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Working together towards a sustainable city

Collaborate with the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Amsterdam needs to be thoroughly overhauled in the coming years: the city must build more homes, the sewer system in large parts of the city is in dire need of replacement, and the city wants to get rid of natural gas and become climate-proof. These tasks are too large for the various parties involved to tackle individually. Waternet, Liander and the municipality of Amsterdam, in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, are therefore identifying the opportunities and obstacles when infrastructure is coordinated. They also work on changing underlying rules and routines.

'A city like Amsterdam will face various challenges in the coming years,' explains one of the researchers involved, John Grin. 'We have the energy transition, the transition to a circular economy, the transition to a climate-proof city, and the data transition.' All these major projects rely on underground infrastructure, while it is already extremely busy there. Grin and colleagues are therefore working with the organizations involved to find out how you can serve multiple functions with the same infrastructure. This reduces costs and helps to deal with the scarcity of space underground.

Flywheel effect of practical collaboration

The UvA became involved when the complexity of the task became apparent to the practical organizations. People were familiar with Michaela Hordijk's research into co-creation and Grin's work on joint design of system innovations, because both researchers had already worked extensively with practitioners. 'This creates a flywheel of practical collaboration,' says Grin.

And where do you start to change an entire system?

'We first make our general idea and ambition very concrete with projects that are already underway in the city,' says Grin. 'In these projects we work with our design method with which we connect sub-areas. In this way, we identify possible obstacles and benefits as we go along.' An advantage is, for example, working with a common wallet with which you now invest in certain infrastructure that will later benefit other partners.

The researchers then share these insights with other projects and through a training course. In this course, participants from various municipal organizations work together on example projects. Their knowledge, insights and skills then become available in the organizations involved.

Taking into account different values and needs of the organisations involved

Grin calls the social sciences ideally suited to assist in design processes that innovate systems. 'You can only tackle the issue if you take into account the different values and needs of the organizations involved and know where the current systems come from. At the UvA we are very good at understanding the historical and social significance of system innovation.'

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