BlueCity is an exemplary city for the circular economy. A place where, pre-COVID19, tens of thousands of people came to visit, to watch how the new economy was being shaped. But what exactly makes BlueCity tick? Why is it that so many entrepreneurs, big and small, corporate and start-ups, keep connecting, keep working together, keep sharing their insights and knowledge, keep inspiring each other? Well, synergy, that’s why.
Synergy is what makes the circular economy go round – but what is synergy exactly? We talk to Nienke Binnendijk (Director BlueCity Lab), Lori Goff (Chief Vision Officer and founder Outlander Materials) and Nadeche Seugling (Circular Product Developer and Intrapreneur Kenniscentrum Papier en Karton) to find out. When asked about synergy, the three women take their time to carefully craft an answer – synergistically, which proves their point beautifully.
“Synergy is something that has to do with multiple moving parts, but everyone is moving forward in the right direction,” Goff starts off: “Not necessarily in the same direction, mind you, and not always very smoothly. My movement might collide with Nienke’s movement, but we’re in our own respective paths, heading forward.”
“It’s not so much about having a communal goal, though,” adds Binnendijk. “It’s more about a communal drive. We all feel like we have to solve the big issues of our time, and we have to do that, right here, right now, at BlueCity. We’re in this together.”
That feeling of facing big change together really helps: “It’s like bumper car at the fair, when things flow synergistically. You get bumped into the right track whenever you’re spiralling, or a little stuck,” says Goff. Seugling concludes: “Synergy is when the sum is greater than all separate parts.”
Omnipresent synergy at BlueCity
So synergy is the interaction of organizations to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. Why is it that synergy is such an omnipresent thing at BlueCity? Goff shares she had gotten that exact same question during an interview the day before – and she hadn’t been able to answer it. She tries again: “The company that I worked at just before I came here was a perfect example of the old ways of running a company: there was no synergy, no shared vision.” She explains that although they were all working really hard, they were contradicting each other all the time, everywhere. “There was a lot of uncomfortable friction. The moment I was here, I felt like I could breathe; I could finally move.” That’s not to say that friction is the opposite of synergy, she adds. “Friction is ok – as long as you keep moving forward.”
Binnendijk adds: “It’s more about commitment, particularly for me. Almost all entrepreneurs at BlueCity have been here for quite a while. The commitment to the project BlueCity is enormous – it’s huge.” While talking, Binnendijk stumbles upon an answer: “I worked at several co-working spaces before, but they were all about laptop work. BlueCity is different because it’s also about building and producing stuff.”
Just that afternoon, while on a stroll from the Lab to the office wing, Binnendijk bumped into Wies van Lieshout and Eva Aarts, the two young founders of Waterweg, searching for the right spot to take photos of their bricks. It gave her a jolt of joy. “I mean: that’s for real. It’s not talking about an inspiring Ted Talk you just saw, it’s about creating things yourself. Building the story as you go. In BlueCity, there are so many driven designers, scientists and entrepreneurs – and they are all building towards the new economy, they are all going through trial and error. And they are all being real about it.”
That willingness to share is a big thing, Seugling emphasizes, as well as the ease to connect that seems natural to BlueCitizens: “When I first came to BlueCity, I visited Maaltijd aan de Maas (dinner organised by BlueCity Lab, focussed on food wasted, red). I had heard of BlueCity, and thought this a great way to explore.”
The night took an unexpected turn when Seugling was introduced to Arie Hooimeijer from Kenniscentrum Papier en Karton, for which company she now works as an intrapreneur. Goff: “I was there with Arie, whom I had just finished a project with. A project that only started because I was introduced to Arie by Nienke.” Binnendijk elaborates: “Yes, and I knew him because he visited the Blue Business Club (a monthly expert night at BlueCity Lab, red.) He was praising Lori’s concept, stated that it was time for more radical steps and said: ‘I’m glad I’m now connected to the network.’ Before we knew it, he rented a space in BlueCity’s office wing.”
A non-fixed mindset and an abandoned pool
The three women are musing about whether or not the state of the former swimming pool, and the constant renovating it requires, adds to the magic of BlueCity. “Oftentimes I feel like we’re insane,” Binnendijk smirks. “But maybe that’s exactly why it works.” Goff: “The need for radical change is visually tangible in BlueCity.” Things are rough around the edges, as is the state of the world. The economy needs radical change, as does the former swimming pool.
“Transition is happening as we speak,” Goff states, “and through the constant building in BlueCity we can not only tell this beautiful story that people feel connected to, we can let them taste, feel it, see it. And then everyone is hooked.” Binnendijk adds: “This is a great place to learn, because it is so outspoken in a world that is not outspoken enough about climate change, a topic so big it deserves our undivided attention.”
“So many buildings are badly designed,” Binnendijk goes on, “but they are there and we simply have to work with them. We can’t go on tearing everything down and build new ones from scratch. So if that means that we have to work with an abandoned swimming pool, then that is what it is. This realisation is so down to earth that it’s really easy to connect to.”
Asked for the reasons why they think people in BlueCity put up with the not always squeaky clean state of the place, Seugling says: “The fact that it’s not just your company that is continuously evolving, but that BlueCity is too, helps open this mindset that we’re in it together. Everyone is here to contribute to this new economy. Nothing is fixed yet. We can iterate and improve together.”
Places, profit, planetary boundaries
While talking about BlueCity, the women talk about their workspaces within the building. Binnendijk runs the BlueCity Lab, which opens late november 2020, and which is situated in the heart of the downstairs area. Seugling works at Kenniscentrum Papier en Karton, which has its office in the former Club Tropicana, at the ground floor. Goff has been using both the upstairs (the ground and first floor of BlueCity, and the first to be renovated – red) and downstairs (all former service cellars – red) area, and states that the synergy between the two is also interesting.
