Startups: Between the Curse of Becoming a Taker and the Prospect of Being a Maker

Next months, these posts focus on the challenges of Earthlings of to bring humane cities closer. These posts represent the main findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.

For centuries, entrepreneurship was linked to art and craft and rewarded by personal fulfilment, satisfied customers, and a good life. The term entrepreneur is still associated with giving direction, shape and content to new activities based on personal motivation and skills and thereby creating socially approved value. A description that applies to the self-employed, business entrepreneurs, franchisees or intrapreneurs and includes both commercial, institutional, and artistic activities. However, there are two problems. Overcoming them opens the way to become a better business.

The plunder of the earth

Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has warned that the creative power of entrepreneurship can easily become destructive. A ‘maker’ becomes a ‘taker’ once creating value becomes making money in the first place. Indeed, for centuries, companies have robbed resources around the world, destroyed nature, traded millions of slaves and exploited domestic workers, creating the divide between rich and poor countries.

The creative power of entrepreneurship can also be aimed at sustainable prosperity, for their employees, the country, and the world. In that case, the “purpose” of a company precedes the pursuit of profit. Unfortunately, still a minority of all companies are moving in this direction while others pretending.

The decline of engagement and passion within the workforce

There is more. In developed countries, the blatant exploitation of labour has disappeared. Instead, the majority of employment relegates into low strain jobs. Research by Gallup and Deloite has shown over consecutive years that over 64% of all employees worldwide are not engaged or passionate. Find John Hagel explain this in a short video. The reason is clear. 20th century companies have organized their production according to principles of scalable efficiency and have top-down planning and control.  Room for initiative is therefore neither expected nor desired. Moreover, detailed protocols and regulations limit employment for people at a distance from the labour market.

In a rapidly changing world, companies must be adaptive and innovative. They therefore need flexible, interdisciplinary teams with a high degree of self-government and less pay differentials. According to recent research in 17 countries, this type of organizations (8%) outperforms in all respects.

Summarizing, to become a better business requires a double challenge: 

  • Replace the dominance of the pursuit of money with a social and environmental purpose. 
  • Mobilizing the entrepreneurial and other capacities of their whole work force by forms of self-organization and shared leadership. 

Why focussing on startups?

As only a limited number of companies meet these conditions, employees consider starting their own business. In the US alone, approximately two million workers give up well-paying jobs every year and become self-employed. 127,000 starters were registered in the Netherlands in 2018.  Of them, only a minority will become a startup, which means that they will successfully commercialize a promising technological innovation and grow rapidly on an international level.

Start-ups are potential engines of growth and innovation. In the US, their steady growth is compensating for job losses in the rest of the economy. Dutch startups created 20.000 of jobs in 2018 and 2019. A recent reportoffers excellent documentation of the identity, growth and potential of the 4,311 Dutch startups in 2019, most of which have fewer than 10 employees. 34% of Dutch startups can found in the Amsterdam metropolitan area.

The hope is that start-ups will rise to both challenges by nurturing their social and environmental purpose end fueling the commitment and passion of each employee, and thereby become a better business.

Yet, like any other businesses, startups risk becoming takers rather than makers, trading their social and environmental purpose for the pursuit of money and losing the engagement and passion of their employees. Fortunately, they can prevent this.

Eleven ways to stay a better business

  1. Embrace self-organization and shared leadership.
  2. Involve all employees in the continuous strengthening of the social and environmental purpose of the company.
  3. Enable all employees to become shareholders or even better co-owners.
  4. Cherish diversity within the employees.
  5. Secure shares in a foundation while enabling shareholders to support the purpose of the company. 
  6. Cap the profit to a level that guarantees the continuity of the company.
  7. Ban greed, cancel bonuses, or at most pay a limited and equal allowance to all employees.
  8. Place surplus profits in a foundation that spends money in accordance with the purpose of the company.
  9. Being a fair taxpayer who refrains from tax avoidance practices.
  10. Create a supervisory board to monitor the purpose of the company.
  11. Focus the founder/director/CEO role on monitoring the purpose of the company and the commitment of all employees and on fueling the discussion on how to deal with changing external conditions.

Rapid societal changes require a reinventing the concept of entrepreneurship. Because of their flexibility and commitment, startups are apt to embrace the dual ambition of pursuing a social and environmental purpose and of mobilizing all employee’s engagement and passion. 

