Rotterdam was once the industrial heartland of South Holland, where ocean-bound behemoths took shape beneath the hands of the nation’s finest shipbuilders. Today, despite the disappearance of SS Rotterdam and her kin from its docks, this still-vibrant port city is testament to how innovation can help bring an ailing metropolis back to life.
Last year, Rotterdam’s status as a city of the future was cemented when Lonely Planet ranked it among the world’s top 10 cities, ‘a veritable open-air gallery of Modern, Postmodern and contemporary construction’. At about the same time, Cambridge Innovation Center Founder and CEO Timothy Rowe wrote that “The Dutch have one of the most entrepreneurial cultures in Europe and we believe there is incredible potential in Rotterdam. Rotterdam is a future-oriented, design-centric city that is increasingly being recognized on the world stage.”
Nowhere is this worldly potential more evident than at RDM Rotterdam, a hotspot for technical experimentation on the site of the former shipyard Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij. RDM, like most innovation districts, is anchored in several academic institutions, including Albeda College and Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, and also joined forces with Delft University of Technology and Yes!Delft. Together with businesses and students, they are working to find sustainable solutions in the disciplines of construction, mobility and energy.
Together with Merwe-Vierhavens (M4H), an experimental living/working environment for pioneers in medical technology, food and clean tech, RDM is part of Rotterdam Innovation District, described by the Brookings Institute as ‘the ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments—all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine’.
Fresh from a brief tour of RDM is Lee Wellington, Executive Director of the Urban Manufacturing Alliance. “Once you see it and hear about it, and you learn about the public investment that made it all happen, it galvanises not only a sense of energy but also of real investment behind these concepts,” Lee told us by phone from New York.
New ways to use historic spaces
But first, a confession. “I should be clear about one thing here: RDM is a model I’ve admired for a long time,” said Lee. “Across the country, when you’re faced with a decline in manufacturing activity, your first reaction is to reposition away from the industrial sector entirely. If your industrial assets aren’t commanding the real-estate values you want or aren’t drawing tenants in, then why not reposition to housing?
“That wasn’t the instinct of the Port of Rotterdam. They recognised that what had been a historic shipbuilding site and industrial maritime asset could stay that way, but with the right investment in engineers, talent, academic partnerships, infrastructure, and upgrades to the port facility itself, they could adapt to become a ‘smart port’ – then they wouldn’t have to rely on one large tenant in order to breathe life into the site. Instead, they could have lots of smaller tenants and really play to the port’s assets, and that’s exactly what they did. There was a lot of foresight in the approach that the Port of Rotterdam took.”
Curating tenants = cohesive communities
One example of this foresight is RDM’s carefully thought-out curating of tenants in order to make sure the community is a cohesive one – a self-contained ecosystem. “They’re intentional about that. They don’t just let in anybody who wants to lease space; they spend a lot of time with the mid-size manufacturers who are coming in to make sure they’re going to be using the space actively for production, and that they’re going to benefit from the virtues of being on that campus. To make sure that they’re going to tap into that student population, and the professors who are there. Maybe they’ll feed off the Makerspace in some way, but they’re looking to create an intentional integration.”
Some of the most memorable moments at RDM come about when visiting entrepreneurs demonstrate in real life the skills students are still mastering in the classroom. “It’s pretty exciting because the Makerspace that’s being created at RDM is in its early stages, so I was able to see some of the students who have graduated out of the two university campuses that are housed within the RDM campus. The students are feeding right into the Makerspace: they graduate and purchase Makerspace memberships, then go back into the school to partner with students and bring them on as interns. It’s a true incubator for Maker entrepreneurship.”
The importance of accessibility and infrastructure
One of the catalysts for innovation at RDM is physical proximity. “One of the important takeaways was the co-location of technical training and applied sciences training, with students from both schools working side by side. Vocational training in high schools across the country has been dismantled over generations and even the term ‘vocational training’ can be seen pejoratively. We’re reimagining that today and thinking of new ways not only to talk about the trades, but also to celebrate them. One way we can do that is by not isolating technical training, because when you do that, it doesn’t serve anyone well.”