“I’m really context driven,” Goff says: ”I invent things with the things around me. So seeing people working on the same goal as I am accelerates me.” Binnendijk adds: “In any other coworking space, people would constantly ask about our business model. That is such an annoying conversation to have on a daily basis! I know it’s important but hey, your business model doesn’t work within the planetary boundaries. So why do you quiz me about my business model if yours sucks to start with?”
A good example of this happened during the first lockdown, in March 2020. A Japanese intern was working in the Lab, at the Tomato Textile-project. “I tried to check in with her by phone, to find out whether or not she was fine and felt supported,” Binnendijk recalls. “Her answer amazed me. She said that it was unprecedented that nobody checked on her in a patriarchal way, like: ‘What’s your progress and when are you expecting results?’ In no other working environment she had felt that level of helpfulness and freedom.”
Smiling: “That helpfulness is key. I mean, everyone is result driven rather than asset driven, and the result we all aim at is to work within planetary boundaries, to save the world. We all share that hard drive – and we understand that we need all the help we can get.”
From beer waste to unplastic
Asked for an example of results from this synergy, Goff takes us back to her first days at BlueCity: “I was brewing beer in my home kitchen, just as a hobby, and was amazed by the amount of waste produced during the process.” Goff wanted to step up her game, but didn’t quite know why, or how: “I just thought: there’s definitely cool stuff I can make out of this.”
Goff had heard about the lab in BlueCity, which was still very small, and decided to rent a place: “It was very rough around the edges,” she recalls. That roughness was a big benefit: “It matched my own state of mind. There was no pristine lab, no professionals expecting big results. I felt like I could just grow with the lab place, and that was great.”
On one of those first days in the mini-lab, Hugo de Boon (founder at Fruitleater Rotterdam, red.) stopped by for a chat. Goff explained what she was doing, and that she was brewing at home. “Hugo told me about Vet & Lazy, the micro brewery just down the hall. I didn’t know that!”
Soon after Goff went to Ruben Krommenhoek, one of the brewers, and asked: “Can I brew here with you, just to learn more about how it works for you?” Krommenhoek said yes, and so Goff started to help out with the beer brewing process. “Afterwards I would take their waste and bring it to the lab and do my thing. A win win situation.”
Now she had improved her brewing skills, and had gained more insight into the process, plus access to a waste stream, Goff had a lot of questions. “I had a vague idea, it was like: ‘I can turn waste into this thing and turn this thing into something really valuable.’ I knew deep within my soul that this was possible – It’s just at first I didn’t know exactly how that would look.”
Goff turned to Binnendijk and Emma van der Leest (co-founder of BlueCity Lab, red) with her questions. “I had no idea about business,” Goff says, “So I had many conversations and many tears with Nienke and Emma.” Binnendijk: “You had a masterplan, but not a business plan.” But Goff soldiered on and achieved her goal: ”We are now working on UnPlastic, a material that can be made from beer effluent and other food production streams, that can be developed into a new alternative to single use plastics. It’s compostable, vegan, semi-transparent and non-plastic.”
“At BlueCity everyone can be themselves. You don’t have to be cool here, it’s very easy to connect with people on a human level instead of solely on your profession,” says Suegling. “You can ask for help. You can be open about your own ambitions and find out what they are struggling with. Then you also know how to help them.”
Binnendijk adds: “Hugo (De Boon, co-founder of Fruitleather Rotterdam, red.) is one of the main synergy enablers here, he is a natural born connector.” And though that is not the case for everyone, Binnendijk is certain about one thing: “Everyone who’s at BlueCity for a longer time becomes an enabler. You learn what’s valuable to other people, and then you do what’s in your power to help make that happen.”
Some examples of this interconnectedness? KCPK helped BlueRoof (winner of Circular Challenge 2018, red) testing different methods of processing their material and is currently working with both Spireaux and Vet&Lazy on carbon and residual heat re-use and BlueBlocks, a start-up by Marjanne Cuypers, who is experimenting with fibres from seaweed. These collaborations are exemplary and emerge very naturally in BlueCity – not just for companies that have been around for a longer period of time, but also for new people.
Goff is also still teaming up with other BlueCitizens: “We’re transitioning into our own R&D space, around the corner from the brewery.” Tim van Koolwijk, founder of Spireaux, the spirulina farmer situated between Goffs new workspace and FruitLeathers space, is helping her to develop equipment. “And Arie (Kenniscentrum Papier en Karton, red.) wants to explore how we can incorporate UnPlastic in the world of paper and sustainable packaging .
The future of fibres
“The future is biobased, renewable AND circular. An economy in which there’s more nature that provides us with high and low quality fibers and all other renewable chemical wonders,” Binnendijk says. “Synergy is key. The new economy is an open economy.”
Coming full circle Goff concludes: “Synergy comes about by people inviting people, to have dinner, to connect, to make their workspace available, to work together, to behave like a healthy ecosystem, where we are all part of the bigger picture. We are all part of the problem – but also of the solution.”
Meer lezen over BlueCity, vroeger, nu en in de toekomst?
Lees hier hoe we sinds 2015 bezig zijn met circulair pionieren. Lees hier waar we nu mee bezig zijn (zo openden we onder andere het eerste circulair verbouwde bio-lab ter wereld!) en lees hier een uitgebreid interview met de directeur van BlueCity Lab, Nienke Binnendijk. De komende maanden delen we meer over onze toekomstplannen – stay tuned!