Beyond smart cities: Digital innovation for the Good of citizens[1]

Next months, these posts focus on the challenges of Earthlings of to bring humane cities closer. These posts represent the main findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.

Citizens involved in a participative policy formulation process

About ten years ago, technology companies started to provide cities with technological tools, luring them with the predicate ‘smart(er)’, now a registered trademark of IBM.  At that time Cisco’s vice-president of strategy Inder Sidhu described the company’s ‘smart city play’ as its biggest opportunity, a 39,5 billion dollar-market. During the years, that followed, the prospects rocketed: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimated the global smart city technology market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020. 

The persistent policy of technology companies to suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of the citizens, angers me. Every euro these companies are chasing at, is citizens’ tax money. What has been accomplished until now is disappointing, as I documented in the IET Journal.  According to The Economist it is not surprising that a ‘techlash’ is underway: Many have had it with the monopolistic dominance of behemoths like Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like, because of their treatment of sensitive data, the lack of transparency and accountability of algorithm-based decision making and the huge profits they make from it. 

Regaining public control

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater and see how digital innovation can be harnessed for the Good of all citizens. Regaining public control demands four institutional actions at city level.

1. Practicing governance

Before even thinking about digitalization, a city must convert into best practices of governance. Governance goes beyond elections and enforcing the law. An essential characteristic is that all citizens can trust that government represents their will and protects their interests. Therefore, it is necessary to go beyond formal democratic procedures and contact stakeholders directly, enable forms of participatory budgeting and deploy deliberative polling. 

Aligning views of political parties and needs and wants of citizens takes time and a lot of effort. The outcome might be a common vision on the solution of a city’s problems and the realisation of its ambitions, and a consecutive political agenda including the use of tools, digital ones included. 

2. Strengthening executive governmental power

Lack of cooperation within the departmental urban organizations prevents not only an adequate diagnosis of urban problems but also the establishment of a comprehensive package of policy instruments, including legislation, infrastructure, communication, finance and technology. Instead, decisions are made from within individual silos, resulting in fragmented and ineffective policies. Required is a problem-oriented organization instead of a departmental one and a mayor that oversees the internal coherence of the policy.

3. Level playing field with technology companies

Cities must increase their knowledge in the field of digitization, artificial intelligence in particular. Besides,  but they should only work with companies that comply with ethical codes as formulated in the comprehensivemanual, Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, drafted by the influential Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)

Expertise at city level must come from a Chief Technology Officer who aligns technological knowledge with insight in urban problems and will discuss with company representatives on equal foot. Digitalisation must be part of all policy areas, therefore delegating responsibility to one alderman is a bad idea. Moreover, an alderman is not an adequate discussion partner for tech companies.

4. Approving and supporting local initiatives

Decentralization of decision-making and delegating responsibility for the execution of parts of the policy to citizen’s groups or other stakeholders helps to become a thriving city. Groups of citizens, start-ups or other local companies can invoke the right of challenge and might compete with established companies or organizations.

Steps towards seamless integration of digitalization in citizen-orientated policy

  1. Define together with citizens a vision on the development of the city, based on a few central goals such as sustainable prosperity, inclusive growth, humanity or – simply – happiness.
  2. Make an inventory of what citizens and other stakeholders feel as the most urgent issues (problems and ambitions).
  3. Find out how these issues are related and rephrase them if desirable.
  4. Deepen insight in these issues, based on available data and data to be collected by experts or citizens themselves.
  5. Assess ways to address these issues, their pros and cons and how they align with the already formulated vision.
  6. Make sure that digital technology has been explored as part of the collected solutions.
  7. Investigate which legal, organizational, personnel and financial barriers may arise in the application of potential solutions and how to address them.
  8. Investigate undesired effects of digital techniques, in particular long-term dependence (‘lock-in’) on commercial parties.
  9. Formulate clear actions within the defined directions for dealing with the issues to be addressed. Involve as many expert fellow citizens as possible in this.
  10. Make a timetable, calculate costs, and indicate when realization of the stated goals should be observable.
  11. Involve citizens, non-governmental and other organizations in the implementation of the actions and make agreements about this.
  12. At all stages of the process, seek support from those who are directly involved and the elected democratic bodies.
  13. Act with full openness to all citizens.

