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Circular Buiksloterham I

Stadslab Buiksloterham

Accumulate real stakeholder knowledge on circular economy for urban development.


Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Partners: Citylab Buiksloterham, Isocarp, and Pakhuis de Zwijger

6 Sessions with 200 Participants 

Urban Challenge

The fate of this former industrial site in decline, in Amsterdam North, changed dramatically in just a few years. Today, hardly anyone will deny that Buiksloterham (BSH) is one of Amsterdam’s fastest-growing living and working quarters. Here, the latest experiments in clean building technologies are developed by an active community of city innovators, who kept believing, and investing, in BSH during the real estate crisis. These innovators demand recognition for BSH’s success.

A closer look at the neighborhood reveals a number of behind-the-scenes innovations in city-making, such as building groups uniting to increase their scale, colloquially referred to as Tussenmaat; social housing corporations collaborating with individual self-builders to generate spatially diverse urban blocks; residents developing a floating self-sustainable village, a citizen-initiated public park and an elevated boat office on polluted land; and surprisingly, housing companies seeking business opportunities in using ‘wastes’ as resources.

Meanwhile, as larger players in the construction sector are beginning to re-activate their standard ‘building game,’ the question arises: will BSH continue to be Amsterdam’s innovation ground, or will ‘business as usual’ prevail?


Our team was briefed on this challenge by the Citylab Buiksloterham, the Hackable City and the local builders’ association Beleef Buiksloterham, in May 2015. We spent the summer designing and testing a strategy game for circularity in urban development, involving stakeholders and interested officers from housing corporations, such as Alliantie and Eigen Haard. In November 2016, about 30 local BSH stakeholders gathered to play in order to strategize a way forward for this brownfield site in transition.

Project Results

Mapping Shared Goals

During the game, players introduced a number of goals for BSH: One of the participants planned construction of a communal solar panel roof atop one of the local big box DIY-stores, exploring opportunities to realize this with other players. Others argued that BSH would need systems to buffer energy; for instance, by building parking garages out of brick-shaped batteries. Another participant expressed the desire to set up a bio-refinery, which would require some 2,400 ‘person-equivalents’ (approx. 1,000–1,200 households) to be connected to a special pipe system that separates the collection of “gray” and “black” water. Again, opportunities were explored for collaboration, and discussion ensued: Which developers would be interested in adjusting their sanitation systems to connect to the bio-refinery? Participants also exchanged knowledge about the cost, which would be around €2,200 per household.

All in all, the game setting revealed a number of points concerning the further development of BSH. Some of these were expressed merely as fantastical wishes, without a concrete action plan for realizing them – such as the desire for more green areas and parks. In other instances, players were able to share knowledge on what it would take to realize these goals, and to connect with other players who could collaborate with them. Real local actors played the game, such as the real estate and investment company Amvest, the water company Waternet, and theatre initiators who shared their concrete agendas with the ambition of seeking partners outside the game.

Impact of Legal Framework

The game addressed regulations that mostly challenged players’ communal agenda. The question was how regulations could contribute to the realization of an urban development following circular principles. Players simulated how to bend the existing rules, making the necessary revisions for a circular environment to be possible. Composition of the kavelpaspoort — a set of rules and guidelines for the development of a particular plot — turned out to be the key. Some argued that, for instance, a rule to build a double sanitation system for both black and grey water could be an important measure to force developers to adhere to circular economy principles. Players concluded that if the City is serious about endorsing the goals of a circular economy, then it should use its legal frameworks to actualize this.

The majority of players pointed out that some of the proposed ideas could actually hinder innovation, and did not leave enough room for out-of-the-box solutions. For instance, regulations on Energy on Location (EPL) have specific requirements for the production of energy used on a plot, but in some cases it can be more efficient to outsource energy production to solar panels or wind turbines in other locations. However, because the energy is no longer produced on location, although the arrangement might be beneficial from a net energy-saving perspective, it is not allowed. One developer said that he could mount a small number of solar panels on his own land that would fulfill all of the municipality’s requirements, as well as optimize energy production. These issues seem to raise a red flag, calling for a new way to formulate requirements that focus on outcomes rather than on the means through which they are achieved. This resonates with broader societal discussions regarding the introduction of doelwetgeving, meaning that laws and regulations shouldn’t prescribe what someone or something should or should not do, but rather, set goals to be realized, leaving more room for innovation.

The game session on the legal context serves two purposes. On the one hand, participants exchange knowledge about how to deal with certain regulations, as well as ways of legally circumventing them, providing them with new opportunities. On the other hand, of course, these discussions are of interest for lawmakers and regulators.

Organization and Realization of Common Goals

The third game session focused on how various goals for BSH could be realized. Interactions played out on two levels. On one, the game served as a ‘market place’, where various parties could learn about the goals of others and make alliances with one another, or at least explore the effectiveness of this strategy. On the other level, important questions were raised as to which role each party should take on, and how (new) business models could help them to attain their goals. One interesting development was that new roles seemed to emerge around the management and organization of particular collective goals.

In relation to the development of housing, a number of architects have taken on new roles in BSH, as architect-developers who run a number of CPO-projects (Collective Private Development) on one big plot that became available after a large private developer backed out during the financial crisis. The architects developed apartment buildings, in close cooperation with their future owners, and adhering as much as possible to principles of the circular economy. As a group, they also collaborated and exchanged knowledge about sustainable building processes and materials, and learned a lot from one another. They would like to expand their knowledge by collaboratively developing a new plot. 

Because they have created a role that doesn’t formally exist in current development schemes, applying for the development of new plots has been cumbersome. They aren’t able to comply with the rules set up for large private developers, and in the collective form it’s also difficult to sign up for neighboring plots that are assigned to be developed by individuals.

This session revealed possible challenges for business models around circular economy projects. For instance, in analyzing the bio refinery plan to extract nutrients from wastewater, while this is beneficial for the environment, currently, individuals who would like to contribute to such a system must make a private investment to install the correct wastewater systems, making this a partially inverted problem of the commons. The investment is individual, while the gains are collective. Currently, there is no financial model to stimulate individual private investments such as these in return for communal gains.

The most important conclusion from this part of the discussion is that the development of a circular economy requires new models of organization that allow stakeholders to take on the role of managing collective processes and resources. These range from energy production to housing development. However, current legal and financial development models need to be re-thought in order to make important progress in this area.

The need for future innovation in Buiksloterham is not driven only by technological progress. Rethinking the systems that restrict innovation on an organizational, legal, and financial level is just as important. What we discovered during this session is that the real game changers in Buiksloterham are actively experimenting with new possibilities all the time.

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