First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Hans Kops

As far as HRH Prince Carlos Xavier Bernardo of Bourbon-Parma is concerned, the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area has made great progress in closing loops. As an example, the Prince gestures towards our surroundings with a wide sweep of his arm. This is Park 20/20, Europe’s first business park designed entirely according to the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ principles developed by German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough. The buildings are powered by clean and renewable energy sources; only recyclable materials were used in the construction; biological nutrients are returned to nature; harvested rainwater supplies the buildings; and waste is the beginning of a new loop. Even the asphalt on the approach road to this part of the Haarlemmermeer, located just minutes from Schiphol Airport, is made from recycled materials.

‘But the innovation goes further,’ says the prince. ‘The project developer will continue to own the buildings and infrastructure, so it is in his interest to safeguard the continuity of the project by choosing quality over price. The tenants also have a vested interest in maintaining and nurturing the ecological chain they work in, as this will allow maximum involvement and enable them to embrace innovation faster. People living in Amsterdam have a higher awareness of the value of their environment, and they adapt their behaviour accordingly. They eat more healthily on average and sick leave is low. The companies at Park 20/20 – such as Bluewater Energy Services, FIFPro (the worldwide representative organisation for all professional footballers), and the audio solutions company Plantronics – have also noticed that their environment makes it easier to attract talented people. Younger generations in particular find sustainability important. For them, being part of this is a statement.

‘This is not an isolated project. It is a shop window for the circular ambitions of the entire region and beyond,’ continues Prince Carlos. ‘I see similar projects developing all over the Netherlands. Despite having some catching up to do when it comes to energy transition, we are global leaders in closed-loop recycling projects. And we are rapidly adopting circular thinking and practices. ‘Everyone I speak to knows that we’re in the middle of an evolution process towards a circular economy. There’s a very interesting business case for practical solutions that will take us away from the old model of extracting materials from the ground, using them and then throwing them away. The strength of the Netherlands as a circular hotspot is in our holistic chain approach and ability to make workable agreements with all of the links.’

An unbalanced model

For the many Dutch royalty watchers, it’s no surprise that Prince Carlos (as he is called by his business friends) has emerged as a frequently heard advocate of circular business. His mother, Princess Irene of the Netherlands (an aunt of King Willem-Alexander), is known for her keen interest in the natural environment. But the cosmopolitan Carlos stresses that his motivation is different and rooted in a deep conviction that there is something fundamentally wrong with the model we live in. ‘The developed world consumes a disproportionately large share of the natural resources available to us, and as a result there isn’t enough left for the rest of the world and for future generations. We have to use our lead in development to distribute wealth, welfare and security in a more balanced way. Circular thinking is not just about the preservation of our energy flows and living environment; it also means ironing out injustices and ensuring continuity for us all.’

He puts his mobile phone on the table in front of us. ‘This device contains parts that have been made from rare earth elements mined in inhumane conditions in Africa. But when a new model is released in two years’ time, this one will go to the scrapyard. Basically, human lives are involved and I’m not acting responsibly. This really gets to me. I want products that don’t make me feel guilty, that I can be sure weren’t made using child labour, that haven’t given rise to geopolitical conflicts and whose parts it is possible to reuse over and over again.

‘This isn’t merely an idealistic belief; it is also healthy economic thinking. Everyone wants to buy products that make them feel good. And it’s just a matter of time before our fossil fuels are depleted or no longer accessible to everyone around the world. So we have to reduce our dependence on them, starting with a sustainable energy mix. It has always amazed me how irresponsibly and inefficiently we treat everything the earth has spent millions of years creating. You wouldn’t wash your windows with a 50-year-old whisky…’

The tipping point

That is why Prince Carlos and the staff of the Institute for Sustainable Innovation & Development (the network organisation he has set up) are championing a rapid transition to a circular economy. His major achievement was to pave the way for the SER Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth – a ‘polder agreement’ between government authorities, companies, energy distributors and energy producers to realise two national environmental targets (reducing CO2 emissions to under the European standard and increasing the proportion of renewable sources in the energy mix) sooner. ‘We spoke with at least 300 parties to start with and asked what they expected from a potential agreement,’ explains Prince Carlos. ‘This helped us understand their agendas, and them to understand each other’s situations. My background and connections afforded me this easy access and enabled me to act as a neutral party. I don’t have any political affiliations and can listen reasonably well. According to all of those involved, this approach worked well and helped them come to an agreement.

‘Then I noticed we had passed the tipping point: we no longer needed to convince anyone about the importance of circular business in the context of CSR. All the directors of companies, government bodies, financial organisations and pension funds involved know it shouldn’t just be a box-ticking exercise. It goes to the very core of their strategy. ‘And we didn’t just speak with the people responsible for the CSR (corporate social responsibility), we also spoke with CFOs and CEOs. They want us to help them find the most suitable business cases for their organisations, and they are earmarking additional budgets for this and putting their best people on the circular agenda. Basically, there are ambitious plans for growth in this area all across the Netherlands.’

A living lab

His next ‘point on the horizon’ is to help make the Netherlands a circular hotspot – and the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area will play a key role in this. ‘Knowledge of and experience in closed loop recycling in all possible sectors has the potential to be the country’s biggest export for perhaps the next 100 years. We’re building the knowledge, experience and skills in practical settings. We know a lot about water management (one of the future’s scarcest commodities), we are world champions in agri-food, and we hold a strong position on clean and bio technology. We lead the way in climate control, we know how to organise logistics transport sustainably in an urban environment and, at Schiphol Airport, we are experimenting with organic additives in fuel. Dutch Design is famous across the world, and we have the knowledge on how to increase harvests and earnings by dividing seed. What’s more, we live and work in a densely populated country. The lines between government authorities, the business world, NGOs, science and civil society are short. In that sense, the Netherlands is actually similar to Singapore, but with a larger back garden.’

Prince Carlos envisages Amsterdam taking on the role of living lab. Thanks partly to the Amsterdam Circular City programme, interesting pilot projects such as Park 20/20 and Buiksloterham are developing all over the city, underlining and enhancing the Metropolitan Area’s attractiveness as a place of business.

Located on the north bank of the IJ river, Buiksloterham is an old industrial area that is currently being revitalised, which has designated as a Circular Living Lab. Among other things, the area will boast a smart grid – a two-way electricity network that enables residents and businesses to sell any surplus energy they generate back to the central grid. A local biorefinery is also being set up as a district heating facility, and all of the structures are being designed and constructed according to the ‘Cradle to Cradle’ principles. There is also a desire to eventually eliminate all waste flows, and experiments will be conducted with the wide-scale provision of car and bike share schemes.

The project’s initiators – which include Amsterdam’s municipality, project developers, financiers, scientists and tenants’ associations – expect that Buiksloterham will become a model example of, and knowledge launching pad for, other cities with circular ambitions. ‘Every large city has circular ambitions now, but Amsterdam has something extra,’ says Prince Carlos. ‘The chain here is well organised and the different links come together all over the place. This is something you have to stimulate. The government has to ensure that scientists with ideas come into contact with financial people, and that designers meet with production people. Innovation will then ensue, closing the loop a little further. But, like I said, Amsterdam is already doing well on all these fronts.’