I can’t agree more than with the words of Léan Doody (smart city expert Arup Group): I don’t necessarily think ‘smart’ is something to strive for in itself. Unlike sustainability or resilience, ‘smart’ is not a normative concept…. The technology must be a tool to deliver a sustainable city. As a result, you can only talk about technological solutions if you understand which problems must be solved, whether these problems are rooted in the perceptions of stakeholders and how they relate to other policy instruments.


[1] This article was posted before at the Amsterdam Smart City website

Tools for circular construction

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Structural waste in the build environment. Source: The circular economy: Moving from theory to practice, McKinsey & Company 2015

The impact of circular principles in the construction sector is huge, because buildings are responsible for more than 50% of the total use of materials on earth, including valuable types such as steel, copper, aluminium and zinc.  Moreover, they produce about 40% of all greenhouse gases.

By circular construction we mean designing, building and demolishing a building in such a way that, in addition to the high-quality reuse of materials, justice is done to sustainability ambitions in the field of energy, water, and biodiversity and ecosystems.

In case of demolishment, nowadays many components are reused, but at a very low level, for instance concrete and stones as the foundation of new roads. Apart from the question how many new roads are still needed, this type of recycling destroys the intrinsic quality of materials and does not diminish the recovery of new materials. At least, separation of glass, steel, wood and other materials can be made mandatory. In addition, valuable materials can by ‘saved’ by operating in a targeted manner, even though these buildings are anything but circular. This is called ‘urban mining’. The biggest problem is that recycled materials are often more expensive than new ones.

Anyway, a first step is more efficient use of existing buildings. Evidently, progress can be made by planning, designing, developing and building circular buildings. A number of options are mentioned below[1].  

Urban planning

Challenges for planning are the use of inner-city vacant land and issuing mandatory requirements regarding the construction of new buildings, for instance the use of less cement, glass and steel, the mandatory application of a certain percentage of reused materials, and becoming energy positive or at least energy-neutral. Switching to sustainable timber is an option for 90% of homes and 70% of offices being built.

Mandatory reuse of existing components

Reuse of existing materials means than glass is reused as glass and concrete pillars as pillars. The same applies to doors, frames, carpets, wall-cladding materials and so on. 

The materials passport, which contains an overview of all materials and components that are used to construct of a house or building, is a useful tool as well. The obligation to reuse a large percentage of existing components has far-reaching consequences for the design and construction of new houses. To start with, after demolishment all materials must be selected, cleaned, registered and stored in new-to-develop warehouses.


The Circl pavilion of the ABN-AMRO bank

The Circl pavilion of the Dutch ABN-AMRO bank is an example of a new building that uses as many existing components as possible. For instance, 1200 m2 of wooded floors, partition walls of a demolished building and 16.000 garments of employees for isolation purposes. All components of the building are designed to be reused[2].


Industrial production and 3D printing

Construction of components in factories, deploying industrial processes, will reduce costs by 30 percent and the delivery time by at least 50 percent.

Decreasing size of apartments

The size of apartments will decrease, partly due to costs, but also because of the presence of shared guest rooms, lounge areas and terraces for working and socializing, spaces for washing and drying laundry.

The need for office space will decrease rapidly due to sharing space and working in an external environment. So IBM has only one desk available for 12 employees. Given the presence of 300,000 employees, this has led to savings on real estate of around € 1 billion in the past 10 years. 

Modularity and durability

A key barrier for better use of floor space is the lack of flexibility in the design of buildings and room configurations. A modular design, which provides for easy replacement of partitions and placement of complete functional units (kitchens and bathrooms) facilitates adjustments as the use of a building changes.

Forget new construction at all

As families become smaller and offices need less space, existing space becomes more underused. Well-thought adjustments to the lay-out of existing houses and buildings can improve their efficiency without reducing their amenity. That is what adaptive reuse stands for: instilling a new purpose on an existing “leftover building.”. A number of inspiring examples can be seen here[5].


[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/the-circular-economy-moving-from-theory-to-practice

[2] https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/infra/24589/abn-amro-opent-deuren-van-innovatief-en-circulair-paviljoen-circl

[3] http://www.winsun3d.com/En/About/

[4] https://www.dirtt.com/

[5] https://www.archdaily.com/931659/10-plus-proposals-to-promote-adaptive-reuse-and-introduce-transformative-ideas?utm_medium=email&utm_source=ArchDaily%20List&kth=

Resilience and prediction of hazards

Next months, these posts focus on the challenges of Earthlings of to bring humane cities closer. These posts represent the main findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

In my last post, I elaborated on resilience. Resilience has two sides. At the one hand it has to do with policy aimed at anticipation and mitigation hazards. At the other hand, it refers to the capacity of both government and citizens to deal with their impact.

