#DigitalMindsKA - the people behind karlsruhe.digital: Dominika Szope

The karlsruhe.digital initiative unites Karlsruhe stakeholders from science, business, culture and administration with the aim of postitioning Karlsruhe as a driving force of digitalization – for competitiveness, quality of life and sovereignty. It pools expert knowledge, promotes networking and deals with topics holistically in order to actively shape the digital future of the city.

And there are people behind it. People who are committed, who are passionate about something and who use their time, their ideas and their expertise for precisely this reason. We want to present these people, the digital minds. Once a month, we ask the Digital Minds what drives them and what visions they have.
In the sixth edition of our series, we visit Dominika Szope, Head of the Karlsruhe Cultural Office.

Today, the autumn sun gives Karlsruhe a special warmth, a last rebellion of summer, which is reflected in the colorful leaves of the trees and the lively hustle and bustle in the city center. As we meandered through the crowd past the pyramid on the market square, we had no idea how long the summer of 2023 would last. Our destination is the Karlsruhe Department of Culture, where we have an appointment with Dominika Szope, the head of this institution, which plays a key role in shaping art and culture in the fan-shaped city.

However, our smartphone, in this case our digital compass, initially leads us to the wrong building. Instead of the cultural office, we end up in a foyer where an exhibition is being prepared. A friendly-looking man notices our confusion, obviously takes pity on us and approaches us with a smile. “The cultural office?” he repeats when we explain what we are looking for and laughs. “You’ve probably lost your way. It’s on the other side of the street.” A glance at the clock also tells us that there is no need to panic, as we are fortunately well on time.

So we cross the street and finally find the almost hidden entrance to the cultural office. A few steps later, we meet Dominika Szope in the corridor, who is on her way to her office with coffee and water. We join her, take a seat at the conference table and get straight into our conversation.

“What do I think of first when I hear ‘Karlsruhe’?” Szope leans back, pauses briefly and then gets straight to the point:“Unesco City of Media Arts, of course, because that’s what drives us the most. Through its interactive elements, media art offers many opportunities to get in touch with people, to address them and to facilitate their access to art and culture.”

She goes on to talk about the award that Karlsruhe received in 2019, a title that has positioned the city on the world stage of media art. “We also have the ZKM | Center for Art and Media and two art academies. Hardly any other city has that.” You can quickly tell that Dominika is proud of her city, which has developed into a vibrant center of media art in recent decades.

“We also presented media art at Art Karlsruhe this year and there is always the ‘Media art is here’ campaign to accompany the Schlosslichtspiele.” All of this makes it clear how present the topic is in Karlsruhe, a city in which technology and art not only coexist, but also enter into a dynamic symbiosis in many places.

But what interests us even more at this point: How does one actually become head of the cultural department? Dominika smiles. “My school magazine says ‘I don’t know whether she wants to be a designer, a politician or an ecologist. In the end, however, my path led me into the art world. I decided to study art theory at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design – a place where theory and practice go hand in hand.”

In fact, she began her studies at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG ) exactly three days before the ZKM opened. A coincidence that was not without consequences. Today, Dominika can look back on a successful time as a curator and in event conception at the ZKM. “But then I also taught at the University of Siegen for three years before setting up my own communications agency,” she continues.

In the world of free enterprise, she developed new business models for the media industry in Lower Saxony. It was a leap into a new field, a test of her versatile abilities. “But then Peter Weibel brought me back to the ZKM to make communication more digital,” she recalls. “Back then, everything was already digital, it was just the communication that was still very traditional.” She then worked at the ZKM for ten years before the next logical step led her to the Department of Culture.

“Looking back, that was one of the biggest challenges for me, because everything is simply different in administration.” With a mixture of humor and seriousness, Dominika talks about the contrast between the agile world of free enterprise and the structured, methodical nature of administration, where things don’t always happen as quickly as she would like.

What works very well in Karlsruhe, however, is the networking between digitalization and culture. It is a topic that is particularly close to Dominika’s heart, which is why she also heads the culture working group at karlsruhe.digital.

“Culture is the best vehicle for conveying content,” she says. In a world characterized by growing complexity and a rapid pace of development, Dominika sees the bridge that helps us to bridge the gap between technical innovation and social understanding.

“We are facing challenges that are supposedly only technical and economic,” Dominika continues, “but they need to be understood by society.” Her gestures emphasize the urgency that resonates in her voice. In a world that is becoming increasingly digital, culture is the key to connecting people, promoting understanding and participation.

“Culture is suitable as a cross-sectional area to create the translation into the public sphere,” she explains. “When new technologies are developed, culture is the perfect vehicle to create understanding and inspire trust among citizens.” In her view, culture is far too often reduced to exhibitions and concerts. “But culture is much more than that. Culture is an attitude, a way of thinking that shapes our understanding of the world.”

Both the city festival “Bunte Nacht der Digitalisierung” and the InnovationFestival are wonderful examples of how business, science and administration work together with culture to build bridges and promote dialogue with people in Karlsruhe.

“And yes, it really is like that,” Szope emphasizes. “While in other cities people just talk about it, here cooperation between the different institutions is simply part of it. If you like, Karlsruhe is characterized by a willingness to explore and promote synergies. An attitude emerges in which people like to think outside the box.” She speaks of an openness that is anchored in the city’s DNA, a curiosity that drives citizens to seek out new connections and benefit from one another. “In a way, culture takes on the role of a laboratory for innovation, a seismograph of social change that business and science can use to their advantage.” In Karlsruhe, collaboration is not only functional, but also transformative.

We look at the clock and realize that our appointment is coming to an end. But of course we also want to know from her what the day-to-day work of the head of the Karlsruhe Cultural Office looks like.

“Of course, that raises the question of how you define normal,” she replies. In the world of Szope, “normal” working days are the exception rather than the rule, so they are actually the opposite of “normal”. “In principle, every day is different and brings new challenges. “At the moment, for example, I have the impression that I’m mainly dealing with finances and real estate,” she adds, underlining the versatility of her job.

Her world is a mosaic of diverse projects. The cultural heritage, the city archive, the support of theaters and art houses and, of course, the UNESCO City of Media Arts. There is a lot to do. After all, art is also in a state of flux and is also struggling with economic problems that need to be solved. “That’s why I’m usually on the road,” says Szope. Remote work is an integral part of their lives, a reflection of the networked, digital world in which Karlsruhe is flourishing.

Is there any time left at all to find a moment of peace? “Non-fiction books and sport,” she answers without hesitation when we ask her how she balances her stressful working day. “I love reading non-fiction books.” Every book is like a journey that helps her to think outside the box. “And, of course, sport, which for me is the best remedy for session apathy,” she adds with a smile. And she bids us farewell with the same smile. As we leave the Cultural Office, the streets of Karlsruhe are still bustling with activity. We look around us in the afternoon sun – and suddenly perceive the cultural diversity of this unique city even more clearly. Because the powerful symbiosis of culture and technology that Szope was just talking about really does come to the fore here in many places.