Wroclaw—A Phoenix City with the Innovation Gene

Jerzy M. Langer[1]

Emeritus professor, Polish Academy of Science, Institute of Physics, Warsaw, Poland

 Jerzy Langer is an emeritus physics professor. Worked at the Institute of Physics, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. Elected Fellow and former Foreign Secretary of Academia Europaea, Elected Fellow of the American Physical Society and a Founding Member and Honorary Vice President of EUROSCIENCE. Was the key advisor to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences and then became a Deputy Minister of Science. In the period of 2012–2016, he was the President of the Wroclaw Research Centre EIT+, the largest new research and innovation infrastructure in Poland—co-funded by the cohesion funds. In his science policy advisory capacity assisted European Commission (DG Research an Innovation, DG Connect and DG Regio) as a member of major science and innovation advisory bodies to the EC and co-authored several key European policy documents related to the ERA, ERC, FET, and regional innovation policy.

In May 1945, four days after Berlin, the Breslau Fortress (Festung Breslau) finally surrendered. An almost totally extinct population of the once a million-person city tried to find anything to survive in a totally destroyed city that witnessed one of most cruel sieges of World War II. “In May 1945,” as Davies and Moorhouse (2002) write in their breath-taking story of Wroclaw “it was virtually impossible to imagine that the Flower of Europe would ever bloom again.”

Today, in 2019, the Phoenix city blooms again. It is not a German city anymore. A whole population was exchanged in a post-war migration. Today, the dominant language of the city streets is Polish. But looking at the city life—from cafes and city walks to magnificent and live concert halls, theatres and exhibitions—Wroclaw is again the Flower of Europe. Polish, but at the same time open very cosmopolitan, tolerant and most imaginative European metropolis. “Poland, once a backward agricultural country, is quickly becoming an economic powerhouse in Central Europe. The Poles are strongly pro-European, and even their relationship is no longer as tense at was just a few years ago. Nowhere is the transformation easier to see than in Wroclaw,” notes in Spiegel a German journalist Jan Puhl (2011).

How then was it possible?

For years, the new Polish inhabitants of the renamed city had lived under stress that nothing was final and permanent. All that changed in three steps. The first was a declaration of Polish Bishops with the new Wroclaw archbishop Kominek leading: “we forgive and ask for forgiveness,” second the “Solidarity” movement to which Wroclaw was a major stronghold and finally the year 2004—Poland accession to the EU.

Many would say, the wind of history, which, similarly to the meteorological phenomenon, blows from the West. Perhaps true. But nothing could have happened without people, all locals who decided that Wroclaw is their place—a final destination. They never gave up, never agreed to a mediocre and gray mentality of a “real socialism.” Once the opportunity appeared, they explored it to a full extent, and even more. Wroclaw for years was ill communicated to the Polish capital—why should it be as a known defiant and non-obedient community? Most of the new citizens were migrants from a former Eastern Poland, but hopefully among them was the intellectual elite of Lwów, Vilnius as well as those looking for a chance to develop themselves from all over Poland, bringing with themselves the most valuable societal gene—the creativity, a fundament of the societal engine—the creative class (Florida 2014).

And then came a real opportunity—the first free election in June 1989 and the most revolutionary systemic transformation, namely a direct election of local authorities: city mayors and the city council. The Solidarity-based movement took full power and full responsibility. Wroclaw again became, as Jan Puhl noted, a symbol of recovery. All those underground streams of freedom, entrepreneurship, goodwill, and just civic creativity have surfaced, changing the grim fate of the city, hopefully forever.

It is fairly easy to write a sweetened personal eulogy, as the role of those taking the city lead after 1989 is unquestionable. And they already became iconic personalities, especially Rafał Dutkiewicz—a super President—the title awarded after winning three times the poll on the best city mayor in Poland. Interesting is however how all that happened and what were the driving forces and key actions in this unprecedented success. What thoughts guided the leaders and the people? Dutkiewicz often quotes Florida (2014) with his 3-T but adding the fourth T (Tożsamość in Polish, meaning Identity). But in my opinion, the real driving force was the gene of innovation present in all who recreated the city, not from scratch, but fully observing and creatively adopting the 1000-year cultural history of Wroclaw (Davies and Moorhouse 2002).

Wroclaw is a truly academic city with several first-class academic establishments, but first of all with about 150 thousand students. This is a mighty intellectual army, which will shape the future of not only Wroclaw. Today every tenth student in Europe is Polish, almost the same number as German, French or British—all from much larger countries in Europe. But their education is not just a knowledge intake. Their student life means participation in city life, especially cultural. They are also a driving force of a “green responsibility.” This is why Wroclaw fought for and won the European Capital of Culture award in 2016 (European Commission 2016) and now gets prepared for the same honour, but as a “green city.” I am sure it will soon get the title. The Dutkiewicz’s visionary engine aiming at stars will not stop, simply because it is in the genes of the Wroclawers.