Anticipating hazards

The most difficult problem in anticipating hazards is knowing what hazard to anticipate. This is difficult, given the long list of chronic stressors and acute shocks that can affect a city. Emergency plans should focus not only on the most likely disasters, but on all conceivable ones. Listing possible threats is not that difficult: plane crashes, terrorists blowing up a dam or shooting visitors during a football match, previously unknown massive and violent protests, outbreak of a hitherto unknown deadly disease, an attack by a foreign power or, if you want, aliens, et cetera.

It is impossible to make separate plans for all these threats. The preparation should take place on a more abstract level. For example, what to do if roads are impassable, many people have died, there is no electricity, water and gas, an evacuation must take place within a few hours, et cetera. Agreements must be made in advance about outside assistance, and which means of communication can be used permanently.  

Citizens should be involved in these activities. Otherwise, they will become dependent on government initiatives, which will not come as the command center is destroyed.  Citizens should be trained in self-management complementary – or in case of emergency – to replace official actions.

Anticipating hazards is easier if some types of hazards are a recurring phenomenon, such as flooding. Activities include installing early warning systems, preparing emergency services, providing scenarios for the evacuation of the elderly and the sick, allocating places for temporary housing, gathering tents, organizing access to food, drinking water and to medical care. The faster and more accurate the prediction is, the better the preparations can be.

Flood Concern creates map-based visualizations of places where floods can hit hardest, up to five days before an approaching storm using artificial intelligence. These are simulations in the form of time-lapses of how the water will rise, at what speed and in which direction.  These maps also indicate which parts of the infrastructure will flooded or wash away, and how mitigation efforts – from sand backs to opening locks – will turn out. With this data, emergency services can determine which roads are still accessible, and plan evacuation routes accordingly. 

Dealing with impact

If accurate forecasts are available, the government, together with citizens, can implement previously designed and trained plans to mitigate the effects of the flooding. However, anybody must stay vigilant to respond to unexpected changes in the anticipated course of events. 

One of the most dramatic cases to discuss is the massive earthquake that devasted all of Haiti on January 12, 2010, claiming 316,000 lives, injuring another 300.000 and displacing more than 1.5 million people. The earthquake was just the beginning:  In the following years other devasting natural disasters caused thousands of new deaths, engraved famine, and a deadly cholera epidemic, wiping out ongoing efforts to rebuild the country. Until now, millions of Haitians are still in need of humanitarian aid and many still live in camps without proper sanitation and drinking water. To date, the international community has raised € 8 billion in aid. What it was used for is unclear, in spite of a large number of helping hands. It seems that the rebuilding of the country is mainly due to the inhabitants themselves, who started rebuilding their primitive huts again and again by using the remains of their previous emergency shelters. The government infrastructure was destroyed by the dictatorial regimes of father and son Duvalier and led, among other things, to the depart of most residents with some education. So the country had done nothing to prepare for a possible disaster, and there was no policy to cope with its consequences.

It is evident that dealing with the impact of hazards depends from te degree of anticipation. Otherwise, full reliance on social capital is the only hope.

How can cities make the difference, regarding the realization of circular goals

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Cities can make the difference

Firstly, by bringing parties together, developing inspiring goals, removing barriers arising from existing regulations, facilitating sharing, stimulating innovative research, supporting start-ups that contribute to circular solutions and providing financial incentives, for example, by differentiating tax rates.

Secondly, by making circular plans in areas where the city government is primarily responsible. Local authorities have a large and direct influence through legislation and investments related to urban planning, issuing building permits, mobility systems, urban infrastructure, district heating, energy production and distribution, waste collection, municipal taxes and the local labour market[1].

For instance: Amsterdam

The city of Amsterdam is a shining example. It has committed itself to the circular economy as an important pillar of its sustainability policy. The city wants to be a forerunner and has a good starting position because many citizens, businesses, start-ups, and (knowledge) institutions are convinced by the necessity of a circular economy[2].


The municipality applies the following principles:

  • All materials are part of an infinite physical or biological cycle.
  • All energy comes from renewable sources.
  • Modular and flexible design of production chains to increase the adaptability of systems.
  • New activities that enable the shift from possession of goods to use of services.
  • Logistical systems that switch to more region-oriented services.
  • Human activities that contribute to the regeneration of “natural capital”.

