovation, it is a given that “old” cities have it easier and harder at the same time. One important limitation is that old cities cannot conjure up space for new buildings in or near the centre or demolish or rebuild on a whim. The historic fabric of the city, its mental customs and legislation regulating land use and development, by definition place limitations on developers’ ideas such as erecting skyscrapers in the city centre.

 

Kraków has spent centuries building its reputation as a capital of cultural heritage, a centre of mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque architecture and a popular destination for tourists from Poland and abroad, which makes it difficult for the city to forge a completely new strong brand.

On the other hand, authorities of historic cities “stand on the shoulders of giants” and are able to capitalise on the legacy of others, allowing them to take a rather conservative path. Their long-term strategic decisions are almost never revolutionary. When they do propose changes, they tend fall under sustainable development and focus on quality of life. Of course they, at times, accept, reject or wave through progress “imposed” by others. The history of Kraków in the 21st century intertwines all these elements – more on this in a moment.

A handful of data

Today’s Kraków is home to 23 universities and close to 120,000 students from Poland and abroad. The city boasts 1.2 million square metres of modern office space and over 100,000 workers employed by multinational corporations. Kraków is also increasingly becoming a hub for state-of-the-art technologies and entrepreneurs building their future empires. Young, dynamic start-ups are often founded by burnt-out former employees of major corporations, able to apply their skills and experience to convert fresh ideas into reality. When they reach a sufficient level of market credibility and organisational maturity (frequently with the support of incubators, clusters and science & technology parks), they go about setting new boundaries.

Kraków’s epicentre of such activities is the rapidly developing district of Ruczaj. As well as being home of the Kraków Technology Park, Ruczaj is also the location of the new university campus. Brand-new office buildings have also been sprouting up around the Park in recent years. The post-industrial district of Zabłocie is also associated with young entrepreneurship; in the last decade, Cracovians have been flocking there to live, work and play.

Modernity vs. tradition

One of the most notable changes in the city over the last twenty years has been the increasing access to modern office space and co-working spaces. Kraków’s numerous office buildings are dispersed throughout the city, with a few clusters in different districts. Such a (largely unintentional) decentralisation of global business means that Kraków is less heavily affected by problems faced by some of Europe’s largest urban business hubs due to oversaturation of major employers in a small area.

But why are corporations from all over the globe, from Hong-Kong and Southeast Asia to Western Europe and North Africa, taking such a liking to Kraków?

There are many answers intertwined into a sublime network: great human capital built on knowledge, talent and language skills, numerous universities, competitive rates, historic city attractions and cultural events, good public transport and road networks, busy local airport, extensive real estate, dynamic event, conference and accommodation industry, numerous organisations supporting international business and the beautiful, compact Old Town, nearby green spaces, forests, mountains and national parks.

Kraków has also put in enormous effort into modernising its infrastructure and upgrading its public transport with the latest trams and electric and hybrid buses, as well as taking major steps towards improving air quality, especially in winter. The city is a pioneer on the Polish scale in educational and practical terms, having implemented a mass upgrade of heating stoves in record time. In just a few years, Kraków has vastly improved the population’s environmental awareness through social activism and a range of local, national and international campaigns, as well as through achievements of local start-ups working in the field.

Human capital

During the last decade, Kraków has been welcoming growing numbers of major global brands, with the companies recruiting, training and employing teams of all sizes, frequently focusing on recent graduates from the city’s many universities. Since the early days of the presence of big business in Kraków (around the start of the new millennium), many of the original employees at global corporations have risen through the ranks, gained skills and experience essential for the international employment market or founded their own companies. The presence of international business has also resulted in numerous contracts with Kraków’s universities, institutions, associations and organisations.

According to data compiled by ASPIRE, the number of employees working in IT and business services in Kraków has increased five-fold since 2011 to reach a level of approx. 100,000 – over 10% of the city’s population. Over the last decade, companies have significantly increased their employee numbers and expanded the range of specialist fields growing in Poland, as well as raising the quality of technology, robotics and innovation services in which Kraków is becoming a global brand.

City of meetings and conferences

According to research conducted by the Małopolska Tourist Organisation for the City of Kraków, the city welcomed 14,050,000 visitors in 2019 – over half a million more than during the previous year. The city boasts around 170 hotels with a total of approx. 11,000 rooms and hundreds of cafés and restaurant.