Also core to RDM’s appeal is its accessibility. “Transportation networks are an important story to tell when you’re thinking about innovation districts, the RDM campus in particular. I can’t emphasise enough how important transportation infrastructure was to the success of that project, and in this case it was waterways transportation, which is exciting. There’s lots of up-front cost to make that work, and that’s something we can look at. In cities where you have industrial maritime assets, they may not be centrally located, say near a subway, but a ferry service can really open them up to a community of entrepreneurs.”
One of RDM’s unique selling points is AquaLab, a hydrodynamic laboratory. “You’re walking through a Makerspace then you look and you see that one of the workers is submerged in water. That sort of experimentation that’s happening – in terms of what can happen on a very high-tech, modern factory floor – is very exciting. Even the office spaces: they’re elevated, so you’re not losing any of the loading docks, you’re not losing any of the ground-floor space to the office. They built these sort of structures-within-structures, these floating offices; it’s a really creative use of space.”
Perhaps one of the most progressive policies on the RDM Campus is turning to its own tenants whenever the campus buildings are in need of maintenance, which means part of the money those tenants invested in rent then finds its way back into their pockets. “The port is tapping into the talent within the tenancy to make physical upgrades to the space: they look at that tenancy base as a source of contracting opportunities.”
What role should government play?
Given the job-creation potential inherent in innovation districts such as RDM, shouldn’t the federal government be providing such districts with funding? Maker City Co-founder and CEO Marcia Kadanoff believes that’s the ideal scenario, but counters that – should federal government fail to deliver – there are alternatives:
It’s a view shared by the Brookings Institute. In an essay entitled Why cities and metros must lead in Trump’s America, Bruce Katz writes: “In many of the matters most critical to our future prosperity and shared growth, Washington is a small player, providing, for example, only 12 and 25 cents of every public dollar spent on K-12 education and transportation infrastructure, respectively. State and local actors play a much more important role in promoting the vitality of our businesses, the education of our children, the quality of our infrastructure, the vibrancy of our public spaces, and the skills of our workers.”
The importance of partnerships
Back now to Lee, who believes the federal government does have a de facto role to play – most importantly in conjunction with state and local partners: “Federal policy informs a lot of what plays out locally. For example, when there’s strong funding that pays for a community college system that people of all economic and racial backgrounds can access, that plays into the kind of talent that can then feed into the technical training programmes we talk about a lot in our work.
“Another example would be manufacturing extension partnerships: networks of organisations that receive federal dollars in order to provide services to local manufacturers in urban settings. They go onto the factory floor and help you think about how you modernise your production process, how you optimise the placement of your equipment so you’re manufacturing in a smaller, leaner way.
“It might seem that the federal government is removed from these programmes, but in fact they’re an important source of funding and they really conceive a lot of experimentation in local communities. It’s the willingness of the federal government to work with state and local partners to do that sort of experimentation, and investment in those anchor institutions locally, that can really make an impact not only on the creation of an innovation districts, but even one step before that: to seed communities with the assets they need to plan for an innovation district in the future.”
Local governments harness shift
Could innovation districts be more the product of broad trends and market forces than they are of government programs, the manifestation of an ‘emerging culture’? Lee isn’t convinced. “The manufacturing sector is shifting in a very radical way: you don’t see large-footprint production processes playing out in cities, but smaller, more innovative manufacturers that are producing high-value-added products and see real value in being able to access urban infrastructure, urban talent, or strong consumer markets. Taking the public sector aside, there’s something very real that cities are incubating, and we see that every day.
“But one of the big takeaways for me, coming out of my time at RDM and looking at economic development models domestically in the US, is how the public sector is an important part in that process – the public sector at every level of government, particularly local government, where land use is regulated, where decisions around strategic industrial assets are made, where workforce development programming is deployed. So while I think there’s something organic happening, and I appreciate that sentiment, I also think I wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to really leverage the power of local government to harness that organic shift in the manufacturing sector and the way resources are being deployed effectively.
“However, we can’t just take for granted that manufacturing is a pathway for the middle class. We need to make the kinds of investments in workforce development, in mission-driven industrial development, and in the kinds of mentorship programmes that will help a diverse set of makers and manufacturers to scale up. We need to do all of that to create an innovation district that benefits a broad cross-section of these cities.”
Laura J Snook is a British journalist whose work has been published by the BBC, newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and international magazines including Bizarre, Performance Bikes, and the Southeast Asia Globe.