Together with external parties, such as TNO and Circle, the city has evaluated existing value chains with respect to ecological impact, economic importance, value retention and transition potential. This resulted in a selection of two fields (‘chains’) in which the greatest circular impact can be achieved, namely the construction chain and the organic residual chain. 

Construction chain

By organizing the construction chain in a circular fashion and at the same time realizing 70.000 new homes by 2040, a 3% productivity gain is feasible representing a worth of € 85 million per year. This is the result of reusing material and efficiency improvements. The table below is mentioning the main activities to be developed in the next years.

Organic residual streams chain

High-value processing of organic residual flows over a period of five to seven years, will result in an added value of 150 million euro per year. This is the result of source separation of organic waste in all households and in the food processing industry. The organic residual flow is used to produce proteins for animal feed, biogas and building blocks for the production of bioplastics. 

Is a circular city also a humane city?

There is no doubt that in the long run everyone benefits from a circular economy. However, in the short term it can weaken the purchasing power of the poor. Poor people around the world have already created an informal circular economy by buying or exchanging worn-out goods such as cars, refrigerators, furniture, and clothing. Goods that are available at flea markets, thrift stores or through family and friends. As soon as these goods become part of a regular circular process, their availability will decrease and their prices rise. Not to mention a ban on selling these goods for environmental or safety reasons. 

This problem is not inherent in the circular economy, but arises from the growing gap between the rich and poor part of humanity. Consequently, policies aimed at the development of a circular society must also create the conditions for a more just and egalitarian society.


[1] https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/publications/Cities-in-the-CE_An-Initial-

[2] https://www.circle-economy.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Circular-Amsterdam-EN-small-210316.pdf

Regional differences in the paths towards a circular economy

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Countries with a lower income are more “circular” than richer counterparts. Many residents simply cannot afford to throw away valuable material. In the informal sector, a great deal of economic activity revolves around sorting and reusing waste, including imported waste from rich countries. About 0.5% of the urban population in developing countries – 1.5 million in India alone – tries to make a living by collecting items from landfills, with all the health risks this entails. An estimated 270,000 people die each year from the incineration of waste. It is estimated that in 2025 landfills will cause 8 – 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Every year Circle-Economy is publishing its Circularity Report. In the 2020 version, circular growth paths for three groups of countries are differentiated[1].

Build countries (for instance: India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines)

These countries lack sufficient means to satisfy their basic needs, and it is not surprising that their economic activities mostly fall within the regenerative capacity of the earth. Most of these countries show progress in reducing poverty and their emerging middle class want to enjoy greater consumption. The building industry already is the second sector after agriculture.  70% of the buildings India needs in 2030 are yet to be built. 

Paths towards circularity:

  • Application of circular principles in construction (design for the future and energy-neutrality)
  • Education and developing entrepreneurial skills in the informal economy
  • Using residues from agriculture to develop a sizable bio economy

Growth countries (for instance: China, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam and Egypt)

The second pathway relates to emerging economies characterized by fast economic growth and associated material consumption and services, rapid build-up of capital goods and an expanding industrial sector. They will continue to grow, but have to channel this growth by the application of circular principles.  

Paths towards circularity:

  • Channeling fast growing consumption through new service-based business and shared-use models and healthier principles. For instance, the reemergence in China of the use of bicycles.  
  • Transforming the informal economy, creating better living conditions and improving food security.
  • Decoupling economic growth from extraction of resources and use of carbon-based energy. 

Shift countries (for instance: The United States of America, Japan, Argentina and member countries of the European Union)

Because of their ecological footprint, these countries must shift away from over-consuming the planet’s resources, and reinvent their affluent and comfortable lifestyles, also taking account of large internal differences. 

Paths towards circularity:

  • Consuming smarter through (1) product lifetime extension; (2) increase material efficiency through new technology and design and (3) promotion and adoption of sharing business models.
  • Taking control of the impact of their imports and exports, for instance by radically reducing the international trade of secondary materials and products (waste).
  • Ramp up the infrastructural transformation required to secure abundant capacity for renewable energy generation.

[1] https://assets.website-files.com/5e185aa4d27bcf348400ed82/5e26ead616b6d1d157ff4293_20200120%20-%20CGR%20Global%20-%20Report%20web%20single%20page%20-%20210x297mm%20-%20compressed.pdf

Stop the depletion of the earth

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Brighton Waste House, a project of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Photo: University of (public domain).