 

For many years, Kraków had a major problem: it didn’t have a sufficient number of large, state-of-the-art venues suitable for hosting sports, cultural, business and music events. This changed dramatically from the perspective of the MICE industry in 2014 with the opening of the now multi-award winning ICE Kraków Congress Centre (around 2000 seats in the main auditorium), TAURON Arena Kraków able to hold 20,400 visitors or seat 15,000, and Expo Kraków focused on trade fairs.

During its first five years, ICE Kraków welcomed an average of 250,000 visitors per year to its conferences, concerts, festivals and industry events. Exceeding a million visitors in such a short time is a huge achievement and shows the high level of interest in Kraków as a destination for the meetings industry. The city has hosted major international events such as the 41st session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (2017), the UNESCO Creative Cities Congress co-organised with Katowice (2018) and the 15th Congress of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (2019). In 2016, Kraków hosted International Youth Day – one of the most demanding events in logistical terms held in Poland in recent years.

Technological trendsetting

Kraków hosts many prestigious industry events, such as the annual Open Eyes Economy Summit, the Impact CEE conference, Digital Dragons, the European Congress of Local Governments and the International Book Fair. Many international conferences held in Kraków are highly specialist, from niche medical fields to events exploring state-of-the-art technologies and innovations. The ASPIRE business association, bringing together over 150 local companies and organisations, hosts the largest annual event of the IT and business industry. And the term “largest” can be applied to many other events, from international fairs to Europe’s greatest stationary hackathon Hack Yeah held at TAURON Arena Kraków in 2017.

 

The Open Eyes Economy Summit and Impact CEE are flagship examples of communities growing around important ideas and seeking solutions to some of the most pressing problems faced by today’s society. Every year they become ever more complex research ecosystems, revealing concepts for forthcoming editions and producing numerous publications, reports, recommendations, and workshops summarising all the work carried out in the run-up to, during and after each event.

Critical mass

Building and constantly improving the innovation ecosystem is one of Kraków’s major priorities. As well as hard data and examples of specific, award-winning companies generating significant incomes and dedicating a major proportion of their earnings to R&D, innovation in Kraków also means a tangible network of communities, institutions and companies from multinationals such as Comarch, via innovative design studios such as EC Engineering, to bold brands including Synerise, Autenti, Reality and CD Projekt.

In order to make sense of this ecosystem, simply visit the websites of any of the institutions and initiatives forming part of this network. Some of the most important voices are undoubtedly the Kraków Technology Park, the Jagiellonian Innovation Centre and the LifeScience Cluster, but there are plenty more regional initiatives taking part in the Małopolska Innovation Festival.

Dreamers

Today’s Kraków is a city of people focused on ideas and a city of meetings. And, just like in days gone-by, it is a city of dreamers. And while Kraków will forever be immersed in literature and poetry, growing numbers of ideas being formed in Kraków aim to change today’s world for the better and to develop companies which will make international audiences take notice of the MADE IN POLAND brand – as was the case three decades ago with state-of-the-art economies of the Far East.

 

Ideas are fragile creatures. Just like us, they require care and nurture, especially in their early days. As a unique collection of ideas and stories, the city provides them with a home – and so we cannot overstate the significance of the idea of quality of life in the city, as seen through the eyes of its residents.

An idea-city is one where all activities striving for growth are accompanied by reflection and care for values. Kraków will only be able to continue its sustainable development if it remains open, nurtures its unique, local atmosphere and bolsters its identity as it changes and evolves under myriad factors. As the city develops and becomes more successful, it runs the risk of becoming excessively commercialised, gentrified and overrun with tourists. Each such trend has the tendency to leave an indelible mark on this delicate fabric of the city as a home.

 

And, as any home built to last, a city with sustainable development at its foundations is an idea-city: one that is prosperous but not bankrupt at the same time.

Łukasz Cioch

Owner of LCMedia.pl and long-term member of the Association of IT & Business Process Services Companies in Poland (ASPIRE). He specialises in communications, new media, venue marketing, PR and CSR. He has made public appearances at hundreds of international conferences, congresses, debates and training courses.

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