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Gijs Diercks, Senior researcher & advisor at Drift, posted

Radically different collaboration on transitions

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One crisis will follow another in the next decade, and all transitions will get stuck. That is the prediction of DRIFT researchers Jan Rotmans and Gijs Diercks in this essay. Only a drastically different approach to permanent problems could still turn the tide.

We live in a time of chaos, marked by semi-permanent crises, not only worldwide, but also in Europe and in the Netherlands. The very Netherlands that once seemed so well organised is getting stuck in many areas: nitrogen, nature, construction, Schiphol, energy, climate, mobility, healthcare. The root causes of this have to do with inadequate governance, lack of leadership and perseverance, but above all the eternal poldering (consensus-based decision-making). Poldering has brought us much good, but it does not help address intractable problems. These call for radical solutions. Because pseudo-solutions become part of the problem in no time. Many files have been shelved for decades to delay the transition pain as long as possible. We see this in all transition themes that the Amsterdam Economic Board is committed to, such as energy, circularity and mobility.

Energy crisis due to naive belief in business as usual

The current energy crisis is a wake-up call for our gas dependence on Russia. For too long we have been lulled to sleep by our own natural gas supplies. If those would run out, we even planned to create a ‘gas traffic circle’ and become a hub in the European gas trade. In it, Russia would become the primary gas supplier, a reliable partner because, ‘Russia always delivers’. Nowadays, it’s clear how naive the Netherlands was. Hastily, we had to look for alternatives (at great cost), such as liquefied natural gas. In fact, we are now being forced to run coal-fired power plants longer and more often. This illustrates the stagnant construction and breakdown of the Dutch energy system. We started too late with building an infrastructure for renewable energy, such as solar and wind. Had we done that earlier we wouldn’t be in trouble now. The decomposition of fossil energy was also stagnant: we should have focused much earlier and much more on energy conservation, both in industry and households. Too late we have recognised our gas dependence, and with it the importance of the geopolitical dimension in the energy transition.

Raw materials transition in its infancy

And this is just the beginning. The real transition – the raw materials transition – is yet to start. Raw materials are prerequisites for the energy transition. If we want to switch to solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars on a large scale, we need a lot of critical metals, such as lithium, silicon, scandium, neodymium, dysprosium, gadolinium and lanthanum. China owns more than half of the stocks of these metals and controls 95% of world production. Demand for these critical metals is expected to skyrocket in the coming years. And with it, the price. A price increase of 1,000% over the next decade is quite conceivable.

We now waste about 93% of our resources and in the continuous extraction of new resources we destroy a lot of natural capital. In the foreseeable future that will become too costly given rising prices. Especially in light of the looming ‘sustainable waste mountain’, as first-generation solar panels, wind turbines and batteries are replaced by more efficient ones. The Netherlands will have installed 80 million solar panels by 2024, with limited capacity for replacement or recycling. A huge destruction of capital, forcing us to move faster to a circular economy. That transition is still about 15 years behind the energy transition.

For that circular transition, the building and breaking down of systems has barely begun. Quite a few laws and regulations stand in the way of the circular transition. Like the waste law, which prohibits companies from recycling waste. Linear financing, which focuses primarily on construction but does not sufficiently consider maintenance and end-of-life, is also a major obstacle to the circular transition. It needs to be replaced by circular finance which considers broader circular metrics and also better incorporates the risks of linear finance into financing decisions.

The circular transition is a profound change that includes thinking, designing, organising, financing and managing differently. The entire resource chain is shaking up, and regions are the foundation of a new, circular economy. Complete autonomy is unachievable, but as much as possible is a useful aspiration. This is where the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area has an important role to play, as a supra-local scale where city and surrounding areas are connected is critical to circulating sufficient energy, raw materials, food, knowledge and expertise.

Mobility: all arrows aimed at overshoot collapse

There is not yet a mobility crisis in the Netherlands, but that is only a matter of time. The motorways are again as busy as they were before corona. If we continue like this, in 10 years time the Netherlands will be completely locked in one big traffic jam. Admittedly a cleaner, quieter traffic jam, because of the high proportion of electric cars. There is a lack of an integrated mobility policy, with optimal coordination between different transportation options. The Randstad area is developing towards a large Metropolis. These thrive on public transportation in terms of mobility: metro, bus, trams and train, supplemented by cars. Except in the Randstad Metropolis, where the car is still central. Within cities such as Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam, a turn towards car-free streets is noticable. There are policies, focused on car sharing, priority for bicycles as well as electric and smart mobility. Still, the number of cars is only increasing.

Nationwide, the opposite of what is needed is happening, with a dismantling of the public transportation system through a variety of budget cuts. What we should strengthen, we break down (public transport) and what we should break down (automobility), we strengthen by building more and more roads. This cannot fail to lead, in transition terms, to an overshoot collapse, in which the system completely crashes within the foreseeable future.