The picture above is the Waste house at the university campus of Brighton, constructed from local waste.  In our society reuse of waste still is limited. Repair of household appliances seems to be not done: Last year, three devices in my home broke. No shops could fix them, although surfing the Internet revealed the existence of replacement parts.  I’d better buy a new one, they advised. 

The flow of materials

Our economy is characterized by the take-make-waste principle, which results in an excess of cheap mass products that are thrown away at the end of their life cycle. Moreover, the majority of the raw materials are not recycled or reused in low quality. The result is a large amount of waste, pollution and the rapid exhaustion of raw materials worldwide.

A closer look at the flowchart of materials below is enlightening. Look here for a larger copy

The graph reveals that the volume of resources extracted in 2017 was 84,4 Gt (billions of ton), supplemented by 8.4 Gt reused ones: Minerals (37.9 Gt,) ores (9.6 Gt, fossil fuels (16,6 Gt) and biomass (28,7 Gt). In 2017 the global economy was 9,1% circular. In 2019 only 8,6%.

Of this material input in 2017 (92.8 Gt), 36.0 Gt became part of the long-term stock of buildings, roads, cars and other capital goods. The stock of capital goods (houses, buildings, infrastructure, fleet) has expanded considerably in recent decades, which can lead to a large increase in potential waste in the coming years.

The largest part (56.8 Gt) was used for the production of goods with a lifetime that does not extend beyond 2017.

Of the total waste of 19,4 Gt in 2017, 8.4 Gt is reused, for example by water treatment, the production of biogas, through recycling (only 1,4 Gt) and by composting. The majority of recycled material is of low quality. The remainder, 9,2 Gt is ‘lost’ and is scattered in the environment.  For instance, through microfibers that are added to the ocean and might return in the food chain.

Towards a circular economy

The problem of the ‘take-make-waste’-principle is not waste only. The linear economy on which this principle is based is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions and, moreover, leads to the depletion of raw materials by rich and emerging countries or better, their rich minorities all over the world. The extraction of resources by contemporary and previous generations will stagnate the developing of future generations. Replacement by the circular principle can correct this lack of justice. 

Materials such as metals, plastics and chemicals cannot return to nature without processing. Instead, we distinguish four ways to stretch their lifespan and preserve their value, so that no new raw materials have to be extracted.

  • Repairing and sharing;
  • Reuse by other users without major changes;
  • Renovate and overhaul, dismantle and assemble into a new product, possibly with the addition of new functionalities;
  • Recycling: tracing back the product to its original material, preferably at the highest possible level (for example, plastic waste becomes ‘virgin’ plastic). In this case the original product can be re-manufactured.

A circular economy is regenerative by design and aims to keep products and materials in permanent use, without the need to exploit additional resources. 

It is based on four principles:

  • Decoupling the provision of new products and services from the availability of finite resources. 
  • Design out waste and pollution and other negative externalities of economic activity that harm human health and natural systems. This includes toxic substances, greenhouse gas emissions, air, land and water pollution, and traffic congestion.
  • Maintaining the highest value of components and materials by designing them for reuse, rework and recycling.
  • Maintaining natural capital through the circulation of nutrients and creating the conditions for regeneration of, for example, soil.

We are at the beginning of a long process and we are running out of the time available

Promises of hydrogen: exaggerated or underestimated

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

e-bike fuelled with hydrogen

Hydrogen can play an important role in the storage of cheap and surplus green electricity, as an alternative to natural gas and as a fuel for buses, trains, planes, and ships.

The production of hydrogen

The process of electrolysis brings water into contact with electricity, resulting in oxygen and hydrogen. A 100% clean process, provided the use of energy from carbon-free sources. ‘Blue’ hydrogen occurs when the CO2 released during the production of electricity is collected and stored.

Advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen.

The storage of hydrogen is easy, particularly if conversed into ammonia. A kilo of hydrogen is producing the same amount of energy as a fully-fledged Tesla Power Wall. A tank with 60,000 m3 of ammonia can deliver more than 200 million kilowatt hours. That is the annual production of 30 wind turbines on land. The problem with hydrogen is that 60% of energetic value is lost when electricity is used to make hydrogen and hydrogen is converted it into electricity again. Storing electricity in a battery yields only 5% loss of value.

