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Social innovation in The Netherlands

Social innovation in The Netherlands - Europe Tomorrow

Social innovation in the Netherlands

Having a quarter of its territory below sea level, the Netherlands is closely linked to the water that surrounds it. While dealing with nature and its constraints, the country built a reputation of being well in advance regarding environmental issues.

Despite its small size, the “flat country” uses its resources in a very efficient way. The fact it is leader in the field of circular economy is an eloquent testimony.

1. The power of circular economy 
2. Designing innovation
3. Innovation spaces and smart cities
4. Research centers on Sustainability

Social innovation in The Netherlands - Europe Tomorrow
Social innovation in The Netherlands - Europe Tomorrow

Re-thinking progress

Traditional economy usually works in a linear manner: we use resources to make a product, we use it and then thow it away. Yet, these resources aren’t unlimited…and the fact of throwing away ultimately generates costly waste for society.

The Netherlands wants circular economy to become one of the central elements of its presidency of the Council of the European Union which they will hold in the first semester 2016.

One of the major actors of this sector and the programme supervisor for the development of circular economy (RACE programme- Realisation of Acceleration of a Circular Economy) is the Circle economy network. The latter is established as a cooperative and composed by several companies belonging to the circular economy sector. Together, they create industrial systems that are restorative by design by decoupling growth and resource needs.

Some important capitalist actors such as Rabobank, a banking group active in 41 countries also invest in the spreading of circular economy including through the “Circular Economy challenge”.

Circular economy companies are numerous and their diversity shows how much circular economy is a transversal subject.

Here are some examples :

Mud Jeans,

Mud jeans is a sustainable Dutch fashion brand that aims to make fashion circular. The company is pioneering a lease model for its organic cotton jeans, in order to ensure raw materials supply and discover new business opportunities.


Fairphone is a Dutch social company which created a smart phone that has the same name: the Fairphone and which the design and production were thought out to integrate environmental and fair trade constraints.

Phone Blocks

Phone Blocks helps the mobile phone industry steer development and production that produces less electronic waste than their products do today.


Rotterzwam sells edible mushrooms, produced on coffee grounds, in an abandoned tropical swimming paradise.


Interface is the worldwide leader in design, production and sales of environmentally-responsible modular carpet for the commercial, institutional, and residential markets.

Zero Waste Europe

Zero Waste Europe was created to empower communities to rethink their relationship with resources. In a growing number of regions, local groups of individuals, businesses and city officials are taking significant steps towards eliminating waste in our society. Zero Waste Europe engages at two levels: Supporting local groups with independent knowledge and streamlined tools to drive change more efficiently, and structuring the movement internationally to better represent the interests of our communities at the EU level and engage policy makers with a unified voice.

Better future factory

Better Future Factory (BFF) is a multi-disciplinary design, environmental and engineering company. BFF finds and develops creative yet realistic and sustainable solutions to the most pressing issues. Incorporating the underlying principles of the circular economy to close loops, cycle materials, increase value and develop businesses that contribute to a better future.

- Europe Tomorrow - Social innovation in Europe
- Europe Tomorrow - Social innovation in Europe
- Europe Tomorrow - Social innovation in Europe
- Europe Tomorrow - Social innovation in Europe
- Europe Tomorrow - Social innovation in Europe
- Europe Tomorrow - Social innovation in Europe
Social innovation in The Netherlands - Europe Tomorrow

The ‘Dutch Design’ is gaining widespread popularity all over the world and has become synonymous with quirky, out-of-the-box thinking, application of new technologies, highly-distinctive forms and far-reaching involvement with the (experience of) end users.

During the DDW (Dutch Design Week), Eindhoven transforms itself in the capital of design. The city has a prestigious university, the Design Academy Eindhoven so as a very innovative cultural and creative center, Strijp-s. Eindhoven is also called the city of light because the lighting and electronical expert brand Philips was founded there in 1891. Philips was also very involved in circular economy and is a strategic partner of the Ellen Mac Arthur’s foundation. With regard to light, the city hosts the first solar road in the world, the Van Gogh cycle path created by Smart Highway. Smart Highway is an innovative concept for smart roads of tomorrow. A programme of innovation that links a different way of looking at things with innovative ideas that apply the opportunities offered by new technologies in smart ways.

The Smart Highway, Dune or even Waterlicht projects are developped by a famous Dutch studio, the Roosegaarde Studio.

Another Studio has become a pioneer in the field of sustainable design, The Superuse Studio. The firm is renowned for its innovative design approach as well as for providing ‘open source’ methods and tools to the design community. All with the aim to make effective use of frequently wasted resources and energy.

One great example is Harvestmap, the marketplace for professional upcyclers. The platform is a collaboration between Superuse and  Harvestmap. Harvestmap (Oogstkaart in Dutch) is a new online marketplace for redundant and second hand materials. Harvestmap/Oogstkaart allows companies or individuals to make an inventory of their supply of materials, components or even buildings to superusers. All materials, ranging from small quantities to continuous flows of (industrial) leftovers are represented.