For the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, multimodal mobility – offering a choice of transportation options – is critical. We know what is needed for this, such as fair pricing of automobility through road pricing. But for decades now, this has been delayed by the national government. Recently, policy-making on this topic has being passed on to 2030. Amsterdam is leading the way in breaking down automobility, introducing strict environmental zones and removing more and more parking spaces. But that is certainly not the case for the Amsterdam region, where a clear vision and strategy for mobility is still lacking.

Other ways of working together

The themes at play within energy, circular economy and mobility all point in only one direction: the next decade will be marked by crises. On every conceivable transition theme we are going to get stuck, including in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. This requires a radically different method and approach. No more poldering and compromise, but creating support from an authoritative platform for a radical change agenda on all these issues.

There are three main prerequisites for this collaboration:

  1. A common vision of the future: To work successfully on transition, the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area must start from a common vision of the future to work on a desired transition: fundamental change in thinking, organising and acting towards a sustainable and just future. The stakes must go beyond collaborating on innovation. In addition to building up, breaking down belongs on the agenda too. Where are the coalitions that make car-free the norm, not just for inner cities, but for the entire metropolis? What pact can we forge to stop linear building practices? How do we get and keep energy conservation less non-committal on the agenda?

  2. New, surprising transition coalitions: Working on decomposition requires other types of collaboration. Beyond the innovation-oriented triple helix, but focused on new surprising transition coalitions. Bold demolition projects require unusual coalitions, in which businesses and governments commit to the radical ambitions of civil society organisations to act together to overturn the system. Consider the protest movement in the 1970s that successfully managed to put the dominance of the automobile on the agenda, which turned into policies that made Amsterdam’s inner city livable again. The scale of the Amsterdam Metropolis – between municipalities and the state and across provincial borders – lends itself perfectly to forging this kind of unusual coalition.

  3. Leaders with guts and vigor: Finally, there is a need for a different type of person. Not innovation managers or opportune networkers, but a diversity of transition roles: leaders, scale-tippers, connectors and demolishers. People who couple a sense of urgency and personal drive with decisiveness and guts, courage and leadership. Working on transition can be done in several ways. It is important that they help and strengthen each other. The Amsterdam Economic Board can play an important role in this regard. Organisations, in addition to embracing the vision outlined above, will also need to work to delegate the right people to the Board. These people must be given enough trust, support and organisational mandate to turn difficult projects into a success.

The question is whether these characteristics are currently sufficiently present. Traditionally, the Board has reflected the existing system, but we see how the Amsterdam Economic Board is repositioning itself, claiming an agenda-setting role in the new economy. The themes and ways of working together are also changing. As a positive example, we cite the cry for help from Alliander, which put the issue of grid congestion on the Board’s table at an early stage. With a clear call: the energy grid is gridlocked, and alone we cannot fix this. This was not a call for a polder solution but a request for help from vulnerability and confidence that the Board could provide the important intervening space to quickly and thoroughly address this problem together.

For now, grid congestion has not yet been resolved. The Amsterdam Economic Board and its network will still have to prove whether they can play the crucial role to get us through a decades of crises. As we have argued in this essay – as well as in our previous essays Beyond the triple helix and Come on, stumble – this requires a substantial change in both the structure, culture and working methods of the Amsterdam Economic Board and its partners. We wish you every success in this, because the stakes are high.

Written by: Gijs Diercks en Jan Rotmans

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Gijs Diercks, Senior researcher & advisor at Drift, posted

Come on, stumble! - Guest Essay by DRIFT

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The Amsterdam region is not meeting its climate targets. We want to be done with gas, be car-free, circular, clean – all without letting go of our obsession for grip, direction, our own agendas and demonstrable results. The current approach is clearly insufficient to achieve the objectives. How is that possible?

How to really start making transitions

A guest essay by the DRIFT institute

Amsterdam is the city of progress. Progressive politics is not only self-evident, but as a magnet for creatives, entrepreneurs and socially engaged people it is a source of innovation and inspiration. The embrace of the donut economy went all over the world, it is known worldwide as a city of bicycles and cultural innovation (and tolerance). Large businesses, knowledge institutions, governments and SMEs work together in the region to stimulate innovation and economic development. In this guest essay we observe, however, that all this hardly leads to structural changes or transitions. Over the past few years, DRIFT has looked at the state of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area with the Amsterdam Economic Board, and the main conclusion is that the real challenges are still ahead of us.

Amsterdam is in danger of falling short of its own climate targets. The regional economy is largely linear and there is little structural policy that indicates that this will change quickly. In the next 30 years, 4800 streets must be free of gas, car-free, energy-positive and nature-based without a military plan, the necessary labor power being available or the population involved? at all brought. The gains made here and there with, let’s be honest, leading and inspiring projects and policies are negated by growth in consumption. In other words, the current path is completely insufficient to achieve the stated climate and biodiversity objectives.