Hydrogen plant in Rotterdam (blue containers) and the apartment complex (left center) that will be heated with hydrogen. Photo: DNV GL

Heating

A possible application of hydrogen is as a substitute for natural gas, which limits energy loss to 30%. For an apartment complex in Rotterdam, hydrogen will be produced locally and transported via dedicated gas pipelines (photo). An electric heat pump would have reduced energy use with 75%, given perfect isolation. Exactly to avoid cost of isolation, housing corporations are considering hydrogen in older houses. Eventually, heating on hydrogen will be reserved for historic city centers, where few alternatives are available.

Transport

An also frequently mentioned application of hydrogen is transport. In the meantime, for all forms of transport – even bicycling – hydrogen models are available. 

With the foregoing in mind, hydrogen as fuel for passenger cars – not to speak of e-bicycles –  is quite odd. Although the range is about 600 km and refueling is fast, the difference with electric cars is reducing fast. For other means of transport, the verdict may be more positive. The rule is, the larger the desired range and the heavier the load, the more the benefits of hydrogen equal or outweigh the advantages of batteries. Examples are buses, lorries, but also planes and ships

Energy storage

The production costs of solar energy in desert areas are considerably lower than those in Europe. This is mainly due to the considerably greater light intensity, which means that the yield of solar panels and collectors is twice as high. The Gulf States see themselves as future export countries of hydrogen, in the form of ammonia. 

The gas group Air Products & Chemicals has announced that it will build a hydrogen factory in NEOM, a mega city in Saudi Arabia, which is under development. This factory will produce annually 2.3 million tons of hydrogen (1.2 million tons of ammonia). This factory, due to be completed in 2025, will be the largest in the world.

The European Union also has biggest plans. In 2024, 1 million to hydrogen must already be produced, which should have increased tenfold by 2013.

The Netherlands is investigating the possibility of converting wind energy generated in the North Sea to hydrogen on site, if there is an overcapacity on the network. This can save billions in grid reinforcement. The powerful sea breeze may ensure that production is competitive with to imported hydrogen.

Hydrogen storage – Photo NASA

Whether the substantial potential of hydrogen is realized depends in the first place from the availability of cheap sources of wind or solar energy and the willingness of the western world to engage in new dependency from the ‘former’ oil producing countries who can deliver cheap hydrogen.

Climate policy, where fighting global warming and poverty meet

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here

Neighborhood Poverty and Household Financial Security | The Pew Charitable  Trusts

Challenges

After the eradication of Covid-19, the world must focus again on the two epoch-making challenges, mitigation of global warming and fighting poverty. According to the World Economic Forum, the mayor threats of humanity. By selecting proper policy tools, both challenges can be addressed at once

The termination of greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 requires huge investments, roughly $ 50 to $ 200 per ‘saved’ cubic meter CO2-equivalents.  At the same time, these investments provide a global economic stimulus of $ 16,600 billion.

Addressing global warming

In summary, municipal authorities worldwide have to work together with all stakeholders, citizens not in the last place, to reduce global warming, and implement a series of activities such as:

  • Covering all suitable roofs with solar panels;
  • Installing wind turbines in seas adjacent to densely populated areas;
  • Creating sufficient storage options for the short and medium term;
  • Creating ‘smart grids’ to manage the production and consumption of electricity;
  • Heating houses with district heating systems powered by industrial residual heat, hydrogen or heat pumps;
  • Reducing energy use through insulation, efficient use of buildings and smart thermostatic systems;
  • Scrutinizing the necessity of new construction and take care that it apples to BREEAM requirements;
  • Using ‘green’ hydrogen for industrial processes
  • Using biotechnology to remove oil, coal and gas from industrial production
  • Reducing use of cars (electric ones included) by urban design, enabling walking and cycling opportunities by public transport and by MaaS.
  • Replace where possible flying by traveling by train
  • Reuse of waste at the highest possible level;
  • Intensification of responsible production of food;
  • Adjustment of consumption patterns like mitigating the use of meat.

Despite the magnitude of the challenge involved by the transition to climate-neutral cities, there is reason for optimism. Money is not the big issue. The required investments will pay for themselves in the long term and the transition to clean technology will contribute to responsible economic growth. However….

Addressing poverty

The overriding limitation is the lack of skilled labor and here is the connection with fighting poverty. The transition to an energy-neutral society will offer ample job opportunities. That is why care for jobs, a reasonable income, adequate housing and education go hand in hand with combating global warming. Jobs are the best guarantee for a reasonable income and job opportunities are an incentive to invest in education. 

