Play the City Buiksloterham (I) Developing a common agenda for a Circular Buiksloterham


On Thursday November 26, around thirty stakeholders involved in the (re)development of Buiksloterham (BSH) – a brownfield transformation and regeneration project in the northern part of Amsterdam – assembled in Pakhuis de Zwijger, to play the City Innovation Game Buiksloterham. In March 2014 many of these stakeholders signed the Manifesto for a Circular Buiksloterham, stating their commitment to developing Buiksloterham according to the principles of a ‘circular economy’.

The City Innovation Game is developed by Play the City in cooperation with The Hackable City, Pakhuis de Zwijger, and Stadslab Buiksloterham. The game is designed to help illustrate the ambitions of different parties involved in the development of Buiksloterham, including self-builders, commercial property developers, energy corporations, and the municipality. By making their plans tangible on the game board during different rounds of play, participants are encouraged to collaboratively brainstorm, network, exchange knowledge and form new alliances to realize these ambitions.

As Frank Alsema, the initiator of Stadslab Buiksloterham, said in the introduction of the game-session, ‘there is no circularity without cooperation’. The game invited stakeholders to get to know each other better, exchange information and insights and learn from each other as well as about opportunities for collaboration, and address the complex challenges toward realizing their common goal: establishing a circular living- and working neighborhood.

The Hackable City-team was present during the game and wrote two analyses. In this article we will report on the discussions that emerged during the game. What are the main opportunities and challenges in developing Buiksloterham as a circular neighborhood? In an accompanying article we will analyze how the City Innovation Game helped reveal these opportunities and challenges.

We found that the game led to three different discussions. The first is what we could call ‘agenda building’. Participants introduced their own goals and visions for Buiksloterham, and out of these, collective themes emerged. A second recurring issue during the game dealt with the context in which these goals are to be realized: to what extend does current regulation hinder or stimulate the development of these goals?
The third thread of discussion dealt with the How-question: How could the communal goals be realized? The focus in this discussion was not only on practical matters, but also on the question of which party should take up which role in the realization of collective goals.

Play the City Game setting


During the game players introduced a number of goals to be realized for Buiksloterham. Here is a brief overview:

  • One of the participants is planning the construction of a communal solar panel roof on top of one of the big box DIY-stores in the area. Opportunities were explored with other players to realize this.
  • Others argued that BSH would need systems to buffer energy in the area, for instance in car batteries, or by building parking garages out of brick-shaped batteries. How or by whom this was going to be organized remained an open question.
  • Another participant expressed the wish to set up a Bio-refinery in BSH. To realize this, around 2400 ‘person-equivalents’ (approx. 1000-1200 households) need to be connected to a special pipe-system that allows for the separate collection of ‘grey’ and ‘black’ water. Again, opportunities were explored for collaboration. Which developers would be interested in adjusting their sanitation systems so these could be connected to the bio-refinery. Participations also exchanged knowledge about the costs of this (around € 2200 per household).
  • Others briefly mentioned the wish to explore the communal exploitation of Geothermal Heating Installations (Warmte-Koude Opslag / WKO). These installations are complicated to set-up and to maintain them demands a high level of expertise.
  • A few participants added a number of social issues on the agenda, most notably connecting BSH with the surrounding areas. Plans for the development of the Klaprozenweg , for instance, include only a limited number of crossings from BSH to the neighboring quarters. Similar issues were raised about connections with the Van der Pek-buurt. It was argued that perhaps sharing infrastructural services, such as a solar farm, could bring about a connection between these two neighborhoods. Lastly, the issue of livability was discussed. What can be done to make BSH a lively neighborhood, especially as there is no space for retail in the zoning plan.
  • One last issue that was mentioned a few times was the need for more green areas and parks. Again, mainly expressed as a wish, with so far no concrete actions outside the Papaverpark.

All in all the game setting revealed a number of points concerning the further development of BSH. Some of these were expressed merely as wishes, without a concrete action plan. In other instances players were able to share knowledge on what it would take to realize these goals, and to connect to other players that could help them. there were also real players such as Amvest Waternet the theater initiators who shared their concrete agendas with the purpose of seeking real time partners No official research-agenda or manifesto was drawn up, yet the exchange of ideas did seem to confirm stakeholders’ commitments to the original Circular Manifesto and highlight and elaborate a number of aspects of it.

Play the City Board

Legal & Regulatory Context

A second recurring theme in the discussions focused on regulations that –mostly – challenged the actualization of the communal agenda. One important discussion that emerged was whether and how regulation could contribute to the realization of a circular economy. Discussions were staged about how to bend the existing rules which required updates for making a circular environment possible. A key role was assigned to the ‘kavelpaspoort’ – a set of rules and guidelines for the development of a particular lot. Some argued that for instance a regulation to build a double sanitation-system for both black and grey water could be an important stimulant to force developers to cohere to circular economy principles. If a city is serious about endorsing the goals of a circular economy, it should use its legal frameworks to actualize it, was one of the arguments. For the development of social housing projects such a regulation would even be required, as currently social housing companies are not allowed to invest outside of their core mission, which is the development of affordable houses, even if it is a contribution to a public cause such as the environment, and in long term also to the provision of affordable energy that would serve the socio-economic groups they are working for.