How is this possible?

The implementation illusion

The explanation is as simple as it is confusing: policy and management. The way in which we tackle major societal challenges together and try to solve them through innovation ensures that we keep ourselves captive in the current systems and structures. Whether we look within the government or the business community: the dominant way of making policy is to look for solutions to specific problems from the existing situation: optimization. All kinds of specific departments and structures have been developed for this, within which there is a continuous search for control, efficiency and risk reduction. Whether it’s called scenario planning, strategy or process management: the aim is constantly to make the existing situation better (or less bad). Often with the best intentions, but ultimately mainly symptomatic relief that confirms the status quo by reinforcing it, reproducing it and investing even more in it. By trying so desperately to improve existing economic structures and processes, we simultaneously maintain them.

We see this phenomenon all around us: our milk production is polluting and must be sustainable, so Campina’s innovation department is starting a program on the way to planet proof . There is no fundamental discussion about the usefulness and necessity of a global dairy industry in a densely populated polder. Schiphol and KLM cause noise and air pollution, so they are urgently looking for more sustainable fuels and quieter aircraft. In the meantime, however, the evidence is mounting that sustainable aviation of this magnitude is not feasible before 2050. In order to achieve climate targets, shrinkage of this sector will also have to be discussed. Cars cause a lot of CO2 emissions, so we are massively encouraging electric driving, but both the number and size of cars are still growing. We want less waste but at the same time we keep using and inventing more complicated materials. This makes recycling and reuse an increasingly complex task. Why do have innovated up to 250 different types of plastic? The innovation this region excels in, actually constitutes a postponement of transition.

The basic reason for this is the way we analyze problems and think about solutions. Policymakers, administrators and managers are trained to exercise control, reduce risks, monitor stability and take responsibility for outcomes. The form that has been devised for this, project and programme management, has now become a separate discipline with its own internal control logic and procedures. Projects and programs are formulated, based on a social need and political priority. Subsequently these must spend (public) resources in a responsible and verifiable manner. In practice this means: quantitative and measurable goals, criteria for accountability and setting targets to make projects and innovations more manageable. After which projects often still go wrong or become more expensive .

This approach works well with regard to concrete implementation, but quickly becomes difficult when it comes to complex transitions. First of all, by isolating the problems, you make the other person less responsible. This applies to a government taking care of a ‘transition’ that can be favoured or opposed by a society. It also applies to a sustainability department managing a climate program, so that the departments of R&D or Finance (or in the case of authorities the Housing or Mobility Department) won’t need to take this on as a core task.

Secondly, the rational policy approach creates an illusion of manageability: everything is thought out. Integral goals, roadmaps and pillars are set (see, for example, the impressive ‘New Amsterdam Climate 2050’), while maintaining the idea that government and policy are the basis from which social development is directed.

Thirdly, this policy logic usually leads to the identification of innovations, new actions or interventions, often without identifying the tensions and uncertainties in progress and analyzing what should be stopped. This way of thinking and working leads to progress from the existing, but also negates the innovative forces from society and the sometimes double role that governments themselves play: guardian and part of the status quo versus the driver of progress and innovation.

Welcome to the transition twenties

This way, we are so caught up in a society in which there is increasing pressure to change course structurally, while the structures are insufficiently able to adapt. This pattern is historically far from unique and inevitably leads to shocks, crises and disruptions that lead to major social instability. From this transition perspective, we see signs everywhere that we are heading for such a period of institutional shift, if we’re not already in it. From a social point of view, climate, biodiversity, nitrogen and raw materials, but also care, education, housing and the labor market are complex challenges that will never be solved with policy: it is a process of muddling on from crisis to crisis. A growing undercurrent also no longer believes in the promises of the dairy industry, aviation industry, car industry, construction industry or large consumer companies to make current practices more sustainable and loses faith in the current course. The inability to transform quickly enough thus leads to increasing disruption and social and institutional instability. Some certainties of the past are already disappearing while it is still unclear and uncertain what the new normal will become. Think of the industries that we have attracted or retained in the Netherlands (steel, chemicals, greenhouses) with the promise of cheap, stable and reliable gas and electricity. This time will not return, and the alternative has not yet crystallized. Will it be CCS or green hydrogen? Biogas or full electrification? Or will (large) parts of the industry move to places in the world where renewable energy is abundant? This means a lot of uncertainty for citizens: we know the central heating boiler will need to go, but what should I replace it with and when? Each person having their own car is not future-proof, but what will our mobility system look like in ten years’ time? We’re going to stumble forward to find out. We do know one thing for sure: we’re in for a bumpy ride.