But in a real-life, the ideas are only at a premium. Money is needed. And as once simply described by Dutkiewicz, who is a trained mathematician and entrepreneur in the HR business, the wealth of the community is determined by the amount of money flow (buying power). And that is a simple product of the population and an average salary. The first cannot be increased easily, but the second can when the higher paid jobs would dominate the market. And that is possible only by strengthening the intellectual capital of the creative class. It just means, education, knowledge creation and unleashing creativity and entrepreneurship. Those were the fundaments of Wroclaw’s growth in the last few decades. And as a result, Wroclaw became the fastest growing metropolitan economy in Poland to the current position of being the second wealthiest city after the capital Warsaw. And this is why from the very start, all planning and forecasting have been done in the MAB triangle, namely—municipality, academia, and business. It is just another face of the “Solidarność” movement and spirit. Cooperation, involvement, and taking responsibility—the very essence of democracy and civic society.

Job Creation and the Creative Class

We observe the dramatic growth of unemployment among young Europeans, especially in Southern Europe. Many of them run for higher education hoping to find good job at the market. At the same time, we observe very large emigration of talents—mainly to the USA. Also, the intra Europe brain drain (mostly from the east/new member states/to more advanced west). In Wroclaw, however, unemployment practically does not exist and salaries are among the highest. Wroclaw, the capital of Lower Silesia region, is generally perceived as a most friendly environment for business and considered as among top friendly places in the CEE to live by offering not only jobs but also high culture, pleasant natural environment, and just good living conditions.

Policy has been focused on salary increases by linkage of academia to business and the real job market, also by increasing sensitivity to societal aspects in the city and outside through community participation. Currently, Wroclaw is among the top central and eastern Europe places for high-tech companies, especially in the ICT sector and the go start-up becomes a city banner backing already quite recognized very high rank in the FDI in both technology and service sectors.

The triad—regional authorities, academia, and business—is based on an intensive dialogue and well thought of actions engaging the city during the implementation phase as an umbrella, co-financing authority but also an infrastructure creator and donator. Thanks to very cooperative atmosphere, which is not quite common in a party dominated governmental central policy and actions, the selection of areas requesting highest attention and investment from all sides of the MAB triangle took quite early the form much more known today as a smart specialization strategy (3S) with a MAB trialogue being a focal planning tool. The later has been recently named the entrepreneurial discovery.

It is interesting to note that the 3S, the Wroclaw way, is by far not restricted to technological priorities. The wealth creation is not enough, even in the developing regions. A lot of stimuli coming from the Municipality are in the social innovation area aiming at the creation of good and friendly space to live, particularly culture and especially the high one.

Municipality Support of Knowledge and Innovation

However, pure policy is not enough, specific instruments are needed. Among many, three examples of such a development on a joint MAB action are worth more detailed description. All of them look many years ahead, so should bring stable profits, when the friendly assistance of the EU structural funds will come to an end.

1.         Wroclaw Academic Hub[2]

It is a city funded office located just across the Mayor’s office at the beautifully restored lively Market Square. Its role is to bring together all university institutions in joint actions (not a trivial task) but also financially bridging researchers and businesses. The latter is in the form of an ingenious MOZART—business–science partnerships (Wroclaw Academic Hub 2013). The “Mozart” is a city program supporting partnerships between entrepreneurs and academics. The topics respond to the needs of the companies—either solving definite issues or improving specific products/services. The city of Wroclaw finances 30 partnerships/year supporting salaries up to 32 hours per month, throughout 12 months. The funding is being granted to the company as a public aid (de minimis). Another investment subsidized by the city is an extended program of visiting professors. The program is well known and established in the academic community, but what is novel and very rare, is the city, which provides all resources.

2.         The Wroclaw Technology Park(WTP)[3]

It was created on a city initiative with collaboration with the Wroclaw Polytechnics some two decades ago. Today it is No. 1 in Poland, generating most of the novel solutions originating from the academic community, but in factutside a traditional academic environment, i.e. universities and polytechnics. It grew to a very large territory offering almost 70000 m2 of rental and technological space, with currently some 220 small- and medium-sized companies (mostly start-ups) working there. It is just a very live space located not far away from the city centre and in a friendly distance from the academic institutions. Several large international companies surround the WTP adding to a unique synergy.

Today, everywhere in Europe start-up hype flourishes. There is plenty of money around, public and private. Even in the European Commission’s far-reaching plans for the Horizon Europe (European Commission 2019a)—the key seven-years research program of a 100 billion EUR value—innovativeness and start-ups are in the centre of attention. The WPT has been doing that with great success for more than two decades.