On the other hand, many pointed out that this could also hamper innovation. For instance, currently most lots are compulsory connected to the heating network of Westpoort, a utility company that is partially owned by the city government. This is presented as a relatively environment friendly system that makes use of the energy that emerges from one of the city’s waste incineration plants. The system is presented as relatively environmentally friendly, and makes use of heat that emerges from one of the city’s incineration plants. However many players claimed that alternative systems could be far more efficient and environmental friendly. Current regulations leave some room for something like a ‘right to challenge’. If actors can prove that their own provision is indeed more energy-efficient than the one offered by Westpoort, they can be exempt from its use. However, this requires a certain amount of bureaucracy, and only a maximum of 10-15 percent of households can be exempted.

Others pointed out that some of the demands could actually hinder innovation, and do not leave enough room for out-of-the-box solutions. For instance, regulations on ‘Energy on Location’ (EPL) state particular requirements for the production of energy used on a lot; but sometimes it can be more efficient to outsource energy production to solar panels or wind turbines on other locations. However, because the energy is no longer produced on location, although the arrangement might be beneficial from an energy-saving perspective, it is not allowed. One developer said that he could mount a small number solar panels in his basement in order to both fulfill all of the municipality’s requirements, as well as optimize energy-production. It seems that these issues call for a way of formulation of requirements that are more focused on outcomes rather than on the means through which to use them, resonating with broader societal discussions about the introduction of ‘doelwetgeving’, meaning that laws and regulation shouldn’t describe what somewhat should or should not do, but rather which goals are to be realized, leaving more room for innovative applications.

On a different note, regulations or tenders that require high levels of commitment to circular goals, might be more demanding than national or European standards. Such demands may not uphold in court, in case developers choose to challenge them. This is one of the reasons the national government has started a program centered on enabling rather than enforcing, for instance through the Green Deal Program, or City Deals.

The last point raised was the fact that laws and regulations were often unclear and prone to change, especially in relation to new technologies. This made investments in for instance Geothermal Energy more risky and less attractive.

Discussions about the legal context could serve two purposes. On the one hand participants exchanged knowledge about how to deal with certain regulations, as well as ways to legally navigate around them, providing them with new opportunities. On the other hand, of course these discussions could be of interest for lawmakers and regulators, although implementing some of the suggestions raised would of course take a long process.

Play the City Board

Organization and realization of common goals

The third theme focused on how various goals that were projected on BSH could be realized. This discussion played out on two levels. On one level, the game served as a ‘market place’, where various parties could learn about the goals of others and join in alliances with them, or at least explore the idea.

On another level, important questions were raised as to which party should take on what role, and how (new) business models could help them attain their goals. One interesting development was that new roles seemed to emerge for parties to manage or organize 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 large lot that became available after a large private developer had to back out during the financial crisis. The architects developed apartment buildings, in close cooperation with their future owners, adhering as much as possible according to the principles of the circular economy. As a group they also collaborated and exchanged knowledge about sustainable building processes and learned a lot from each other. They would like to expand their knowledge by collaboratively developing a new lot. Because they have created a role that doesn’t formally exist in current development schemes, it has been very difficult to apply for the development of new lots. 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 lots that are assigned to be developed by individuals.

Another problem that emerged was the organization of business models around circular economy projects. For instance the Bio Refinery plans to extract nutrients from wastewater. While this is beneficial for the environment, currently individuals who would like to contribute to such a system have to make a private investment to install the right wastewater systems – making this partly an inverted commons-problem: the investment is private, the gains are collective. There is currently no financial model to stimulate such private investment in communal gains.

One option could be to commodify waste water as a resource for nutrients, although currently no market for such nutrients exists. It may even be illegal to trade in nutrients that can be extracted from urine like phosphates. However, in the future phosphates shortages are predicted, as mines will run dry. Again, the question is what kind of financial schemes can we design that translate possible (but as yet uncertain) future profits into current day investments? And which party could take up that role. For instance, the organization that currently manages wastewater treatment is currently not allowed to make a profit of commercial exploitation of resources found in wastewater.

A last point that was made on the collaborative development of BSH was the issue of phasing and timing. Particular decisions (for instance what kind of sewage system and pipes are to be installed) are made during a particular phase of the development. When made collectively, these decisions can lead to collective advantages, or to the realization of goals that can only be reached collectively – for instance: a separate waste water system for yellow and brown water only makes sense if the generic infrastructure provides hook-ups for it. Especially in the self-building community, this is a recurring issue. The need is apparent for collective organization of certain aspects of the building process, yet the phasing of individual trajectories sometimes prohibits this.

On a final note, many present acknowledged that under certain circumstances, collective organization is important. A representative from the city government underlined that insight, saying that for the city government it is impossible to negotiate with all individual parties involved in BSH. It would be easier to negotiate with a collective organization that puts forth a collective agenda for the area.

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 issues. These range from energy production to housing development. Yet, current legal and financial models need to be rethought in order to make important steps forward.

The need for future innovation in Buiksloterham is not per se technological. Just as important, are rethinking the systems governing innovation on an organizational, legal, and financial level. There’s no clear (research) agenda to develop this. What we discovered during Play the City is that the game-changers in Buiksloterham are actively experimenting with the possibilities.

A full report of the City Innovation Game Session can be downloaded here