Against the background of the institutional struggle, another movement has emerged in recent decades: enterprising civil servants, social entrepreneurs, activists, idealists, researchers and inventors who have set to work with radically different ideas, practices, models and working methods. Try something different instead of improving. Instead of implementing, learn by doing. And instead of letting you check ‘to arise’. They do this from a radical vision: a future without fossils. A directly democratic economy that is circular. Fair mobility with the least possible use of space. A food system that is healthy and contributes to nature restoration. Gradually, these kinds of alternatives become less and less alternative and what has been the norm for so long becomes less and less self-evident. Perhaps even more so in the Amsterdam Metropolis. These interacting dynamics of build-up and breakdown are a characteristic of transitions.

We are therefore beyond the initial phase of transition: accelerating alternatives, the status quo is increasingly under discussion. Our analysis from a transition perspective is that we’re entering a new phase in which space opens up for much more radical, accelerated and fundamental shifts. No longer is there a struggle of innovators against established parties. We see this also reflected during our work for the Amsterdam Economic board. Both the government and the business community are discussing the future, direction and their own role in this – sometimes internally, sometimes at the center of the public debate. This creates a space (physical, financial, mental, institutional) in which innovators and established parties struggle together for radical system change.

“Dealing with transitions, in short, requires a completely different way of thinking and working: it requires stumbling forward from a radical vision of desired transition.” - Derk Loorbach Professor Socio-economic Transitions Erasmus universiteit Directeur DRIFT

Radical change with the regime

When this process of shifting out of balance is set in motion, it is irreversible and can go in any direction. The uncertainties are maximum, control is minimal and the predictability and stability of the past are gone. If, in that context, the outlined approach to control and management remains the only response, undesirable outcomes are guaranteed. Either those in power and importance know how to use the momentum to consolidate their position and manipulate the transition, or such chaos ensues that social unrest and economic breakdown occur. In short, dealing with transitions requires a completely different way of thinking and working: it requires stumbling forward from a radical vision of the desired transition.

Of course, there are plenty of visions, policy agendas and strategic documents, but by a radical vision of transition we mean fundamentally questioning current structures and interests and using the transition momentum to say goodbye to everything that keeps us rooted in the current unsustainable economic environment. model: an economy based on consumption, with everyone having their own car in front of the door, (several) flying holidays in a year and a glass of milk every morning. That comes close: it concerns our own habits, but the government itself is also a major shareholder in the linear, fossil BV Netherlands, just like the companies and the employment they create. the realization that transition also means saying goodbye is starting to sink in: more and more established parties are under so much pressure that they sometimes have to or in some cases proactively shape their own transition from their own leadership.

In this context, especially within the Amsterdam region and from the Amsterdam Economic Board, we see the opportunity to no longer move ahead with the handbrake on, but to stumble forward by embracing radical transitions. This means explicitly focusing on radical transitions that in themselves also mean bidding farewell to everything that is now unsustainable, fossil, linear and unjust: a regenerative food system, mobility without private cars, a built environment that is positive for nature. In order to explore an economy in which we use as few raw materials and scarce (public) resources as possible, while restoring nature and shaping an economy that is just for as many people as possible. Without being able to outline exactly what that will look like, what it will cost and how we will achieve it. But we do know that there are frictions, resistances and risks in that process: with consumers who are given less freedom, with companies that will have to or will disappear at an accelerated rate, with politicians who will be asked difficult questions.

The concrete first steps are obvious: by choosing for Mobility as a Commons, instead of Mobility as a Service. Shared mobility to serve the community instead of a new revenue model for investors and companies – combining this with a radically different layout of public space. Or by embracing shrinkage, and all the uncertainty that comes with it, as the most realistic sustainability strategy for aviation. Or mobilizing social innovations and initiatives to lead the transition to a fossil-free built environment. Or focusing on as much local ownership and control over public facilities and decision-making as possible. In short, we’ll need to enter this process together, by leaving the undesirable, existing interests behind. By phasing out routines and structures that do not work and that keep us stuck in growth and consumption. At the same time choosing for a radical vision by building the new economic social structures and systems that are nature-positive, circular, democratic and just.

Stumbling forward as a strategy

We will elaborate on this in subsequent essays, both a policy strategy that focuses on social innovation and uses it to mainstream what now seems radical and unlikely, and a policy strategy that responsibly shapes phasing out. But we would like to end here with four recommendations that we hope all actors in the Amsterdam metropolitan region, supported by the Amsterdam Economic Board, will implement enthusiastically in the coming years.

  • A non-negotiable sense of urgency: We are in a climate and biodiversity crisis and despite all the progress our current efforts are insufficient.
  • Embracing and shaping a radical transition agenda: not making the existing more sustainable, but shaping alternatives that still seem radical and unlikely from a vision of desired transitions, and breaking with existing unsustainable practices.
  • Recognition of and support for existing transition practices in society: the people, entrepreneurs, activists and policymakers who have long embraced and shape radical transitions and show that it is possible.
    E* mbracing stumbling blocks in policy and management: Instead of improving, try something different. Instead of implementing, learn by doing. And instead of controlling let it arise.

