BlueCity: pushing the circular transition in Rotterdam

If you say ‘circularity’ in Rotterdam, you say BlueCity. Founded in 2015 BlueCity has since grown into a model city for the circular and blue economy and is currently home to some 55 entrepreneurs. A place for pioneers and enterprising minds who work hard at developing a framework for action, whether to grow their impact, live a zero waste life, or develop a future-proof material. We recently revisited BlueCity to speak with co-founder and CEO Sabine Biesheuvel about achievements, local developments and the road ahead.

“A playground where circular entrepreneurs with brains, balls, guts and fun are driving towards a future where there is no waste.” This is how BlueCity described itself on their website in 2019, when we visited Sabine for our article BlueCity: circular playground with balls. The article describes how BlueCity started in 2015 and how they developed during their first years. Now, in 2024, a lot has changed. Circularity and the energy transition are more at the centre of attention and on the political agenda. On a local level, Rotterdam’s ambitions are for circularity being a way of life by 2030 and for the local economy to be fully circular by 2050.

Header photo: Marjanne Cuypers of BlueBlocks, one of the circular start-up companies based at BlueCity. Photo: (c) Guido Pijper

Growing from a local to a European start-up hub

“Our original dream of becoming a local and regional start-up hub, extending to national and international levels, is well on track.” Sabine states. “Recently we were even named by the Financial Times as one of Europe’s leading start-up hubs, which is of course a great accolade. Part of our growth lies in the development of our business programmes, such as Circular Factory, which is specifically aimed at helping circular entrepreneurs and companies scale their businesses. This ties in nicely with our original dream of contributing to the growth of circular companies and in the end, to outgrow BlueCity. We are really seeing that happening.”

The special business programmes of BlueCity attract start-ups from all over the Netherlands. “Indeed. And around these programmes we see a consistently growing network of partners and experts tying in with the local, regional and even national ecosystems. We also see much more specialisation than before, so it’s a combination of extending our outreach and going deeper into the circularity subject matter.”

Photo: Sabine Biesheuvel, co-founder and CEO BlueCity. Photo (c) Jacqueline Fuijkschot

Extending to SMEs with special programmes and collaborations

Besides continuing as a start-up hub, BlueCity has been extending its scope to include SMEs. Collaborations and programmes increasingly involve and support established companies who are trying to become more sustainable, by promoting circular entrepreneurship, connecting chain partners and providing practical recommendations to bring about change. Successfully so, if we look at ‘Het Nieuwe Nassen’ which aims to connect local chefs to local nature-inclusive farmers and innovative entrepreneurs to speed up the food transition through collaboration on topics such as food waste prevention, cooking plant-based and using locally grown produce. Since its launch three years ago, it has grown into a movement of over 50 key players in the Rotterdam food scene. Similarly, there’s ‘Hotel Neutraal’, a programme that supports hotels collectively taking steps towards a CO2-neutral and circular future. Key in BlueCity’s approach is that it’s based on sharing knowledge, joint action and operating with a close-knit network. Sabine adds “Yet another recent project is that we are now in talks with over 30 companies and institutions in the maritime sector, to collectively try and make that sector and specific chains more circular. Those are the tangible initiatives on a regional level that I am really happy about, because I feel there’s a lot to gain there.” Present day, BlueCity runs about 70 programs with 200 companies on an annual basis.

Talking about collaborations, Sabine wants to stress the relevance of long lasting partnerships. “What I am really excited about is that we have a growing number of strong, long lasting partnerships. Think of the Rotterdam municipality, but also the Province of Zuid-Holland, CIRCO-partners such as Rabobank and MKB Rijnmond and also Rotterdam Partners. These partnerships are vital if you want to get things done and I feel growing interest, commitment and energy in our collaborations.”

Critical raw materials transition on the agenda, challenges remain

A major development affecting the future success of both the circular and energy transitions, according to Sabine, is that critical raw materials are now much more a structural item on the political agenda. “Indeed! The way we deal with these materials is essential for our future and directly relates to the whole circular concept. The much needed critical materials transition is now moving to the forefront of attention, with focus on availability and the much needed space for both manufacturing and industry and recycling of these materials. People are starting to understand how the energy transition and the circular transition are essentially interlinked through these critical materials. This understanding is vital, because in order to develop many key technologies essential to the energy transition, we need critical resources. The question is whether there will be enough materials available to process in order for us to move to a more sustainable way of living. And the other way around we need the energy transition, meaning more renewable fuels and electrification of the industry, to make sure a circular industry is a sustainable one.

There’s still a lot to be done, but I am positive about important players such as Port of Rotterdam and Deltalinqs who are giving this a lot more attention. And I also see things now starting to happen in the construction and housing sector. But again, there’s lots still to be done. One concrete avenue that is worth exploring is co-siting, looking at how existing industries and new industry can work together. Interesting and relevant to this is the high environmental permit of Port of Rotterdam. I see a role for BlueCity in this respect as well: facilitating and boosting these discussions and exploring solutions together with local and regional involved parties.”

Local ambitions: attracting key technologies essential

Asked about Rotterdam’s circular and energy transition related ambitions for 2030 and beyond, Sabine acknowledges that Rotterdam is aiming high. “And rightly so. Rotterdam has always been a city of looking forward, stepping ahead and trying to find creative solutions. With respect to the energy transition, I think that focus is key. Big steps can potentially be made in the port and maritime sectors with its manufacturing industries. It would be logical if we specialise and focus on attracting and developing key technologies in these sectors. For instance chemicals or plastics recycling and specific technologies such as 3D printing and recycling of batteries. As I said, loads to be done still, but if key players in our city and region continue to push and collaborate, I can look ahead positively.”

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