Jeroen Beekmans On Pop Up Social Impact Initiatives & Innovation In Cities
Jeroen Beekmans is the Co-Founder of Pop-Up City, an online platform that reports trends, ideas and creative solutions for the city of today and tomorrow.
He is also Co-Founder of Golfstromen, an Amsterdam-based agency for spatial innovation, communication and trend research.
Since 2017, Jeroen has been the event organiser for Pecha Kucha Amsterdam, an event for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public.
Joroen discusses a variety of interesting city initiatives. He shares insights into activating city spaces, funding, running Pecha Kucha, concerns he has for Amsterdam and an exciting ’sharing economy’ apartment project Pop-Up City has in the pipeline.
Highlights from the interview (full details can be found on the podcast)
[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what lead you to co-found Golfstromen and Pop Up City? [2:45]
[Jeroen Beekmans] - I co-founded Golfstromen with Joop de Boer. [Jeroen explains how he met Joop and how they started.]
We were especially interested in the temporary nature of city-making. It was pre-crisis still and you saw a shift in city making and urban development from top down masterplans and more bottom up initiatives and also a temporary nature of how our cities were being developed. We started experimenting with all kinds of strange ideas. We created the world's smallest cinema. We managed to get a housing association to give us a house we could use for the Summer and we turned that into a hotel. It was before Airbnb so it was a new experience for people. We did a lot of experiments with space; how can you use space and transform space in a temporary way?
Some people think we were the result of the economic crisis.
In a world that has become so fluid and fast, people, cities, everything needs rethinking. Does it still make sense to make cities out of steel, concrete and glass? Don't we need more fluid and flexible solutions for pop up city-making?
When everything is changing so fast, when people are becoming so flexible and mobile, does it make sense to build cities the same way that we used to?
Pop Up City has created hundreds of articles reporting on the cities of the future - could you please tell us more about Pop Up City and what drives you to work on this project? [6:05]
In 2008, before the crisis, we started a little personal blog, because we wanted to keep track of the pop-up, flexible things we found online. New ways of city-making and how individuals, companies, governments came up with new solutions to cope with a world that is permanently changing. [He explains further about finding out about 1000s of people visiting the website and a guy called Chad Smith who wrote about them online. That was a big boost for the website.]
Can you please tell us more about Golfstromen - can you give us an example of the type of projects you work on? [9:07]
I need to say that at Golfstromen we are in a constant identity crisis so we never know for sure what we're doing. Maybe that's just the reality of being a company in 2017? We work at the boundaries of communication and urban development.
We think that city-making has become an art and act of communication more than it used to be. Involving people in positive urban change also means that you need to be good at communicating and talking about urban development.
We just launched the Post Fossil City Contest. Utrecht University have a lab called Urban Futures Studio. They tie together scientific insights with actors in the field of urban development. They took the initiative to start a contest for the creative community worldwide to come up with new ideas and concepts for how a city in the post fossil era would look like and feel.
We helped them develop an interesting, creative communication strategy around this to let this contest land with as many people as possible around the world.
In following the latest trends and reporting on city initiatives, have you seen a shift in the types of initiatives which are being started to create positive social change? [11:27]
With the crisis you saw this bottom up movement popping up. This became a buzzword in itself I think. At a certain moment people were starting urban farms, just for the sake of creating urban farms.
I think that bottom up has become mature in recent years and that now it's more about quality. It used to be more about the initiative itself and the fact that it was started by someone than about the impact it created. I think people have become better at creating impact and seeing that as the main goal of the initiative. That's one of the most important things that has happened in the past years in urban development.
From the last 3 years, could you please share the top 3 social change initiatives which you have reported on? [12:50]
I really like Luchtsingel. The Luchtsingel project is from Rotterdam. An architecture firm called ZUS decided to squat in an empty building. It was an interesting thing to do because it means that you are actually actively engaged in what you're doing instead of just waiting for a government or company to give you a new project. They programmed the building with new activities so there was a new interesting hub in Rotterdam where people could go and it really activated the place.
They proposed a new layer of public space, a pedestrian bridge running between the old north of the city, right through their building, all the way to the central station of the city. There was no money for this, only the initiative. They decided to do a crowdfunding campaign and I think it was one of the first campaigns in urbanism. People could buy a piece of wood and have their name on it and this piece of wood was used for building the bridge. [Jeroen explains further.] Then the city got on board and took part in the project. Without the architecture firm taking the initiative and without the people contributing and donating, this piece of infrastructure would have never existed to connect the old north to central station. In doing this they managed to activate the space and single handedly managed to redevelop a neighbourhood in the city.