The question is whether organizations in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area are prepared to embrace this agenda. We often attribute their inability to change to unwillingness or ignorance. In the future it will become less and less unwillingness, but disbelief. A lack of imagination and creativity because we can’t imagine that more radical alternatives will actually ever become mainstream. From a transition perspective, however, it is impossible to niet to see that transformative change over time is inevitable: the urgency surrounding climate change and loss of biodiversity will only increase. With the transition twenties well underway the need has now arisen to let this go. It is now more radical to think that everything stays the same but sustainably, instead of embracing more radical transition paths.

Reflections by Nina Tellegen & Erik Versnel

We are curious what the essays will bring about in the network. That is why we submitted this essay to Nina Tellegen (Managing Director Amsterdam Economic Board) and Erik Versnel (Director Rabobank Amsterdam Metropolitan Area).

This essay calls for stumbling forward, in other words letting go of the urge for control and manageability. Nina endorses this recommendation: “We need to get away from the current culture of control and cramping, such as keeping drivers too far from the wind .”

“For banks, this represents a significant cultural shift”, says Erik. “After all, risk reduction is our core competence. But sometimes you need to get moving without knowing the end point. The path is created by walking on it.”

How can we let go of that urge for control? Nina: “Dare to stumble forward! We innovate and therefore make mistakes. We need to reflect on that.” Eric adds: “Dare to experiment. For example, we tried to buy Eneco. This was uncharted territory for us. And while it didn’t work out, that purchase attempt has convinced us that we want to become the banker of the energy transition.”

Nina does question the statement that innovation in the region stands in the way of the transition: “There I fundamentally disagree. Take initiatives such as AMdEX, neighborhood ehubs, reuse of solar panels against energy poverty. Some already big, others still in the stumbling phase on their way to a bigger step. I will highlight the LEAP initiative which shows that data servers can easily achieve 10% energy savings. Immediately! This is an incremental innovation within the current system, but taking the first step together means that you create support, that you get people on board and then work together on more radical solutions. With LEAP, we have therefore succeeded in forming a coalition with major players such as Microsoft, KPN, Dell, Rabobank, Schiphol, but also with startups, scientists, photonics companies that are already working on radically different ways of storing data. This requires much less energy consumption, or energy can be reused to heat houses, for example. I strongly believe in the combination of those two routes: taking the apparently small steps brings parties together to work on radical change. That is why I believe in an organization like the Amsterdam Economic Board, because we bring those different parties together.”

Erik also questions the radicality and activism of transition. “I endorse the recommendation that the transition should be accelerated and that the urgency is simply not up for discussion. But a transition takes a big jump from A to E, while we also need to pass by B, C and D. We cannot suddenly stop. We need to include customers in the transition. Activism is sometimes necessary to wake us up. But if the vision of the future is too far away, the step becomes too big to commit to.” Nina adds: “Radical means that you lose contact with each other and that you can’t do anything with it anymore because it simply exceeds the imagination. It may be idealistic, but we must continue to engage in dialogue and take common and realistic steps. The added value of the polder is that you stay in touch with each other and make progress together.”

The term ‘radical’ or ‘radical vision of the future’ can therefore also have a paralyzing effect. Then it becomes so radical that you can no longer do anything with it. “We do see the importance of the joint future perspective,” says Nina, “ and as the Amsterdam Economic Board, we also want to pay more attention to the question of what the desired future picture is now.”

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Beyond the triple helix - Guest Essay by DRIFT

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Transitions require not only technological but also social innovations. Research institute DRIFT argues that government, knowledge institutions and businesses must work together with the entire community to get those necessary transitions done. Beyond the triple helix, in other words.

Transitions need many social innovations as well as technological innovations. These come not only from the market and government, but also from the community. Social innovations require an outlook that goes beyond the ‘triple helix’ – the traditional collaboration between government, knowledge institutions and business. This provides ample scope for innovative forms of social entrepreneurship and cooperative civic initiatives.

Second guest essay by the DRIFT institute

In this essay, Gijs Diercks and Flor Avelino of research institute DRIFT give concrete advice on cooperative entrepreneurship and social innovation. How do we best approach this, according to DRIFT? Read the three recommendations in the green boxes.

Leonie van den Beuken, programme director of Amsterdam Smart City, provides her reaction to DRIFT’s insights at the bottom of this article.

Previously, DRIFT wrote the essay ‘Come on, stumble!’ on transitions: How can we ensure Amsterdam meets its climate goals?

