»Ja man kann zurückblicken. Und? Die Zukunft in Jena liegt in der Digitalisierung.In Jena ein Unding. Schlendorfer Oberweg. Hier sind Brieftauben schneller… Und nein, da entwicklen sich nichts. Gar nichts. Dramatisch. Für Jena.«

Heinrich from Jena-Ost, born

Jena’s urban community that will adopt the Zukunftszentrum – Centre for German Unity and European Transformation and fill it with life. That’s what the city and its people are all about: a strong, engaged civil society, civic engagement and lived transformation – in the economics, knowledge and society. We don’t just research upheaval, we meet it head on and shape it together, democratically.

Historische Aufnahme des Bürgerforums in Jena von 1989
©City of Jena

In Jena, the things that the Zukunftszentrum – Centre for German Unity and European Transformation is meant to show are already being lived: transformation needs democratic dialogue and must be shaped through the exchange of ideas in order to be successful. That can be experienced directly in Jena’s history and today. In the 16th century, the city first transformed itself fundamentally with the founding of the university. Around 1800, Jena had already advanced to become the spiritual centre of Europe with the Romantics Fichte, Schiller and Goethe. In the 19th century, the triumvirate of Ernst Abbe, Carl Zeiss and Otto Schott not only wrote the industrial history of the city, but numerous social reforms laid the corner stone for the close interconnection of city, science, business and a strong civil society.

Finally, Jena’s experiences of transformation after 1989/90 how economic change, active engagement with the societal consequences of the upheaval – for example, in confrontations with right-wing extremist movements – and genuine democratic participation in the development of the city can succeed.

©City of Jena, Photo: Kristian Philler

Strong civil society

In view of the current and future challenges, such as the weakening of democracy, among other places, in East Germany and central and eastern Europe, climate change, the waves of refugees triggered by it, or by war, or the digital transformation, a strong and open civil society willing to actively shape the future is essential.

Jena has a diverse landscape of associations, initiatives and groups which engage with current and upcoming changes in a wide range of areas: these include climate groups, food rescuers, urban gardening activists and repair cafés, as well as initiatives for social living, Recht auf Stadt [the right to the city], the Refugee Law Clinic or the Frauenzentrum [women’s centre] Towanda, the “Aktionsnetzwerk gegen Rechts” [action network against the right], the Runde Tisch für Demokratie [round table for democracy] or the association “NSU-Komplex aufklären” [solve the NSU complex]. The functioning collaboration among the democratic community in Jena was and is clear to see in the active engagement with the consequences of transformation, such as when civil society comes together to put right-wing extremists on the defensive and protect openness and diversity. It can be seen, for example, in the engagement with the NSU complex and the Germany-wide project “Kein Schlussstrich!” [never draw a line under it!], initiated by the city of Jena, JenaKultur, the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena and the Institut für Demokratie und Zivilgesellschaft [Institute for Democracy and Civil Society] (IDZ) in 2021.

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Lived citizen participation

Jena is strong in terms of citizen participation. The active involvement and collaboration of citizens is considered the key factor for a future-proof city. There has been a citizen’s budgetary process in Jena since 2007 in which the residents of Jena vote on planned projects, including an advisory board since 2017. In 22 districts, citizens also decide themselves on the distribution of funds. The comprehensive participatory process for Jena’s most important urban planning projects surrounding Eichplatz, where the Zukunftszentrum – Centre for German Unity and European Transformation is to be located, is a further example of the lived participation in the city. The further development of Jena into a “smart city” is being working out in a broadly based participatory process.

The involvement of all citizens in Jena is a central aim which we view as an essential part of the bidding process for the Zukunftszentrum – Centre for German Unity and European Transformation. That shows not only in the composition of our bid team, but also in the diverse opportunities for participation. For example, we introduced the project with a World Café – a citizen’s assembly open to the city in which, just as at the District Festival for Central Jena in May 2022, the city community was informed about the project, asked about expectations, criticisms and concrete suggestions regarding the tasks involved, and invited to join in the design process. Additional events continue to take place as part of the bidding process. For the implementation phase (2023-2028), a comprehensive participation concept is being prepared which will elevate the various aspects of citizen participation to a new level. Via the already established local working groups in which Jena works closely with the surrounding municipalities, the transformation experiences of people in smaller cities and in rural areas of East Germany can be incorporated and their ideas can be actively integrated into the design of the Zukunftszentrum – Centre for German Unity and European Transformation.

@City of Jena, Photo: Steffen Walther

Successful economic transformation

More than nearly any other city in East Germany, Jena stands for the social-economic transformation from the centralized planned economy to the modern market economy. For the individual, this process also brought about painful experiences: mass redundancies left many people in an endless cycle of work creation measures, retraining and renewed unemployment. For many, their working lives ended in early retirement. And many young people left in the 1990s.

New things, however, developed one by one. Instead of the GDR large-scale companies, a diverse mixture of successful small in mid-sized companies have grown up in Jena since 1989 in the research-adjacent high technology sector.

Jena because a city of entrepreneurs with the first wave of start ups in the 1990s, at the time, often by former employees of Zeiss, Schott and the university. Since the turn of the millennium, it has primarily been the University of Jena and College of Applied Sciences Jena, as well as scientific institutes such as the Fraunhofer Institute, the Leibniz Institute and the Max-Planck Institute that have been the creative drivers for business start ups. The close collaboration between science and business generates competitive advantages for the city, including in the international context, and above all, offers high-performing young people attractive work and carrier opportunities.

Setbacks belong to transformation experiences in the New Economy: companies such as Intershop can tell stories of rising and falling, and turning those experiences into the success story of the strong

IT and digitalisation sector in Jena today.

The special DNA of Jena has helped in this, that is, a mentality characterised by working with endurance and supported by the full range of experience, sticking to a problem and never giving up. In the 19th century, Zeiss employees called the labour-intensive process of lens polishing “pröbeln” [trial and error], in which lenses and optical components had to be adjusted and aligned with one another until a half-way clean optical image appeared in a new microscope. “Pröbeln”, therefore, stands for a Jena virtue of trying again and again to get closer to a solution, only to be satisfied when it works, and to develop a passion for the process. At the same time, Jena feels the shadow side of urban development: land usage, difficulties adjusting to climate change, limited living space, social displacement and societal divisions – current questions to be discussed, among other places, in a Zukunftszentrum – Centre for German Unity and European Transformation.

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