3.         Wroclaw Research Centre EIT+/PORT[4]

However, the most ambitious project was the Wroclaw Research Centre EIT+. It is located in a dedicated 27 ha campus located outside the centre, aiming solely at commercializable research, primarily in the nano and bio-tech. The detailed specialization was based upon a very thorough foresight analysis carried in the MAB triangle. Its planning and operation modes are a Research and Technological Organisation (RTO)—type R&D institution.[5] The construction of the first phase (about 20+ thousand square metres lab and office space built and equipped at the highest international standards) has been completed in 2016. The huge cost of about a quarter billion euros was covered mostly from the structural funds following the pro-innovation policy of the ERDF programme (European Commission 2019b) with significant financial, material, and specialists support by the city. The 27 ha land and old buildings have been donated by the city. It is a very young institution but already is among the top patenting places in Poland, as well as offering characterization and technological equipment not affordable even for medium-sized established enterprises. The campus will grow in the coming years, but the research centre went under the government’s financial umbrella and became the technological hub of the Lukasiewicz Network, hopefully following the best operational principles of the several top European large RTOs, especially the German Fraunhofer Institutes.[6]

4. The Academia Europaea Wroclaw Knowledge Hub[7]

Connectivity is a key element of today’s world. With lightning speed, one gets the desired information via the Internet from over the world. It is also becoming essential element of an open market. Today we live in a global world, so without a reference for any local activity to the world, there is no chance for true market participation world-wide. But the internet-based exchange carries a danger of indiscriminate proliferation of not trustworthy opinions and data. This is why we need reference institutions, particularly in the world of knowledge. In Europe, Academia Europaea[8] is such an institution. Not by a decree, but because of her membership of already well over 5000 most respected scientists from all over Europe and the world. They are becoming members of the AE after a much extended nomination procedure, to assure the highest standards of the AE constituency.

Initially, AE was a pure gathering of the science elite, but a decade ago decision was taken to enrich AE activity by the creation of the local knowledge hubs acting as a frame for international activity in dedicated areas. And the first hub was created in Wroclaw with the Municipality acting as a key sponsor providing financial and material resources for the activity of the hub. The proposal to create a hub was presented to the AE Board by President Dutkiewicz and myself being the AE Board Member, as a part of the city strategy to open Wroclaw to the world. Today the hub is a very lively centre of academic life and a reference point for already very large Polish and local academic community.


All these actions and activities are pillars of one large strategy, resembling what we call now the smart specialization strategy. None would be possible without huge financial assistance from the EU via structural funds, but first of all the culture of constant dialogue among all principal actors. The most important common denominator of these three actions is the integration principle and a business orientation which is to bridge top technology oriented scientific ideas and business. All these activities have already been scrutinized externally, e.g. by the OECD group (2013). And the conclusion and advice have been constantly the same: keep going in this direction. It is always better to shape the future than just following what future brings.

Wroclaw is a true European wonder. It developed much faster than most large metropolises, not only in Poland. But not only in the economic sense, but encompassing a whole set of human needs and desires. It all started with people’s need for a good home. Those who were forced to leave their places, but not their memories.

A somewhat symbolic place was the location of most precious Polish archives in the Ossolineum[9] located in a former Breslau cloister. The core of the archives is the most precious collection of the Ossoliński family originally located in Lwów (today’s Ukraine). For me, this is a kind of Abu Simbel temple rescued from flooding.[10] And such is the Wroclaw Microcosm, a truly European metropolis.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.5


[1] langer@upcpoczta.pl; http://www.ae-info.org/ae/Member/Langer_Jerzy

[2] http://wah.wroc.pl/ (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[3] http://www.technologpark.pl/en/ (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[4] https://www.port.org.pl/en (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[5] https://www.earto.eu/ (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[6] https://www.fraunhofer.de/en.html (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[7] https://acadeuro.wroclaw.pl/ (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[8] https://www.ae-info.org/ (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[9] https://ossolineum.pl/index.php/english/ (Accessed 15 September 2019).

[10] The complex was relocated in its entirety in 1968 under the supervision of a Polish archaeologist, Kazimierz Michałowski, on an artificial hill made from a domed structure, high above the Aswan High Dam reservoir. See Wikipedia (2019) Abu Simbel temples. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Simbel_temples> (Accessed 15 September 2019).


Davies, Norman, and Moorhouse Roger. (2002) Microcosm, Portrait of a Central European City. London: Jonathan Cape.

European Commission. (2016) Creative Europe. <https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/creative-europe/about_en&gt; (Accessed 15 September 2019).

European Commission. (2019a) Horizon Europe—Investing to shape our future. <https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/research_and_innovation/strategy_on_research_and_innovation/presentations/horizon_europe_en_investing_to_shape_our_future.pdf&gt; (Accessed 15 September 2019).

European Commission. (2019b) European Regional Development Fund. <https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/funding/erdf/&gt; (Accessed 15 September 2019).

Florida, Richard. (2014) The Rise of the Creative Class—Revisited: 10th Anniversary Edition—Revised and Expanded. Nre York, NY: Basic Books.

OECD. (2013) Puukka, Jaana. Dubarle, Patrick. Goddard, John. Hazelkorn, Ellen. Kuczera, Małgorzata. Higher Education in Regional and City Development: Wroclaw, Poland 2012, OECD Publishing, Paris. <https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264188914-en&gt; (Accessed 15 September 2019).

Puhl, Jan. (2011) Poland Is Europe’s New High-Flyer, Spiegel Online. <https://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/economic-boom-poland-is-europe-s-new-high-flyer-a-747244.html&gt; (Accessed 15 September 2019).

Wroclaw Academic Hub. (2013) Mozart—business-science partnerships. <http://wah.wroc.pl/artykuly/1236/Mozart-business-science-partnerships/&gt; (Accessed 15 September 2019).