Address root causes

To address today’s environmental, economic and social challenges, technological innovation is necessary, but not sufficient on its own. We cannot solve these persistent problems without addressing the underlying systemic causes. These systemic causes are not only technological but also socioeconomic, such as institutional injustice, exploitation and inequality.

Sustainability transitions therefore require social innovations in addition to technological innovations. If we take the example of transitions toward a circular economy, this is not only about new materials and production methods, but also about new practices such as product sharing, new ideas and social norms, like ‘waste-free living’, and new, services-dominated business models. Here, companies do not provide a product, but a service, for which they are responsible throughout the life cycle. In short, social innovation is about new ways of thinking, doing and organising.

Social aspects

With this, social innovation is closely linked to the renewed focus on the social aspects of sustainability transitions. Ecological sustainability goes hand in hand with the quest for a more democratic, inclusive and just society. This concerns not only a normative position of ours as transition researchers, but it is also something that current and new generations, including the employers and employees of the near future, are increasingly demanding. At a time of increasing attention to racism, gender inequality, abuse and other forms of exclusion and inequality, no organisation can afford to consider sustainability in isolation from these issues.

Collective strength

From this perspective, it is also interesting to see who is driving social innovation, as it has several drivers. In addition to government, large market players and knowledge institutions, there is a rich world of collective action in the community and civil society. For example, we are currently witnessing the rise and revival of cooperative enterprises. Historian Tine de Moor talks (in Dutch) about three waves of institutions for collective action over the past 1,000 years. Currently, we seem to be in the midst of that third wave, with a recent resurgence of civic initiatives and collective action at the local level. Take also the energy generation in cooperative associations, where the consumer is also a producer.

Not only do many social innovations arise from ‘civil society’, it also leads to new innovative kinds of organisations that operate as alternatives to – and/or hybrid combinations between – community, market and government. Think: heat grids owned by a combination of public, private and cooperative parties (link in Dutch). Or the increase in social entrepreneurship and social investment, combining public interest with a commercial logic. One example is the Impact Hub Amsterdam. It has supported more than 4,000 startups since its inception in 2008, is a leader in driving the Circular Economy and has invested more than 15 million euros in circular startups through its Investment Ready Program. It also helps existing businesses with their sustainability issues, such as IKEA. In doing so, the Impact Hub is working with partners like ING Foundation, Province of Noord-Holland, CIRCL and many others. With the City of Amsterdam, the Impact Hub is developing an innovative urban ecosystem.

Global Impact Hub

In addition to these interesting hybrid forms, there is another important aspect at play: although these initiatives are often embedded locally, at the level of a (sub)community or as a citizen collective, they are often interconnected on a regional and global level in regional, national and/or international networks. In those networks, people exchange ideas, practical experiences and methods, and create scale and power in entirely new ways. Here, the logic of multinational companies does not apply, but translocal networks.

For example, the Impact Hub Amsterdam is part of the global Impact Hub network in which 24,500 entrepreneurs in 107 locations in 63 countries are working together to create a more sustainable and social economy. And so there are hundreds of examples, if not thousands, of this kind of ‘trans local networking’ (check here). What about the European network of energy cooperatives RESCOOP? They’re lobbying at a European level to introduce Energy Directives for national policies, creating more space for decentralised and renewable power generation.

Blind spot of the triple helix

The power and impact of this new collective force from the community, innovative hybrid organisations and translocal networks is still too often underestimated. The reason is because they fall outside the traditional framing of the ‘triple helix’: the public-private partnership between governments, knowledge institutions and companies that has long been seen as the main driver of innovation in a region. We also see this with the Amsterdam Economic Board, which focuses primarily on the triple helix and thus has some blind spots for those who want to drive truly transformative innovation to accelerate transitions and provide direction. Why shouldn’t a company like the Impact Hub also be a serious partner of the Amsterdam Economic Board? Or a networking organisation like EnergieSamen?

We see that an organisation like the Amsterdam Economic Board has excellent potential to play a facilitating and sometimes mediating role in exploring possible new forms of cooperation in that changing playing field and force field. While it is understandable that the Amsterdam Economic Board cannot engage with every social entrepreneur or every cooperative in the Amsterdam region, it does have the opportunity – and, in our view, the responsibility – to collaborate with (and/or listen carefully to) the networks and platforms that speak on behalf of these types of cooperative and social entrepreneurial movements, including partners like the Impact Hub, RESCOOP or an initiative like Collectieve Kracht. In doing so, the power of Amsterdam Smart City – as a programme of the Amsterdam Economic Board – can be even better utilised as a locally rooted but internationally connected network, where connections are created between the various private, public and civic parties. This is a role that Amsterdam Smart City already regularly assumes, for example, by putting the concept of Mobility as a Commons (shared mobility by and for residents) on the agenda during its annual transition days. Even in its initiatives, the Amsterdam Economic Board sometimes works with civil society organisations, such as its collaboration with NGO BYCS in the Green Deal Bicycle. But it is a role it could shape much more explicitly, especially also in the connection with Amsterdam Smart City, as a counterweight to the dominance of existing large market players.

