No innovation without connection

Innovation has many faces. The term is used left and right for just about everything. In Rotterdam Central District (RCD), the word is not used carelessly. Connection and a new way of working are both forms of innovation that this district is all about. Connection is one of the fundamentals that will make RCD into a vibrant innovation district.
Can a singing lesson be called innovation? To answer this question, we welcome Babette Labeij from Amsterdam in the Groot Handelsgebouw in the very heart of RCD. Who? She is no stranger to the viewers and listeners of well-known television competitions The Voice of Holland, The Voice Kids and Idols. As singing coach, she teaches the participants and ‘makes’ some into winners. In the world of music and shows, she is a star; having lived and worked in LA, with two singing schools to her name, of which the last just opened in the Groot Handelsgebouw. But what does she know about innovation; because that’s all about high-tech, nerdy, gig economy, hardware/software, AI… isn’t it? It is Anoesjka Imambaks who sent me to see her. During the week, Imambaks is Executive Director of Venture Café Rotterdam and attempts to pin down the innovation concept with a different approach. It’s also about connecting entrepreneurs to one another, to financial backers, to this district, to ‘surprises’.
Labeij arrives to her ground-floor Rotterdam studio in a whirlwind. The entrance to The Suicide Club – from three successful hospitality entrepreneurs of the Mess Group: Nikki van Dijk, Roeland Flierman and Tijmen Meijer (read about it in Strict 1) – is just across the courtyard. She doesn’t find the question about innovation strange in the least. “To me, being innovative is daring to take risks that will take you forward. Here, I am daring to step out into a city I don’t know, in a district that doesn’t know me; that takes courage, that is innovation.”
What Anoesjka Imambaks represents, Labeij puts into practice: looking for connections. Co-tenants are contacted, and Labeij will definitely be getting in touch with Aruna Vermeulen, General Director and founder of the now-famous HipHopHuis. It’s literally just a hop, skip and a jump away from her singing studio. “The power behind Rotterdam, and especially this area, is that when there’s something going on, I get approached right away to participate. That would never happen in Amsterdam. Here, it feels like I’m in LA again.” Labeij has spoken before in honor of International Women’s Day in the Groot Handelsgebouw for the Venture Café. “De Doelen and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra invited me to be ambassador to the Children’s Music Week. That is the beauty of this district: connection.”
Tattoo sleeves and tailored suits
Although sometimes just as thrown around as the word innovation, connection is one of the powerful forces of Rotterdam Central District. Just read the ‘Ambitiedocument Schiekadeblok’ (Schiekadeblok Ambition Statement, November 2018) and Rotterdam Central District_Next Step (September 2016) and this phenomenon is the red line running through it. ‘Access to networks and knowing people to new ideas and talents are more important than m2. Parties big and small want to profit from each other’s existence and there is more and more synergy between the ‘local buzz & global pipelines’, as described in _Next Step.
You can be the smartest in the class, but it will get you nowhere if you’re not ‘connected’ to your surroundings, neighborhood, district and city. An active RCD Association regularly organizes surprising ‘collisions’ in the district, so that (tailored) suits engage with artsy types, from the tattoo sleeves to the man-bun hipsters.
The three-day cultural festival Motel Mozaïque (MoMo) – always around Easter – takes place largely in Rotterdam Central District, because why wouldn’t it? _Next Step: ‘The connection between all different kinds of people in RCD is crucial for the development of the area, where people and companies are the foundation of this district. Here, the corporate and the startup world melt together. But it’s not just about the business world, also residents and cultural and educational institutions play an important role.’ Harry Hamelink, MoMo director, understands perfectly well that public places on the streets and in buildings like Theater Rotterdam, where programmer Katinka Enkhuizen works, in RCD are ideal for cultural programming to facilitate personal encounters. Enkhuizen: “Motel Mozaïque is great. It’s nice to have such an event under our roof. It brings other, open-minded and curious people to Theater Rotterdam and, therefore, also to RCD. I do notice, during such an event but also on regular days, that the city is becoming much more international. People regularly come in and ask about our program in English.”
Anoesjka Imambaks also practices what she preaches with Thursday Gatherings, creating such collisions every Thursday afternoon and evening. This innovative community in the Groot Handelsgebouw is made up of startups, scale-ups, entrepreneurs, students, corporate people, investors like father and son Pieter and Pieter Christiaan Vermeer and Fleur Groenendijk and government organizations. “Innovation is being open to new directions and insights. On this particular Thursday afternoon and evening, our guests can meet each other during a program of interesting speakers. Innovation, from my perspective, becomes obstructed when you don’t have a strong network, your contacts are essential. My mission is connecting people. Companies are always in search of innovative talent. We attract many (international) students looking for an internship, and people looking for a new challenge in the world of innovative companies and startups. Isolation is the enemy of innovation.” This is also the reason why she works closely together with another power woman from the district; Melissa Ablett. She is General Manager of Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) Rotterdam, that is situated in the Groot Handelsgebouw together with the Venture Café. “One of our common goals is to get all leaders out of their ‘silos’ to join us more often.”