It is already ten years ago, that the United nations called for a ‘Global Green New Deal’ in which developed countries would invest at least 1% of GDP on reducing carbon dependency, while developing economies should spend 1% of GDP on improving access to clean water and sanitation for the poor as well as strengthening social safety nets. 

At this moment Green New Deal programs are at the brim of implementation in the US (What a relief!!!!), Canada and Europe as well. These programs are achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the next decades and potentially create millions of well-paying jobs in order to create the necessary infrastructure and to reduce the number of poor, work- or homeless people correspondingly. Add to that protection against monopolies, investments in public transport, access to affordable housing and healthy food, and justice for the historically marginalized people in the transition to a new economy.

If these promises become true, the eradication of Covid-19 will be followed by significant steps towards a more humane world. 

The disappearance of engagement and passion

Next months, these posts deal with the challenges of Earthlings of bringing humane cities closer. These posts represent the most important findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.  

For centuries, entrepreneurship has been motivated by craftsmen’s passion. In less than one century this kind of entrepreneurship disappeared. The fascination of making new things still can be found incidentally in small and medium-sized businesses operating. In large companies a new generation of managers has taken possession of the boardroom, who are motivated by financial incentives in the first place. This applies to most employees too. Let’s face the facts.

Engagement

Each year, Gallup collects data worldwide about the engagement of the workforce in companies and organizations with more than 50 employees. These are characterized as ‘engaged’, ‘actively not engaged’ and ‘passively not engaged’. The table below provides an overview, showing that in any country only a minority of this group is ‘actively engaged’. This means that they are enthusiastic about their work, their colleagues, praise their company, and do not worry if they have to work overtime. 

Percentages of actively engaged (green), passively not engaged (gray) and actively not engaged (black) of employees in different parts of the world.

Lack of engagement correlates strongly with the ‘low strain’ character of many jobs, but also with the management style of most bosses.

Companies want to increase the engagement of their employees as the level of engagement correlates with productivity. Therefore, worldwide they spend billions on this goal and to train managers to support it. Without much result.

Engagement is not enough

According to John Hagel, managers are heading in the wrong direction by focusing on engagement alone. After studying individuals who are exceptionally productive in a wide range of professions, he concluded that what they have in common is ‘the passion of an explorer’. 

Passion does not mean that these people are overly gifted, diligent, hardworking or smart. Instead, they are determined to achieve their goal in a certain domain, are excited when faced with challenges, and seek collaboration with others who can support them. Passion is the main driver of entrepreneurship.

Unfortunately, the number of employees with passion is even lower than the number of engaged ones. The latest US survey of passionate employees shows that up to 13% of the workforce (managers included) have each of the three aforementioned attributes. An additional 39% have one or two attributes. 64% of all employees and managers are neither engaged nor passionate, or in other words they lack the essence of entrepreneurial behaviour.

This lack of engagement and passion entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship is understandable. The 20th century companies have organized their production according to principles of scalable efficiency and a system of planning and control, top-down assessment based on performance indicators and quarterly reporting to the next boss in hierarchy. Consequently, room for initiative is limited, neither expected nor desired. At the same time making money became the ultimate objective of most companies and the top management made large efforts to satisfy the shareholders and their own monetary ambitions.

Self-organization and interpreneurship

There are strong arguments for self-organization and -management by employees, just think of the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. However, little research has been done into the relationship between self-management, entrepreneurial behaviour and performance. The recently published HOW-report has changed this. Research in 17 countries (among others the Netherlands, Germany, the USA, India, Russia, China and Japan) showed that organizations based on self-government performed better in all respects.

The superiority of self-governed organizations. The gray bar refers at organizations in which employee’s influence depend on their rank and authority. The black organisations are the dominant type, based on hierarchical assignment of tasks, planning and control and the red ones are based on self-government.

The superiority of the scores of self-governed organizations is clear. The HOW-report has delved into the distinguishing characteristics of employees of these companies. These are: more trust, willingness to take risk, celebration of success as collective achievement, collaboration and mutual assistance, sharing information, and respect for personal judgement. 

In order to survive, companies should digest these data, but managers will not be happy with them. They undermine their position and huge financial benefits.  Time will learn whether the many new start-ups are wiser, or whether they become ‘takers’ instead of ‘makers’ as well, to use Joseph Stiglitz words.