Businesses and governments’ turn

Networks such as Amsterdam Smart City have an important role in facilitating collective strength. For community-based social innovation to really have a chance, it also requires a paradigm shift in businesses and governments. For decades governments have invested in a healthy entrepreneurial environment with all kinds, grants, incubators or start-up-in-residence programs, innovation vouchers, innovative tenders, networking events to drive pre-competitive collaboration, etc. Imagine if we had invested similar time and resources over the past decades to drive innovative capacity from within the community? There is no shortage of initiatives. They do continually demonstrate the difficulty of staying afloat, let alone growing and scaling up. Innovating from within the community is continuously struggling with a lack of money, asking for institutional support and space, relying heavily on volunteers and not always being taken seriously, despite great results.

Businesses also need to flip the switch, and there are several worldwide examples of how businesses can closely engage with the community. A well-known example are the Basque Mondragon Cooperatives, a collective with a variety of enterprises in which workers themselves co-own the company they work for, such as Orbea, Spain’s largest bicycle manufacturer. A publicly traded company like Donkey Republic uses crowdfunding to both raise alternative capital and give users a more direct stake in the company. New organisational models of companies like Fairphone are equally inspirational. They deploy a platform of users for both tech support and repairs. In short, there are many ways in which businesses can harness the collective strength of the community much more effectively in the pursuit of sustainable and equitable transitions.

Shifting power relations

At the same time, the praise we proclaim here about social innovation must be tempered somewhat. We often think of social innovation as something positive, but that is not necessarily the case. At a deeper level, social innovation is about changing relationships between actors: consumers, producers and retailers, as well as citizens, administrators and businesses. Changing social relations are always accompanied by shifting power relations. Whether we like it or not, in times of great social transformation, power relations will change, and new forms of power inequality, exclusion and abuse regularly arise.

Consider the platform economy, and how new revenue models by Uber or AirBnB also lead to new concentrations of power and create problems for local and regional economies, both in social and environmental terms. Today, governments are already becoming less naive and more and more local governments are trying to regulate the platform economy by putting public values at the center. Thus, AirBnB no longer gets free rein in Amsterdam, and the rise of these types of parties has also made us think more differentiated and less naive about the ‘sharing economy’.


As a countermovement, we see interesting developments around platform cooperatives that seek to organise the platform economy in a more sustainable and equitable way, such as the AMdEX initiative, initiated by the Amsterdam Economic Board. It is developing a platform that facilitates fair, equal and open data exchange. The excesses of the platform economy show once again the importance of harnessing the innovative power of the community in innovation processes, as they help determine not only the speed but also the direction. A sharing economy based on cooperative values has turned out to differ fundamentally from a platform economy based on the venture capitalist model.

Recommendations by DRIFT

In the coming years, we will see a lot of social innovation in addition to technological innovation. It will speed up transitions but also give direction: sometimes fairer and more equitable, but regularly it will also lead to new forms of power inequality. And while this cannot always be avoided, it is a matter of being acutely aware of how power relations develop in innovation processes, and how to deal with it by naming it, adjusting it where possible and regulating it where necessary. To achieve this, we make the following three recommendations:

1. Look beyond the triple helix
We ask governments and companies to put more effort into social innovation to accelerate transitions. Do not see citizens as end users but recognise the innovative power from within the community. So look beyond the triple helix, a construct that leads to blind spots regarding innovative capacity from the community, alternative and new hybrid organisations and their translocal networks. From governments, this requires a similar effort that has been made over the past 30 years to create a healthy business environment: such as start-up in residence-like constructions, but for cooperatives in the fields of mobility, energy or healthcare. To give them the financial and institutional space to professionalise; innovation grants for enterprising citizens with good ideas; innovative procurement that citizen collectives can also bid for. This requires companies to get employees and consumers more involved in business operations or product development, and not be afraid of the empowered citizen but look together for innovative forms of public-private-civil partnerships and all its various hybrid expressions.

2. Use the strength of the network
The Amsterdam Economic Board and its network can play a facilitating and sometimes mediating role in exploring possible new forms of cooperation, thus playing an important role in shaping this changing force field. At for its Board, we recommend working with networks and platforms that speak on behalf of cooperative and social enterprises, as the diffuse and decentralised characteristics of this new collective force make it difficult to get a handle on it at the strategic level. At the level of individual programs and activities, more space can be offered to individual for civic initiatives and collectives. This would suit the network of Amsterdam Smart City.

