A short walk from Amsterdam Centraal station, where the new direct Eurostar service from London comes gliding in, is coworking space Spring House. From the back, you can see the tracks and hear the rumbling of the trains, while from the front there are views of the River IJ, Amsterdam’s waterfront.
The area was once less than salubrious, associated with drugs and prostitution. But Spring House – a former distillery and tin can factory – was given a new lease on life when it was saved from dereliction by a group focused on creating social change within the city. Open since 2015, Spring House now has more than 200 members, plus a buzzing ground-floor restaurant called Choux that is proving popular with its neighbors.
Spring House was founded by Vandejong Creative Agency, independent curator Joanna van der Zanden and Kennisland, an incubator for societal innovation. With its vibrant red frontage and interior adorned with mid-century leather sofas, art books and pot plants, the aim was to provide a setting for “sharing ideas and putting them into action.” At the very least, it’s a pleasant, light-filled place to settle down with a laptop.
Over a cup of herbal tea, Thijs van Exel, social innovation advisor for Kennisland, explains, “We got some funding from a very benign government that saw the need for rejuvenation of this area. There is a lot of room for entrepreneurs to do new and innovative things. You can get things done really quickly. And [travel booking website] Booking.com is opening a new office at the end of the street. It has plenty of money, so it must have chosen this site for a reason – there is something interesting going on.”
By 2025 the Amsterdam metropolitan area intends to become one of the top-three most innovative regions in Europe. To achieve its goal of becoming smart, healthy and green, it has set itself five ambitious urban challenges: it wants to develop a “circular economy” whereby resources are recycled, reused and repurposed; public transport will become emission-free; it will be a leader in digital connectivity; it will future-proof its jobs market by empowering citizens to develop the skills they need to stay relevant; and inhabitants will be able to expect an additional two, bright-eyed years of life.
The Amsterdam Economic Board (amsterdameconomicboard.com) which brought this vision to life was set up in 2010 to bring together businesses, government and knowledge institutes. I spoke with Nina Tellegen, director of the board, about the “bottom-up” approach the city has to problem-solving.
“We want to be ahead of things,” she says. “That might have to do with our history; we were always threatened by the water and it meant we had a tendency to collaborate. We are a very non-hierarchical society. It’s in our culture to do things together. All the major issues confronting us – climate change, overpopulation – we need innovation to deal with them.”
There are dozens of initiatives that are already underway. Schiphol airport aims to become zero-waste by 2030 by using technical fixes such as airside fleets of electric buses, carpets made from recycled KLM uniforms, separating out the plastics used in aircraft catering, and buying electricity from local wind farms.
Meanwhile, the Amsterdam branch of French advertising company JCDecaux decided to take back lease cars from employees and generously gave them instead free electric bikes, public transport passes and a pay raise. Elsewhere, the city’s rooftops are being turned into gardens, and coding is being taught in schools.
Cornelia Dinca is the delegations lead for Amsterdam Smart City (amsterdamsmartcity.com), an EU-funded pilot that has now been incorporated into the Amsterdam Economic Board. She says: “We talk about social and technological innovations but we don’t believe that once you have sensors everywhere you become a ‘smart’ city. We are interested in how the city remains attractive and competitive. A smart city is about engaging community members and organizations in an open, transparent platform.”
One of the projects Dinca highlights is a “living lab and clean tech playground” called De Ceuvel (deceuvel.nl/en) in Amsterdam Noord, on the other side of the River IJ. The De Ceuvel community occupies a former shipyard and now has its own sustainable café, boardwalk, office spaces for rent and floating bed and breakfast accommodation, Hotel Asile Flottant (asileflottant.com).
“They have houseboats on land for creative companies and artists, and each one generates electricity from solar panels and composts kitchen waste,” Dinca says. “They even have their own digital currency.” What she refers to is the Jouliette, a blockchain-based currency that is being used by residents to buy and trade renewable electricity within a localized “smart grid.”
Whether or not you make it over to De Ceuvel, travelers coming to the city will still get a sense of innovation taking place. I was driven around in one of taxi company Bios-groep’s Tesla Model Xs, a state-of-the-art electric SUV with Batmobile-like doors.
For those with flexible travel policies, there are hotels such as the Movement (themovementhotel.com), which is run by refugees inside a former prison; the Volkshotel (volkshotel.nl/en), known for its expansive communal workspace; and the Crane Hotel Faralda (faralda.com), which has three suites at the top of an industrial crane. IHG also opened the QO (qo-amsterdam.com) in the spring, which has a rooftop greenhouse and small fish farm that supplies its restaurants.
To get a sense of how innovation is changing the way we travel, I stopped by the Zoku (livezoku.com), up the road from Marriott’s new Apollo hotel. Now two years old, the Zoku can be called a “hybrid hotel-office” with modular apartments and co-working space on the top floor with panoramic views. Beautiful, fresh food (mainly vegetarian) is served buffet-style throughout the day, there are meeting rooms with whiteboard walls for guests to write directly on to, and a couple of ping pong tables. The concept is already catching on among corporations, with companies such as Nike, Netflix, Uber and Tesla reportedly putting their employees up in the apartment-hotel.
“With Airbnb and coworking coming up, we wanted to create a hybrid of those two models,” says Zoku co-founder Hans Meyer (who was also one of the founding partners of Dutch hotel chain Citizen M). “If people live and work in a city that they don’t know very well and don’t know other people, after a few days they start to feel disconnected. The majority of hotel lobbies are empty in the day, but not here, as people are working.”