Productive Amsterdam   

In: Madir Shah, Jonathan Woodroffe (editors). Productive Amsterdam. Space for the new Economy. THOTH Publishers 2019, pp 50-55.

Hub, Campus, Science Park. Redundancy as a precondition for urban productivity.

Economic growth and prosperity nowadays are seen as dependent on talent, creativity and innovation, more than on connectivity, cheap labor and low taxes. When their factories closed in the early 1980s, cities felt weakened. Many seemed to lose their soul. After having bemoaned their lost industrial spaces, some cities started to transform their brownfields into new living quarters and managed to reconcile themselves with the new postindustrial condition. Their economic future pointed in the direction of new consumption spaces, specialized producer services and knowledge-based industries. It was Richard Florida’s 2002 ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ that raised public awareness and motivated city councils worldwide to fit their tested economic policies into some kind of global urban beauty contest: it was the birth of a new generation of advanced city marketing campaigns.

Already in the eighties researchers like Manuel Castells, David Harvey, John Friedmann and Saskia Sassen discovered the rise of so called ‘world cities’ or ‘global cities’. In his Wold City Hypothesis (1986), Friedmann noticed that certain cities functioned as tools of ‘global capital’ which use such urban areas as ’basing points’ in the spatial organization and articulation of production and markets. Linkages created by such conditions arrange cities into a ‘complex spatial hierarchy’. Cities were no longer viewed as social entities but rather “a product of specifically social forces set in motion by capitalist relations of production.” Class conflict became central to the new view of how cities evolved. This neo-Marxist interpretation of the new global economic order, dominated by networks of some hundred cities, was more or less commented on in an ironic way by Florida’s ‘rise of the creative class’.

After the emergence of Florida’s ‘Creative City’ concept, cities that possessed universities, research laboratories and/or a huge potential of human capital all started to see themselves as possible cradles of innovation in a world of fierce competition, technological acceleration and expanding global markets. R&D became paramount, patents were seen as predictors of innovation and therefore economic growth. Benchmarks of cities guided city councils in their quest for world city status and led them to investing in new globally oriented economic policies. It opened a whole range of new urban planning activities. The campus and the science park became dominant typologies in this agitated quest for urban beauty and livability. Social polarization, class conflict and the mounting costs of world city status were barely noticed, and if they were, mostly covered up. Policymakers and planners started to think in terms of entrepreneurial ecosystems – a secret concoction of spatial and non-spatial conditions favoring innovative practices -, in reality conceptualized and simplified as spatially contained spaces when it comes to planning the future of city regions as potential Silicon Valleys. Most of these ‘planned’ ecosystems consist of new campuses, clean laboratories and well managed office parks, all loosely interconnected in more or less suburban settings. Eindhoven’s concept of Brainport for instance ironically refers to the old industrial logic of the economic policy of the Dutch state, which is still very much focused on investing in its two national ‘main ports’: the harbor of Rotterdam and the airport hub of Schiphol, seen as the ‘main’ drivers of economic growth in the Netherlands, but in its shiny brochures it has the look and feel of a modern city, with art, design, high tech and shiny campus buildings, a port for ‘brains’. The use of the marketing concept, which is a strange set of metaphors, used by this former company town in the south of the Netherlands would have been ironic if it was not taken seriously. Not only the language and the thinking, but also the planning activities in the Eindhoven region and in many places strongly express the idea of mooring brains in a region, where the building of campuses like the former Philips campus and Strijp S as ‘docks’ in a ‘port’ try to capture talented people by promising them R&D thanks to the exchange of ideas during tightly scheduled lunch hours in restaurant and in clean and trendy meeting places. In Brainport, the holistic concept of the Creative City of Richard Florida is reduced to a set of tangible structures of fancy architecture, freed from whim, chance and conflicts, in a landscaped environment of trees, lawns and shrubs with a surplus of car parking lots. Innovation, it seems, is supposed to blossom in a climate of optimistic modernism, in a well- planned mix of functions in relative isolation, clearly localized and neatly embedded in a commonplace environment, instead of depending on the havoc and nog well understood chaos of big conurbations. It is a policy that focuses on attracting capital flows, investors and talent, less on a deep understanding of how messy cities generate new things and how uncertainty, complexity and coincidence prevail in the domain of innovation. It is the city conceptualized as a well-managed ‘port’ or ‘laboratory’ that dominates the economic discourse. But is this really leading to urban prosperity?

In all these policies necessary critical mass and congestion in urban agglomerations and their relentlessness are consistently being neglected or even resisted. When the American urban thinker Jane Jacobs wrote about cities as economic laboratories, she did not mean it in a literal sense. By using this expression, she tried to emphasize the importance of trial and error, of uncertainty and even the need for disorder, she pleaded for not knowing and for experimenting, for “valuable inefficiencies and impracticalities” in complex urban settings. She wrote about ‘benign feedback’: redundancy is expensive but indispensable. The American sociologist Richard Sennett agreed with her and wrote about ‘the uses of disorder’ (1970) when it comes to people growing up and learning. Complexity and disorder is what makes cities thrive. The strong wish to boost economic growth and to develop urban policies that spur innovation in a competitive world have led to a new kind of urban policies, where cities are perceived as potential cradles of innovation, all coping with the same defective kind of planning. All cities want to be in control and try to organize R&D in a traditional, more or less modernistic way. Innovation is not about R&D. Patents do not reflect a rise in innovation. The planning of urban innovation is a contradictio in terminis.

