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Change is in the air


10 February 2022

Today, I found out that the Dutch government met the 2020 climate targets (Urgenda case). How you would think? As this outcome was very unexpected, to most of us. Apparently due to the conjunction of a couple of variables: the pandemic (less traffic), mild winter, increase of renewable energy sources and the closure of the coal power station Amsterdam. Does this mean that moving in a transition is that random? I would strongly beg to differ.

Change of an era

We are experiencing increased attention and increasing action on various transitions (circular, energy, climate, food). We seem to be living not only in an era of change, but also in a change of an era (Jan Rotman’s, embrace Chaos). 2021 was a year in which our vision, a sustainable food system for all, got ample traction. Fires in Greece, floods in the Dutch Province Limburg and the COP28. The problems as much as the solutions and opportunities that derive from those events are suddenly in full view.

Many people I (got to) know want to contribute, help, and advance change for the better. But wonder how.

Often, I get the question whether I want to bounce of ideas. And it’s smart, savvy, and energetic changemakers that I come across! Their questions? How did you end up where you are today? Or to be frank, how can I get to a position where I have more impact myself. Now, for my second blog, I am going to talk about the road I have taken, and what I have learned along the way from own experience and from those I came across.

Natural Gas as a starter

In 2001, after graduating from the Erasmus University Rotterdam, I started working in the energy sector. I had dreamed big of working offshore on a rig, five weeks on, five weeks off, travelling, however, with my business degree a desk job was considered more suitable. Working in the natural gas industry taught me how big business works, provided ample perks (being an expat in London being one of them) and, after a couple of years, made me realise that I longed to be more than just a small part of a large oil tanker. I also wanted to contribute to the positive leap forward.

After some wanderings, working in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, a motorbike accident, and an intensive recovery trajectory, I had a soft-landing back in the Netherlands. I started working at Effectory whilst simultaneously running my own microfinance foundation. When I got offered the opportunity to lead the bioenergy department at an international consultancy on renewable energy & climate change, I gladly accepted.

Renewable energy, stepping up

This role was my introduction to alternative energy and to the difficulties of innovation and market entry in an established system with large stakes. I also realised that a one-dimensional focus, renewable energy, was still too narrow in view of true (I now know ‘systemic’) change. My team worked on propositions like cascading, the most optimal use of bioresources (first pharma, food, feed…,and lastly energy) for industry. We gave policy advise to the European commission on the sustainability of bioenergy and assisted NGOs in the substantiation of their quest for change. All important elements for change, however, still, the sum of all these parts did not add up to systemic change. As such questions like; what is an optimal system, what will make actors move, and how, remained unanswered.

What will change that system?

In 2015, whilst I was pondering upon those questions, the Amsterdam Economic Board decided to change their way of working from sector-orientation to transition focused. Along the lines of three transitions, Energy, Circular and Digital, the organisation was organising teams and developing programs. For the development of the circular economy transition program, they needed someone to work closely with Board ambassador Jacqueline Cramer, Professor of sustainable innovation at Utrecht University. The vacancy was sent to me by five different people. I applied, and got in.

Working on system change

The circular transition program for the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area was set up to simultaneously focus on the supply of circular designed products and services as well as drive demand. This to address the common catch22, ‘I would like to buy more circular designed products/ services, but there is none/ not enough/ not of the right quality’ versus ‘I am not going to invest as there is not enough demand’. It strongly focused on getting all relevant actors in place and involved right from the start and making sure everyone knows their role. And that the gains as much as the risks are shared by all the parties involved. This multi-stakeholder approach required that I got to understand the various interests at stake well, speak the language of those involved and co-designed with all parties what needed to be done.  I’ll give an example, to stop diapers being incinerated (60.000 kg a year in the AMA alone!) it needs municipalities to collect dirty diapers, waste/ resource companies to build factories to process those into biogas/ plastics/ cellulose, and companies to buy the material. It needs investors, and supporting legislation. It needs the entire system.

Ecosystem, it’s the individual that counts

I learned that this process is called ecosystem innovation. I also learned that it is a profession, and that my competencies and qualities do well in this kind of work. And that I really like it. It requires an entrepreneurial mind-set, a focused (dot on the horizon) though agile approach (whatever works best), and the ability to inspire and motivate people to join. It is very dynamic. I also got to learn that we all have our role to play, governments, business, NGOs, universities, research institutes, you, and I. It all depends on the person, whether they want to contribute, and can. It is the mindset that counts most. It is a joy to spot these gamechangers, to support them and most of all, to join forces.

Now, for Foodvalley with its new focus, the transition of the food system, the Board was looking for a Managing Director with experience in ecosystem innovation, (international) business sense and in leading teams. I am very pleased to be able share and apply what I learned so far and love so much. And to work jointly with gamechangers, in the team and in the ecosystem. We are continuously tuning and developing our approach as we go; to assure systemic change with a tad less randomness.

Next time I will be talking about our focus areas.

Stay tuned!

Marjolein Brasz