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Tension is rising in Rotterdam now that it has been announced that the city has a chance of being elected European capital of innovation next month. “We want to show the whole world what innovative power Rotterdam has to offer,” says Dave Geensen, Innovation Project Manager at the Municipality of Rotterdam. “We cannot get enough new companies and investors on board to bolster our ecosystem.”

Dave Geensen

Last week it was announced that 12 of the 28 participating cities have been nominated, including three other historic European port cities, namely Antwerp, Bilbao and Hamburg. Fierce rivals of Rotterdam?

“I don’t know if that’s the case. Because I don’t know what they wrote in their bid. They haven’t made that public.”

Have you looked at the reasons why Amsterdam (2016), Paris (2017) and Athens (2018) won?

“Yes, we did take a good look at that.”

How has Rotterdam presented itself in comparison with these cities?

“They said back then in Athens: innovation arises when there is a problem. Then you have to work in an innovative way to solve that problem. Their profile was that they had a limited amount of money. And that they had to deal with that in an creative way. They had to reinvent themselves by making use of the participation of residents and entrepreneurs. That was their proposal. Paris has according to their story, allocated a large percentage of its municipal budget to initiatives from its community, i.e. its residents. From Rotterdam’s point of view, this is nothing new. We have been looking for this kind of active involvement as a basis for a long-term strategy for the city for quite some time already. One of the examples is CityLab010. The city is also freeing up money [3.3 million euros a year, ed.] for the implementation of innovative initiatives stemming from its citizens.”

Like the Stadsinitiatief (City Initiative) in the past?

“That was the forerunner of CityLab010. The Stadsinitiatief was a program run by the municipality of Rotterdam from 2010 to 2014, with an annual budget of 4 million euros for the implementation of one citizen initiative chosen by Rotterdammers. [e.g. Like the construction of the Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge, ed.]. But that program no longer plays a role in this competition. It was carried out far too long ago. The committee has asked us to report on activities since 2018. Preferably completed, so that there is a clear beginning and end so that you are able to measure their impact. You have to be able to justify them. If you’re talking about the arrival of an innovation hub such as the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), for example, you have to specify how many new companies came to Rotterdam because of this and what the impact of that was. You have to put a figure on it: how many jobs and investors were created by an innovative initiative, how many meters of green space were added to the city, how many solar panels, how many square meters of rainwater collection were added as a result of the arrival of water plazas and green roofs. That sort of thing.”

What will Rotterdam be doing to become the European capital of 2019?

“The recurring theme of the Rotterdamse bid is ‘resilience.’  We have a solid track record in this respect thoughout the world. Rotterdam is one of the founders of a global network of one hundred resilient cities. Rotterdam is a city that has traditionally faced quite a few challenges. Whether it’s the bombardment, or metropolitan problems such as poverty, or the increase in rainwater that we are now dealing with. Rotterdam is situated in a low-lying estuary, so we have to think about this and anticipate climate change. We cannot afford to wait and see. Because then things will go wrong. As far as the social problems are concerned, they are sometimes so immense that they transcend the urban level and a national program is needed to address them. This is for example the case in the south. It is not the case that we just have a street or a district there where residents have little to spare. The problems and challenges of the city require considerable effort, which sometimes goes hand in hand with new legislation and programs which are not found in other cities. Inventing these solutions ourselves is more or less in the DNA of the city. There is room for ideas and for implementation. The Rotterdam ‘do-power’. That’s how we wrote down our story.”

In which areas is Rotterdam highly innovative?

“Our approach to social problems stands out. In our bid, we cited, as an example of this, an innovative initiative in BoTu, as the Bospolder Tussendijken neighborhood is known. Resilience is not always about climate. It’s also about how to make people socially resilient. Our chief resilience officer Arnoud Molenaar sat down in that neighborhood and had discussions with residents who are out of touch with the labor market. He started working in a completely different way than the municipalities usually do, in order to help these people find work and to make them more resilient. And our ‘innovation ecosystem’ is very well developed: BlueCity, Venture Café, CIC, Merwe4havens (Rotterdam Makers District). These are meeting places and innovation hubs which are surrounded by educational institutions.”

Is it mainly about technological start-ups then?

“Circular as well. BlueCity is, of course, a circular hub. The entire ecosystem, from small start-ups, scale-ups, investors, meeting places and educational institutions which validate companies and their research, along with corporations in the city such as KPN and the city council and the Port Authority too. There are many major companies here that are looking for small-scale start-ups. Because sometimes it is nice for a large, cumbersome corporation to buy a small outboard engine. In order to be able to take new steps. That’s a great development in Rotterdam. There is a lot of interest in the world for this. If you just don’t look at the media attention, but also at the new entrants coming into the Groot Handelsgebouw (the main building in Rotterdam’s commercial center, ed.) where the CIC is located, this is unprecedented. The CIC started on a confined section of a floor. But they are expanding tremendously and are even on multiple floors nowadays because all kinds of start-ups are located there. Which means that there is good growth underway. You cannot do that with just one small company. You need an entire network for that. They meet each other in the CIC and subsequently start working together. You will also see this at BlueCity and also at the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship at Lee Towers on Marconiplein. This development was in its infancy five years ago. But it is now growing steadily. I like that. There are also lines of communication with educational institutions outside the Rotterdam region, such as the TU Delft. Our innovation ecosystem is flourishing.”

Is that ecosystem being facilitated by the city council?

“Yes, there is a municipal program with partners such as the regional development company Innovation Quarter. And we are also investing in those hubs that I have just mentioned: in order to be able to work well in them with each other. In many cases, it is not directly funded by the municipality. The municipality primarily strives to bring parties together. Venture Café in the CIC organizes an event every week. There is a subsidy for that. Although it only serves to kick-start events. Ultimately, the organization must operate independently. There is more than just Venture Café. There’ s 42workspace on the Witte de Withstraat. They also have weekly events. We have the Startup Foundation at Wijnhaven, where there events are also held. There are all kinds of places in Rotterdam where creators and inventors of innovative companies get to meet each other. The municipality has an active role in this in some cases and a less active role in others. There are also network meetings at BlueCity. Different sectors meet each other in these places: the circular entrepreneurs can be found at BlueCity, Life Science and Health at Lee Towers.”

If Rotterdam wins, what does that mean for Rotterdam? And for the Netherlands?

“The fact that we’re in the final is already a wonderful thing. There are 28 cities that have enrolled. Therefore we did a good job. Amsterdam won in 2016. Now we are in the finals. That means that the Netherlands is now back on track. That’s nice. Last year the Netherlands was not one of the participants. No city had signed up. Rotterdam will get 1 million euro if we win it. We want that to benefit CityLab010, the renowned program wherein innovative projects stemming from the neighborhoods are carried out.”

Does the city choose to invest primarily in social innovation like that?

“CityLab010 frequently makes a social impact. Because of the ideas that come out of the neighborhoods. So yes. Strictly economically-driven start-ups who need money to grow, usually find their way to investors regardless. But if we win that award, it will also be good for the city’s PR. We all want to show what we have to offer. We can’t have enough new starters and investors in Rotterdam.