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Lessons from entrepreneur collective ‘KNOWLEDGE MILE AMSTERDAM’

26 June 2019 | Blog
Iris Hagemans

When entrepreneurs in a street or neighborhood decide to work together, it can have many benefits. Not only does it strengthen the economic position of the participants, but often collectives can also solve local problems that are difficult for the government to tackle. Although many governments are therefore keen to support initiatives by entrepreneurial collectives, in practice this proves to be quite difficult. The ABCitiEs research project aims to develop new policy instruments that support neighborhood collectives. To this end, a number of cases are investigated, including the collective Knowledge Mile in the Weesperstraat and Wibautstraat in Amsterdam. This case offers new insights into the BIZ scheme.

Knowledge Mile?
In the Amsterdam street pattern of small, winding roads, there is little room for large access roads to the city center. The Wibautstraat and Weesperstraat are the biggest exceptions. The two four-lane roads stand out in the otherwise small-scale Amsterdam street scene and have therefore attracted much – unfortunately often negative – attention. For years Wibautstraat was known as the ugliest street in Amsterdam. A street that offered little more than quick access to the center. At the same time, it is a street with many large offices, housing important educational institutions, political bodies and large companies. On Weesperstraat, for example, the campus of the University of Amsterdam has expanded considerably in recent years, while the Amsterdam University of Applied Schience is increasingly clustering around Wibautstraat. The largest offices of the municipality of Amsterdam are located on Weesperstraat, and a number of large financial institutions are located at the end of Wibautstraat.

The organization
Together the streets cover about 3 kilometers, where more than 200 companies are located. For many of these companies, the streets are little more than the place where they happened to find suitable office space. Customers and employees usually do not come from the street or neighborhood, so the connection with the neighborhood for these companies is minimal. Stores and restaurants are more dependent on the street and neighborhood, but do not really see themselves as part of a shopping area. One of the shopkeepers we interviewed indicated that he was initially reluctant to join a collective. The often problematic cooperation with other entrepreneurs was precisely the reason why he did not want to establish himself in a shopping street. All in all, the streets do not sound like an obvious place for the emergence of an ambitious collective. Yet an enthusiastic collective has emerged and is slowly expanding. So when we interviewed the founders of the collective, a burning question was, “How did you guys pull this off?”

The most common answer to this question is, “Those guys are just really good at that.” The initiative was founded by two passionate employees of the Amsterdam University of Applied Schience, who at the time were already involved in a network of creative entrepreneurs. Bringing people together and creating enthusiasm is both a passion and a specialty for them. They tell how paid personal visits to inform companies and organizations in the street about the collective they wanted to start. In doing so, they creatively responded to the different interests by emphasizing possible benefits, such as a better local network, access to university and college students, or interventions in the public space to make the street more attractive to employees. In this way they succeeded in transforming the collective into a BIZ, a Business Investment Zone. This is a form of organization that is supported by the municipality. If there is sufficient support to establish a BIZ, the municipality collects an obligatory contribution from all members. In this way the BIZ receives a stable income so that long-term plans can be realized.

The impact of a mandatory contribution
Establishing a BIZ is therefore often seen as a success story. However, the founders indicated that they also see it as a risk. Previously, the member contribution to the collective was based on enthusiasm and good ideas. While this makes participation non-committal, it was not seen as a detriment to the collective. After all, this means that those who choose to contribute are motivated and committed to the plans they support. This may be different when a mandatory contribution is required. The question “what’s in it for me?” becomes more important – and that question can be tricky in a collective where members with widely differing interests are represented. So for the collective, the task now is to keep members informed of results and share successes. But what happens to the energy and enthusiasm that members valued so much in the start-up phase when it is translated into concrete, measurable outcomes? Isn’t it true that the best results of collaboration cannot be captured in a number?

What’s in it for me?
With the mandatory contribution, the BIZ scheme mainly offers a solution for free-rider problems, something that is very common in collectives. Often those who did not contribute to a collective action benefit just as much from the results as those who did contribute. This causes those involved to hesitate to participate. The Knowledge Mile shows that there are also cases where the free-rider problem is not so important at all. For them, the rules to prevent free-riders are therefore a risk rather than an advantage. For us as researchers, this is an interesting outcome. If it is not about preventing free-riders, what advantage does it have for the Knowledge Mile to form a BIZ? Do they perhaps face other problems of collective action? And how might the BIZ scheme be modified to address those problems as well? In this case at least, solving the free-rider problem brings another challenge: The question, “What’s in it for me?”

Iris Hagemans
Iris Hagemans has been working as a researcher at the research group Digital Commerce and Emerging Technologies for Business at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences since 2018. She is working on a PhD within the research project ‘Futureproof Equilibrium – Finding a balance between diverging interests’ about consumption spaces in Amsterdam. Within this project, Iris focuses on the effects of tourism on shopping spaces. Using quantitative data, she establishes to what extent and in what ways shopping streets in Amsterdam have changed since 2005 as a consequence of increasing tourism. Using qualitative methods, she identifies what factors cause business owners to adjust to increasing tourism. Finally, as one of the goals of the research project, she contributes to the ambitious goal to create a better balanced consumption landscape through collaboration with local stakeholders. RESEARCH SUPPORT Iris can help you with questions about SPSS, R, excel, Qualtrics and use of data, as well as other questions about conducting quantitative and qualitative research. TOOLS Iris can help you with questions about: SPSS | R | Excel | Qualtrics

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