Because digitalisation touches all the major challenges we face as a region. That’s why it’s important to think carefully about what we invest in, Offerhaus says. And then, rhetorically, “Are we spending our space and energy sensibly when we load the region with data centers that employ few people and consume a lot of energy?” What do we want to invest in here? What will benefit the entire region? “To me, that’s what sustainability is also about. We need to invest in the right technology, in the right knowledge development. Then the region as a whole will benefit.”
You can only make the right choices by working well together. Offerhaus: “At the innovation lab in the Johan Cruijff Arena, where a whole new area is being developed, all kinds of parties are collaborating on the digital infrastructure. If you look for solutions together, you can make a huge acceleration. The Board can help with that, too. For example, by making best practices quickly available to all municipalities in the Metropolis.
In Offerhaus’ career, digitalisation has always played a major role. Offerhaus was executive vice president at KPN until last spring, and before that he also worked at several international telecom organisations. Since this year, Offerhaus has been seconded from his own company to Security Delta (HSD), where knowledge institutions, companies and governments are working together to make our digital society safer. He is also vice chairman of VNO-NCW West in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. In that capacity, he is a member of the Board.
If you could grade the business climate in the Amsterdam metropolis, what would it be?
“I would say an 8/10. Our climate remains attractive. After the corona era, business properties are full again. It’d be difficult to say that things are bad. In the short term things are going well, but we need to build momentumn. We need to make good decisions about our infrastructure and housing. At the same time, we need to help entrepreneurs get through the energy crisis. It is difficult for starters in the housing market to find housing; I see this with my own children. And there is too little space for businesses. The manufacturing industry in Amsterdam-North is struggling. They cannot expand because most of the land is zoned for housing and creative businesses, even though some have been located there for decades. Also, public transport could be better in many places. I now board the subway near my home to Amsterdam-Zuid to take the train to Laan van NOI in The Hague. I do everything by public transport and no longer need a car. But not everyone in this region has that luxury. So investment in infrastructure is incredibly important.”
What hurdles do entrepreneurs experience who want to do something about those challenges themselves?
“Entrepreneurs experience a lot of regulatory pressure. Nitrogen and the Environment Act require attention and permit processes are not efficient. Tension on the power grid is another problem: an entrepreneur who wants to grow and is in the wrong district simply doesn’t have access to sufficient electricity.. So we need to wait for the expansion of the power grid or until we can still use energy that other companies have reserved but are not using. Municipalities do not employ enough people to address all these challenges. The municipal Cables and Pipelines departments take care of underground infrastructure: energy, fiber optic, sewer and other projects. So such a department cannot focus only on the power grid. Certainly not in smaller municipalities. When they’re working on a big sewer project there, you will have to join the back of the queue. Of course, this is not necessarily because of those municipalities: there are too few people everywhere. That’s also the tricky thing about the transitions we have to go through: we need technical people at all levels.”
Doesn’t that shortage of people just mean that we can’t do some things right now?
“The question is whether that is an option. No one says: we’ll pause our climate efforts for a while. Or: we’ll wait with fiber optics, which makes working from home not easy. So we need to work together to see what the best parties are to successfully scale up. With the Board, we get together and talk about those topics. That’s where brainpower is and where we can connect large parties to initiatives. But we have no execution power. That is with House of Skills (a programme of the Amsterdam Economic Board that works to create a skills-oriented labor market, ed.). They want to retrain thousands of people from one job to another. Then you’re talking about scale. We have a labor force of 1.6 million in our region. We need them all.”
How can collaboration with ROM InWest contribute to needed innovative breakthroughs?
“I am very happy that ROM InWest is here. There are an awful lot of good plans and initiatives but for some there is not a conclusive business model. This requires large investments and businesses are often cautious. The ROM does allow you to make such a start. I think it’s very good they’ve moved into De Koepelin Haarlem. It’s a beautiful and innovative ecosystem there. And besides: the Metropolis is bigger than Amsterdam alone.”
“ROM InWest focuses on initiatives around technology and innovation, which help with those major transitions. We need to continue to support that innovation. I lived in Boston for five years. That was really an innovation hub then too, stronger than the Bay Area around San Francisco. There was a lot of potential for growth and competitiveness there, and that was also because companies dared to take risks. If it doesn’t work out, they go, hop on to the next thing. But for that to happen, it takes a healthy investment climate.”
VNO-NCW strives for an inclusive and sustainable Netherlands, where everyone benefits from increasing prosperity. This requires sustainable economic growth and a good business climate, the employers’ organisation writes on its own website.
How do you view the growing popularity of the degrowth movement, which says economic growth should no longer be the goal?
“I don’t think that’s where the solution lies. Business earning power is needed to work on the great challenges of our time. Investments are needed, and if there is no growth, why would anyone put money into a business? In addition, our lives are becoming much more expensive, so our income must also grow. We just need to manage that growth in a sustainable way. We need to think about how we produce, how we procure. The donut economy (a welfare model that the City of Amsterdam also uses, ed.) gives substance to this: it looks at the social lower boundary and the social upper boundary. This is how we reduce the pressure on the environment and the living environment. But that, in turn, requires innovation, which companies need to fund.”
“Business earning power is also important for broad prosperity. Moreover, if we grow, we can continue to work on a society in which everyone has equal opportunities and can develop. This is important not only from an equality perspective – from the notion that every person has a right to it – but also from an economic perspective. If not everyone participates, it also affects your labor force.”
In the short term, we are in pretty good shape as a region, you say. For the longer term, we must now address the great challenges of our time. Are you actually hopeful about those challenges?
“Definitely. I’ve worked a lot in different platforms with young entrepreneurs, with innovation hubs. People who have started companies with support from the university. There are a lot of great innovations among them, for example in augmented reality and virtual reality. Many problems can be solved in the virtual world. To make that happen, we need innovativeness. We have the right universities for that. Our challenge is that we keep those smart people here. That we invest fully in that upscaling and ensure a pleasant business and living climate in our region.”
More Board Talk
The interview with Willem Offerhaus is part 21 in the Board Talk series. In it, we talk to Board members about the biggest challenges facing the Amsterdam metropolis. A region that offers a sustainable, healthy living environment, responsible digitalisation and valuable work for all. These are also key themes for the Amsterdam Economic Board. Also read the other interviews in the Board Talk series.