With the installation of a new bridge across the Garonne on the horizon, in 2008 the city of Bordeaux purchased a large compound of old military barracks on the right bank of the river with an eye toward tearing them down to stimulate economic development. The timing proved fortuitous for a young man, Philippe Barre, growing restless with his tech business, Inoxia, in a small town in Bordeaux.
Barre presented the concept for a green business center in the barracks to the ambitious mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppe, who was jockeying for a shot at the Best European City Award. The proposal appeared to have sparked the interest of one of the judges, so it received a green light.
A green light was the first hurdle, but funding his dream for the project, Darwin, loomed larger. In a 2015 interview for Insideurosima, Barre explained how he obtained the necessary euros:
I invested all my money to finance the initial engineering, working with consulting firms, architects…. Then, I founded an investment fund called Archipel to acquire the land and get a bank loan. I went out and met with CEOs and company managers offering them the opportunity of investing in a socially responsible investment fund rather than investing in the stock market. Thanks to Archipel, we were able to borrow 10 million euros and save the barracks from being torn down.
Strangely, in my mind still surprised by the sports’ popularity in France, one of the first segments to open at Darwin was an enormous indoor skatepark large enough to accommodate hundreds of skateboarders at a time.
As an incubator for innovative businesses, the Darwin center flourished. Barre reported to Insideurosima:
We have 150 companies, which is over 400 people who work here. It is mostly small companies or freelancers with two to five employees, representing a total combined turnover of 60-million Euros.
Disappointed by the much-touted Cite du Vin museum across the river (I won’t go into that yet), we didn’t rush over to Darwin. I feared it would be a Disneyland-esque artificial vision for sustainability. Finally deciding to visit late morning on a weekday, I was pleasantly surprised to find a neighborhood. A vibrant neighborhood filled with young people choosing a new model for how they live, work, relax and play.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”Charles Darwin, 1809-1882