3. Ensure a good balance with the community
Be mindful of social innovation and the changing power relations that accompany it. Social innovation is thus not only crucial in accelerating, but also guiding, transitions. In times of significant social transformation, power relations will change, and new forms of power inequality, exclusion and abuse frequently arise. A stronger engagement with the community can help better balance different interests here as well, by putting values such as ownership, transparency and inclusion at the center. This can counteract excesses such as we see with the platform economy.

Response by Leonie van den Beuken, Programme Director of Amsterdam Smart City

We are curious to see what the essays bring about in the network. Therefore, we submitted this essay to Leonie van den Beuken, programme director of Amsterdam Smart City.

Leonie is closely observing the discussions held internally within the Amsterdam Economic Board. One is about opening up (or stretching) the triple helix: “I recognise the question of working beyond the triple helix. That question keeps coming up internally as well. The answer is very unequivocal: of course we must cooperate broadly, with society as a whole. That is the only way to bring about necessary change. In addition, it is evident that we cannot separate technological and social innovations. It is precisely by focusing on synergy between the two that you truly create added value. Consider a car-sharing system between and by residents. This accelerates the mobility and energy transition. In addition, we strengthen social cohesion in the neighbourhood and assign ownership in a collective. By looking at transitions from that point of view, it becomes clear which projects and innovations add real value."

Because the Amsterdam Smart City and House of Skills programmes are part of the Amsterdam Economic Board, the entire organisation actually works beyond the triple helix. “In doing so, it is good to know: cooperation between organisations is not easy. Even if you work ‘only within the triple helix’. I still experience on a daily basis that the government and the business community or knowledge institutions just don’t understand each other properly during discussions. Or they agree on the main points, but in the implementation phase, they get stuck on differing working methods and timelines that are not easy to reconcile. It is still necessary to invest in this cooperation. Especially when relationships between parties shift.”

So are we looking to ‘move past’ the triple helix too soon? Leonie wholeheartedly endorses the need to work with citizens and hybrid institutions: “If we really want to solve the problems of our time, we must do so together. After all, society as a whole is shaped by all parties. That means working not only from the perspective of a resident or visitor, but also with them. Not only in the form of public participation, but also in co-creation. Then the question arises: in what way and where should we do it? Within the Board, we talk about the ‘Amsterdam approach’ or the ‘double triple helix’. In addition to governments, companies and knowledge institutions, we add local businesses, social institutions and citizens. At the Board Meetings, Board members now meet primarily within the triple helix. But beyond that, many more connections are forming. For example, certain issues raised within the Board are later on discussed in open reflective meetings with a broader network.”

Amsterdam Smart City has been working on this connection with society for 13 years: ”Public values are central to everything we do, in addition to open and transparent, we focus on being people-centered and learning by doing. In our experience, working with society requires trust and time to actually find and understand each other. In the citizen science project Hollandse Luchten, citizens and the province of Noord-Holland are working on measuring air quality around Tata steel, for example. That collaboration is in itself a huge shift. It ensures that there is no more distrust about the facts, the previous measurements are no longer opposed to residents’ feelings. But there is a difference in the interpretation of those facts: how do you look at the facts, what value do you assign to them. That’s what the conversation is about now. Again, there appears to be disagreement among those involved. It remains to be seen whether the balance of power is really going to shift.”

“I rarely hear that people find power shifts difficult, but nobody likes giving up control. When relationships shift, parties need to redefine what they can contribute and how to address dependencies on others. There is less overview and tangibility. While society still continues to demand certainties and predictability from these parties. That chafes. We also see on the side of citizens that they have to search for their role. They cannot take on everything; the shift to the participatory society has already placed many tasks on them. Unfortunately, all too often it turns out that proposals from residents or social collectives are not allowed or cannot be implemented. This obviously does not contribute to a growing confidence.”

As a final thought, Leonie would to add to the essay a warning as well as a call to the network: “If we involve society, including cooperatives and social enterprises mentioned in the essay, more strongly in our activities, we must ensure that we involve a good reflection of society. In language, times, location, methods of meetings, constantly we must ask ourselves if we are open and inviting, if the people we’d like to involve, can and want to work with us in that way. If we do not develop these properly then the co-creation process and cooperative process will also be another exclusive process.”

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Gijs Diercks, Senior researcher & advisor at Drift, posted

Van denktank naar doetank: #KraakdeCrisis. 15 Apr, 2020

Juist nu is het zaak om na te denken en ons uit te spreken over een samenleving en economie na corona. Op woensdag 8 April startte daarom de grootste online crowdsourcing-actie van ons land: #Kraakdecrisis. Deze actie is opgestart door een groep jonge ondernemers die de coronacrisis zien als hét moment voor transitie. DRIFT denkt en doet mee: hoe kan de ontregeling van nu een aanzet zijn tot positieve verandering op lange termijn? Doe mee met de eerste doe-sessie op 15 april!

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