In ‘The Economy of Cities’ (1968), Jacobs devoted an important chapter to innovation in cities. Innovation, she wrote, thrives in big cities more than in synoptic mid-sized ones. Their very inefficiency and impracticality make big cities divers and strong motors in an economic sense. Inefficiencies are even necessary to economic development. It is virtually impossible for the economy of a city to be highly efficient and at the same time to excel in the development of new work. Efficiency is a sequel to earlier development work. Leave that to the company town. Jacobs: “It is most efficient for large construction firms to produce monotonous multiples of identical buildings; it is most efficient for architects to design multiples of identical buildings. Superblocks are more efficient than smaller blocks because there are fewer crossings and traffic can flow more efficiently.” An urban economy, she added, thrives only when there are many small enterprises woven in a dense web of city blocks along busy city streets, it needs diversity and critical mass. Moreover, big, dense, compact cities are like mines where materials are retrieved over and over again. She focused on waste and waste treatment when she tried to explain how cities economy really work. In her eyes, cities would become ever richer the more and the longer these materials are recycled and exploited. “All the wealth extracted from recycled wastes, plus pure air and pure water, will represent increases in true abundance.” It was a circular economy avant la lettre that Jacobs depicted in 1968 as the heart of the economy of big cities. “For in the highly developed economies of the future, it is probable that cities will become huge, rich and divers mines of raw materials.” How visionary this woman-activist from New York was.

In 2004, when Amsterdam launched its city marketing campaign with the slogan ‘I AMsterdam’, the excitement of Florida’s Creative Cities was at its peak. Nobody exactly knew how to plan a ‘creative city’, traditional urban planning was raising suspicion in circles of economic policymakers, so, also in Amsterdam the widespread opinion was that maybe the best policy was to develop a strong global brand. Amsterdam started its ‘I AMsterdam’ campaign, appointed a Chief Marketing Officer and professionalized its city marketing apparatus. Four years later the city started its ‘smart city’-initiative. This time, all effort was steered towards shiny, flagship projects, to ‘smart’ business driven initiatives that could help to solve urban problems. But the focus on benchmarking and marketing seemed obstinate. After a while, the focus of Amsterdam Smart City broadened into developing strong regional communities of tech start-ups, tech education, and attracting venture capitalists. Another three years later, the Amsterdam Economic Board was established within the Amsterdam metropolitan region. The new mayor of Amsterdam was invited to be its president. This regional Board was conceptualized as a new kind of governance, very bureaucratic by nature, lightly staffed, copied from Silicon Valley, in many ways roughly similar to the Brainport Eindhoven organization. Since then, many Dutch cities have started their own economic board, replacing their Chamber of Commerce with something new, some kind of public-private collaboration in foundations which aim for sustainable regional growth. Most of these boards also have the ambition to attract tech people, to build smart cities and to build start-up ecosystems by promoting the quality of their regional infrastructure and its livability. Amsterdam Smart City has become a partner of the Amsterdam Economic Board.

Once installed, the Amsterdam Economic Board started its activities in the former headquarters of the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce on the banks of the river IJ. This location was quite symbolic. At first, what stood out was its broad focus on spurring innovation in no less than twelve economic clusters, coinciding with the twelve sectors of the former Chamber of Commerce. This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Nobody exactly knew where to begin, how to collaborate, let alone how to make the new board function effectively. After four years, the Board moved to the office of the Economic Department of the City of Amsterdam, near the city hall, in the city centre. There, its focus narrowed and five special areas were defined: mobility, the digital economy, new jobs, the circular economy, and health. Three years later, in 2017, the Amsterdam Economic Board moved again, this time to the Marineterrein, an artificial island close to Amsterdam Central Station. Now, its focus became threefold: an energy transition, a circular transition, and a digital transition, all to be implemented in the coming decades. More and more, sustainability and inclusiveness were becoming central to all board activities. The ambitious, complicated long-term goals could not be successfully fulfilled by a standard approach most economic departments abide by, nor by architectural projects or traditional urban design. The board started to see itself as a regional think tank, a strategic unit, discussing next steps, learning by doing, moving forward by reflection and exchange, by experimenting and developing new collaborative coalitions, thus accepting that a productive urban economy is engaged in the unroutine business of economic trial and error.