Imambaks takes the conversation in a different direction, pointing to First Rotterdam where NautaDutilh, Robeco and more recently Rabobank are located, and then to the other side of Kruisplein where you see the offices of KPMG and Coolblue. “Do you know what else is innovation?” she asks me. The look in my eyes speaks volumes: not a clue. “That people from KPMG cross the square to work for an afternoon at Robeco, and vice versa. It not only expands their network, but also might generate new collaborations. That, too, is innovation. Try taking other routes across the square once in a while. Cafés and restaurants aren’t the only connectors around; another one is Yoga Ground. Go check that out sometime.”

Katz by bike
American Bruce Katz was amazed as he explored Rotterdam Central District by bike and on foot. He took those other routes through the area. His eyes wide as he passed Biergarten, the Schiekadeblok as a creative, innovative biotope, and the bright yellow Luchtsingel, that is quite literally the connection to the adjacent Pompenburg and Zomerhofkwartier (ZoHo). ZoHo is booming just like RCD, with exciting, engaging bars and restaurants (Restaurant De Jong, Eurotrash United and Bird), Chinnoe & Vlemmix gallery and Denoism clothing shop for the city’s best denim blue jeans. City sociologist, advisor to Barack Obama, and for many years board member of the renowned Brookings Institution [American research institute, founded in 1916, conducting research and providing education in fields related to urban policy and management] was invited to speak October last year at the RCD Association about the value of and need for a strong innovation district. Just like Anoesjka Imambaks and Melissa Ablett, he emphasizes the importance of connection in becoming an innovation district.
During his time with Brookings Institution, Katz wrote ‘The Rise of Innovation Districts’. Here, he describes how Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Copenhagen have developed into cities with powerful innovation districts. “What all three cities had in common is that they faced tough times in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They rolled up their sleeves and each took its own approach to getting back on track. Now, as prosperous cities, they set an example of how to give shape to such a transition.”
Katz added that RCD is a golden opportunity for the city. The land is largely owned by the municipality, and it should stay that way if you want to turn this area into an innovation district, was his advice. Moreover, the grounds around the station simply popped up. “Unlike the Brainpark, this city was handed an innovation district on a silver platter. It wasn’t planned, it just happened.”
He refers to Copenhagen as a model city for Rotterdam: “Political bravado brought all government services actively organizing the city under one roof, as CPH City & Port Development, but it was run as a private company. It combined the efficiency of market discipline and the market mechanism with the advantages of public management, such as legitimacy and cheaper financing. But that wasn’t all. Income was directly reinvested in infrastructure and the improvement of key areas of the city. This resulted in a lively, versatile waterfront like the one we see in Nordhavn, and a world-class metro system. Additionally, thousands of social and private sector homes were built. With this approach, Copenhagen built itself up to what is one of the world’s most affluent cities with happy inhabitants.”
Workspace for the GIG
The new ways of working we see today are just as innovative. In the first issue of Strict, I reflected on the rise of flexible offices and co-working spaces in RCD, which you find in Kleinhandel, CIC and Spaces [Generation Latte Shakes up RCD, volume one, May 2018]. The trend is continuing, spurred on by the gig economy, in which it’s becoming the norm for workers to be called into action for specific assignments. What is the best way to accommodate these ‘workers’ in RCD?
In order to pursue an international innovation district as Katz envisions, it is essential to create a wide offering of spaces (office concepts) suitable for fast-growing innovative companies. Gig work is becoming an indispensable component of business models today. RCD also needs to meet certain (real estate) requirements. I was reading an interesting piece by Harold Coenders from international real estate advisor Colliers International with his vision on these different ways of working. To visualize these working styles within a company, he proposes three layers of space: public, core and gig space. In the first layer, everyone has access; the second layer is for fixed employees; and in the final layer, the gig worker has a certain access to systems and facilities. Coenders: ‘This increases the speed and resilience of an organization and allows partnerships to be more quickly formed. The main advantage of gig workers is that they work ‘in house’, so they develop a stronger relationship with the company and are encouraged to work together with other employees.’
You see this trend also emerging in Hofplein 19, finished earlier this year. LaatBloeien has rented office space in this fully refurbished building, in collaboration with MKB Brandstof and Groeifactor. LaatBloeien offers space for the development of a sustainable ‘inspiration hub’ for entrepreneurs. The company tells us that the recent expansion of Spaces Hofplein to approx. 11,500 m² is part of the current market trend we see occurring throughout RCD. In three years’ time, the building is nearly fully occupied with about 100 tenants, including Uber, Shell Tap Up, Van Oord, Livework Netherlands and Ingress Health.
In the ‘Ambitiedocument Schiekadeblok’, the municipality considers the importance of innovative and flexible concepts for working. ‘This is possible with new parties, but also with alliances of the parties already located in RCD. This could include partnerships with, for example, the CIC, but also corporates such as Unilever, Shell and Coolblue. Over the last years, there has been a great deal of interest from these kinds of parties in both new construction and existing buildings.’
Miguel McKelvey, co-founder and Chief Culture Officer of the office concept The We Company – known in the market as WeWork, describes an interesting vision on connection in the article ‘The Rise of the WeWorking Class’ in The New York Times Magazine. This ‘office space’ provider – with its roots in America – is not (yet) active in Rotterdam. McKelvey explained to his team: “You’re not building work space. You’re here building a new infrastructure to rebuild social fabric and rebuild the potential for human connection.”
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