[Jeroen explains about the time when they first moved to the north of Amsterdam.]
There was a street in the North which ran through one of the poorest neighbourhoods of the country. The housing association started to open up old houses on the ground level to try and put shops in there. There is one very interesting pop-up shop called Wisselwinkel.
They came up with a shop concept that has a flexible interior which means that it can change function. Every six months, an inhabitant from the neighbourhood with a good idea for a business could start a shop there. [Jeroen explains more about this interesting concept and how it works.] In doing this, several shops and people have been able to kick start their business and move to a serious shop down the road. So this little concept was able to revitalise the entire street and now that street is one of the most interesting streets in the entire neighbourhood.
What do you believe are the fundamental ingredients required to create a successful pop up social impact initiative in a city? [18:40]
What we can learnt from Luchtsingel is that the architecture firm did a great job by not waiting for something to happen. Not waiting for destiny but just taking the initiative into their own hands.
If you want to change something, even if you're not in the field, you can still change it. You can still take initiative.
They did a great job in making people a stakeholder in the project. Making them part and making them a fan of the project. A fundamental ingredient to create something successful that has positive social impact is that it has to be communicative. You can have an interesting idea, but if you don't know how to communicate it in a good way, then you'll be lost. We're living in a media society. Brands and people are screaming for attention. So we have to be good to make your message land with people. Some social initiatives are good but they don't know how to communicate it.
In 2014 you published a book called ‘Pop-Up City: City-Making in a Fluid World'. Could you please tell the listeners more about this book and share some of the challenges you faced in getting this to the public? [20:35]
One of our main objectives for doing what we do is trying to describe urban innovation in a very concrete and practical way because we want to engage as many people as possible in making urban change.
We wanted to experiment with a book - what if we were to turn our blog into a book? [Jeroen talks about funding the book and hey they got the project going.]
It features the most interesting content from the blog from the last 5 years.
[Jeroen explains about the key aims of the book and the type of content it has. He also talks about crowdfunding and how it helped in getting the book off the ground.]
You have now organised Pecha Kucha in Amsterdam for 10 years. Over that time period, what have you learnt from running this event and what do you believe makes a good Pecha Kucha presentation stand out? [23:54]
Pecha Kucha is a phenomenon which has a lot to do with our short attention spans. Each presenter gets 20 slides to present for 20 seconds each. It started in Japan as a networking event for young designers to share their work with an audience. [Jeroen explains more about Pecha Kucha as an event.]
The most fun presentations are surprising. I really like it when people don’t take themselves too seriously.
I think there are so many people in this world who are very pretentious and think they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They think they have to solve the world’s problems and I always like it when they are not too serious about what they are saying about their own work. By doing that, it’s like they take off their clothes and are like, ‘here I am naked. I also have my insecurities and I am also not perfect.’ By doing that you also stimulate people to bring out the best in them, because no one is perfect.
What support or programs does the Dutch government offer to social entrepreneurs in helping them launch sustainable projects? [26:26]
We have a very good funding climate in the Netherlands. For instance, the Creative Industries fund. There is also a lottery in the Netherlands which has their own funding organisations who are very good at funding social initiatives. [Jeroen explains more about these initiatives.]
Sometimes the government gives the Creative Industries fund a bit of money because the government wants a problem to be solved or looked at in a creative way. The government gives them a question and then the Creative Industries fund organise a funding round for creatives to look at interesting ways to solve that problem. [Jeroen explains further about the funding and also talks about ways that cities have collaborated with corporations.]
Are there any particular local issues or problems that you’re passionate about that you believe are yet to be tackled in an innovative way? [29:22]
In Amsterdam one of our biggest problems is mass tourism. Many people have concerns about this. On the one hand it’s a success and on the other hand many inhabitants don’t go downtown anymore because it’s so busy and crowded. This is a direct result of cheap flights, Airbnb etc.
[Jeroen talks further about how mass tourism is affecting the city and how it is making people (in one of the leading cycle cities in the world) afraid of taking a bicycle.]
Do you have any projects on the horizon that you are particularly excited about? [31:59]
Yes, we are currently working with the largest real estate development company in the Netherlands on a new living complex, a new apartment block that integrates aspects of the sharing economy as much as possible. By doing that we want to investigate if the sharing economy can bring positive impact to the Netherlands and the neighbourhood around it. There has been a lot of talk about how Airbnb has been destroying the authenticity of cities. We also wanted to see if we could turn this around.
We’ve developed a concept for an apartment block where as much capacity as possible is being shared among residents. [Jeroen explains in detail how this project is planned to unfold.]