Superuse studio also developped sustainable architecture, such as the Villa Welpelloo or Klimaatark.

Social innovation in The Netherlands - Europe Tomorrow

Just like the maker city in Barcelona (see our social innovation article in Spain), or the sustainable city of Copenhaguen (see our social innovation article in Denmark), the Netherlands enjoys remarkably dynamic cities. Eidhoven aside, which is more specialised in technology and design innovation, Amsterdam is one of the most performant smart cities in Europe. Down south, the Hague is well known for its international institutions may that be for the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice. A few kilometers from there is Rotterdam and its port, Europe’s first largest and the world’s fourth largest.

In order to testify of the dynamism of these cities, here are some innovative actors that crisscross the country :

Amsterdam Smart City

Amsterdam Smart City (ASC) is a partnership between companies, governments, knowledge institutions and the people of Amsterdam. It is a frontrunner in the development of Amsterdam as a Smart City. A Smart City is a city where social and technological infrastructures and solutions facilitate and accelerate sustainable economic growth. Amsterdam Smart City works in the field of smart mobility, smart living and living lab, infrastructure or Big and open Data.

Waag Society

Waag Society, institute for art, science and technology in Amsterdam, develops creative technology for social innovation. Waag Society explores emerging technologies, and provides art and culture a central role in the designing of new applications for novel advances in science and technology. The organisation concerns itself not only with technologies related to the Internet, but also with those related to biotechnology and the cognitive sciences.

The Waag society is located in a building called Waag (public weight in Dutch) and is the oldest non-religious building still standing in the city.

In March 2015, Waag Society, Amsterdam Smart city and other partners have established the Amsterdam Smart Citizens Lab. It empowers citizens to crowd source and share data about their environment with the aim to understand the workings of the city and enhance the quality of their lives. This project is called Smart citizen lab.


Except is a cooperative of over 30 scientists, designers, and social entrepreneurs who develop concepts and strategies to build businesses, industries, cities, buildings, and help make day-to-day life more efficient, more sustainable, more human.

Among the projects developped by Except, the Rotterdam Schiebroek-Zuid is a success transformation. Sustainable Schiebroek-Zuid is a complete sustainable road map and vision for the post-war social housing area Schiebroek- Zuid in Rotterdam. The project provides a 30 year trajectory for converting the neighborhood into a self-sufficient, resilient, and sustainable area. It applies urban ecology and agriculture as central economic and social engines to effectively renovate the area without demolition.

The project runs since 2011, and has spawned various gardens, greenhouses, restaurants, shops, and new development.

Another very interesting project in the field of urban and sustainable agriculture is Polydome. Polydome is a polyculture system, which means that unlike most existing forms of greenhouse production, it has many crop and livestock species growing at once. The Polydome system is designed to function more like a natural ecosystem, with self- supporting plant and animal interactions.

Regarding urban agriculture and not far from Except, we can see one of the biggest rooftop garden of Europe, the DakAkker.

Polydome - Europe Tomorrow - Social innovation in Europe


The mission of Kennisland is to make society smarter and to empower people to learn and to renew themselves continuously. Kennisland develops solutions to the questions that arise during the transition to a knowledge-driven society. For them, a smart society is one that works together, one in which the knowledge, talents, experience and intuition present at all levels and in all areas is made use of to the full: a knowledge-driven society.

One of their project was, for exemple, to make cultural heritage collections publicly accessible, to gain greater flexibility in copyright law, to increase the use of open cultural data and to promote innovation in education. They also experiment Social innovation Labs in order to transform the way our cities, our schools, our welfare programs, and even our economic systems run.

Other great organisations, such as Hivos which is an international organisation that seeks new solutions to persistent global issues, or TNO – innovation for life which connects people and knowledge to create innovations that boost the sustainable competitive strength of industry and well-being of society are also unavoidable in the Dutch social innovation ecosystem.

Social innovation in The Netherlands - Europe Tomorrow

Several research institutions focus on sustainability and each one of them work in a specific field.

Nioo knaw – Netherland institute of Ecology

The scientists at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) perform basic and strategic ecological research on individual organisms, populations, ecological communities and ecosystems. Together they study animal, plant and microbial ecology in terrestrial and freshwater environments. The multidisciplinary collaboration within this diverse group of ecologists has created unique opportunities to develop the broad, comprehensive approaches needed to solve complex ecological problems.

Drift – Dutch research institute for Transitions

DRIFT is a research institute in sustainability transitions. From a resource perspective they focus on energy, water, food and mobility. From a socio-economic perspective they focus on urban and regional development, climate-change related governance, and social innovation.

Wageningenur UR – for quality of life

Wageningen UR is a collaboration between Wageningen University and the DLO foundation. The mission of Wageningenur is ‘To explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life’

Other universities, such as Utreicht Sustainability Institute, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, The Center for social innovation at the University of Applied Science, The Amsterdam School of creative leadership or The Delft University of technology are also relevant.

A few exemplary initiatives:

Boris Marcel - Europe Tomorrow

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