In a sense, the presence of the Board on the Marineterrein could be regarded symbolic of its abandoning a one-sided business approach and its adopting of a new reflexive governance approach, with its focus on optimizing multiple objectives. In 2018, after the local elections, it was even considered dropping the ‘Economic’ part of the Board’s name. When the Dutch Ministry of Defense was forced to sell its 12,7 hectares naval base on an artificial island near the historic centre of the capital in 2015, the city decided not to redevelop it and turn it into an expensive new living quarter, but lease it on a temporary base and appoint a curator, who would then build a community of small tech enterprises, knowledge-based and research institutions, in its old buildings, all working on open innovation. Mrs. Neelie Smit-Kroes, the newly appointed Dutch ambassador for the ‘Startup Delta’ program, was one of its first renters. The setting, green en blue, with the new Pension Homeland as a hotel that forms the center of an wide open space on the waterfront, with barracks all around, the terrain itself is almost car free. The atmosphere is tranquil, the city buzz though is nearby. Close to the Marineterrein is NEMO, the national science museum, and at the other side Pakhuis de Zwijger – a former warehouse which opened its doors in 2006 and has grown into an independent platform for citizens debating the future. Add to that the city public library OBA on Oosterdokseiland, and ARCAM, the local architecture museum, all at a five-minutes walking distance. In 2017 the Amsterdam Economic Board moved to the Marineterrein. The coming of AMS, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, and of NEMO’s new development unit will be the latest additions to this rich palette of local collaborative organizations. One can hardly underestimate the potential of this unique combination of companies and institutions in an informal green setting near the inner city and its waterfront. The rents are low, new players can easily step in and become community members. All members know their presence is only temporary, which helps in stimulating an air of informality, openness and light-mindedness. Marineterrein is the opposite of a pochy branding campaign, an expensive multifunctional building or an ambitious and qualified land-development. It is open, undefined, unpretentious, relaxed. The precious mix of people, knowledge and activities is growing bottom-up, spontaneously, flexible, by sheer improvisation and profiting from chance, in a very lose way.

It is tempting to compare Marineterrein with the beautiful Strijp S or with fast-lane High Tech Campus in Eindhoven – the ‘brightest square meter in the Netherlands’-, or with any campus or science park in the Low Countries. But Marineterrein is not a campus or a science park. And its formula cannot be copied.

A more appropriate object of comparison would be the brand new BLOX initiative in Copenhagen, Denmark. BLOX, with BLOXHUB, is branded by the Danes as state of the art in urban innovation. It is “an innovation hub for future cities founded on the believe that the challenges of global urbanization and climate change require new ways of collaboration.” The expensive new building on the waterfront of the Danish capital covers a total of 10.000 square meters and is designed by Rotterdam based OMA, Office for Metropolitan Architecture. In planning terms you might think it is similar to Marineterrein: a location in the city centre on the waterfront, a community comprising of businesses and research institutions, innovation through cross-disciplinary projects. “BLOXHUB is based on issue-driven, problem solving themes to which members can contribute by co-creating innovative solutions and products.” But it is not. BLOXHUB costed an awful lot of money, paid by Realdania, a private Danish philanthropic organization, and it took twelve years to build. Marineterrein started from scratch, just a few months after the Dutch navy left its barracks, and grows organically. Is architecture helpful when it comes to urban innovation? Innovation in BLOXHUB is fostered by visual and physical connections between the various functions in the vast, fretted building. The blocky structure tries to facilitate near constant reminders of others working nearby through interior voids and windows. Critics have said there is reason for doubt whether this will work. The location of BLOX is uninviting, the highway underneath is problematic, de interior spaces could generate noise and hassle which will repulse visitors. Marineterrein is far different. The terrain is hidden by a long wall. No building is outstanding, most of the edifices are rather obscure. The open space is unpretentious but inviting, it brings people together in an open, inviting and unpretentious way. In that sense the old trees in the middle are far more important than the buildings. Even citizens from the adjacent neighborhoods love to visit the green and shady island, which in spring and summer offers them clean swimming water and a nice park-like atmosphere. The fact that one of the buildings is 350 years old and that, in order to enter the place, one has walk underneath an historic archway where hundreds of laborers, carpenters, mast-makers, and painters walked daily to or from their work, makes it feel special. One realizes that ships were built here for the Dutch East India Company’s fleet. While BLOXHUB is newly made, Marineterrein was found.

Here is my point: the main decisive factor as regards the future of productive cities is redundancy. It is not architecture or campus-like structures, nor is it a successful city branding strategy. An urban economy is not export-led, it can only grow from within. It needs diversity, complexity, immensity, redundancy. It is all about import replacement. Productivity depends on many impracticalities, on the arduous search for many little improvements in new and unexpected settings of urban governance where a diversity of local institutions, people and companies meet and discuss the future of the city-region. In the twenty-first century productivity needs cities that are trying to optimize multiple objectives in informal regional forums that are inspiring, uncertain, inviting, and open. A certain kind of de-planning is inevitable, because cities need more openness, spontaneity and flexibility which traditional urban planning practices cannot and will not deliver. Highligting what is lacking is not helpful. Most of the ingredients should be already there. They only need to be found and brought together in a very loose and spontaneous way. The example of Amsterdam’s Marineterrein illustrates the new planning approach. Instead of building a brand new campus, the strategy starts with what is already there, offers cheap working space, adds new players, cherishes openness, celebrates redundancy, builds a community that is experimental and open. Playfulness is key when it comes to the future of productive cities. Its planning is like jazz. And yes, city size matters.