Cora Smelik: ‘Do you dare go against your own interests?’

The province can make an important contribution to the challenges of our region. That is what Cora Smelik, deputy for the province of Flevoland and, since this spring, also a member of our Board. She focuses on circularity, the energy transition and sustainability: "The phase when we had to inspire people with fun projects is over."

This spring, Cora Smelik, deputy in the province of Flevoland, was given a place on the Board and the Agenda Committee. She succeeded Franc Weerwind, former mayor of Almere who left for The Hague last year to become Minister of Legal Protection. While on the Board, Weerwind was committed to fair digitalisation. Smelik mainly focuses on circularity, sustainability and the energy transition. In recent years, she has worked closely with the Amsterdam Economic Board from the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area on the Green Deals Sustainable out of the Crisis. And she liked it. Smelik: “Amsterdam Economic Board is the spider in the web in the region and knows the perspectives of businesses, government and education. That helps. Everyone serves the same purpose: there is no doubt that we want to be a sustainable and healthy society in every way.”

As a member of our Board, you will also explicitly focus on circularity, the energy transition and sustainability. Why do you think this is such an important theme?

“Fortunately, we no longer have to explain the importance of a sustainable, future-proof economy to almost anyone. The phase where we had to inspire people with fun projects – and you as a director could then take a nice picture with a helmet on – is over. We no longer need to inspire the business community, government and education sector: everyone wants to take responsibility and stop depleting the ecosystem. The big question is: how? That’s what drives me. We need to work on fundamentally changing the economy as a whole: the way we live, work and play. We need the entire system for that.”

Through Green Deals, the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area and the Amsterdam Economic Board are working on changing that system. How will those contribute?

“In a crisis there is a risk that you will take the familiar route. With the Green Deals we said: let’s try to get out of the crisis in a sustainable and healthy way. With projects that stimulate employment in a good way and also include education and entrepreneurs in the right way. Beautiful things have come out of that. The Green Deal Circular Textiles is a good example of this, even projects involving the uniforms of hotel and security staff. In the Green Deal Houtbouw (Wood Construction), the housing crisis, the economic crisis and sustainability challenges all come together. The goal: by 2030 we will make 20 percent of new buildings from wood. About 80 parties have already signed the Green Deal. In May I discussed this Green Deal Houtbouw with Amsterdam alderwoman Marieke van Doorninck at the ChangeNow Congress in Paris. We received enthusiastic reactions from directors from all over the world.”

What is the role of the province in the system change that is needed?

“Where the municipality can translate into practice what we have to do, we have a more strategic role. We have a lot of contact with civil society and a broader overview of what is going on with entrepreneurs. We also play a brokerage role. A company that works with coffee normally has nothing to do with a company that grows mushrooms. Until you notice they can use each other. We can also help with the preconditions required for that system change. I have a background in licensing, supervision and enforcement and know that regulation can sometimes get in the way. Innovation is needed for sustainability. Innovation is about tomorrow, laws and regulations are about yesterday. You should at least bring that to today, otherwise it will be a burden. If you want to grow oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds, the regulations say you’re a waste processing company. That may be understandable, but it puts you in a very complicated permit process. We then look at how we can help the companies with this. We also keep an eye on the safe use of residual flows, so that you do not create a new problem. Think of harmful substances such as PFAS and microplastics. Of course, we also set a good example with our own procurement and tenders.”

Flevoland is still a relatively new province. How is that most apparent to you?

“The cliché is that we are a province of pioneers and I really noticed that when I became a director here three years ago. There is a solution oriented mindset and freedom of thought because we are not stuck in age-old patterns. This is also reflected in our education. For example, in Lelystad we have a post-secondary and higher vocational education program that focuses on the energy transition and the circular economy. At post-secondary vocational level, we even have a Circular Regional Economy doctoral degree that should give this subject a role in all post-secondary vocational courses in the province. Together with the municipality of Almere, we have set up the Practice and Innovation Center Circular Economy Act (PRICE). The farm of the future in Lelystad is another good example of our practical orientation. What is devised at the universities in Wageningen, Twente and Delft is extremely important, but in the end it is about how we deal with it in practice.”

Besides being the chairperson of the Sustainability portfolio holders’ meeting at the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area (MRA) and a member of the provincial executive, you’re now also a member of our Board. Do those roles sometimes get in each other’s way, or do they reinforce each other?

“We have just dissolved the Sustainability portfolio holders’ meeting ourselves. Because we believe that the theme really should become leading in all platforms of the MRA. We should no longer make it special in a hobby club, it should have a firm place at all tables about the economy, spatial planning and mobility. But back to your question: on a good day those roles reinforce each other and luckily we have many good days, haha. What it helps, is that we start speaking the same language and that when there are differences, it’s easier to engage in conversation. The Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, which the Amsterdam Economic Board focuses on, is partly located in Flevoland. The eastern flank of Flevoland is joining in. For example, all municipalities have signed the agreements on purchasing and tendering and we will also ask about climate adaptation. Conversely, the main theme of our joint venture Samen Maken We Flevoland (Together We Make Flevoland) has been adopted in the lobby letter of the MRA. There, too, it is emphasised that it is about building a society and not about stacking bricks in the housing assignment. That part is more connected with the Zwolle region, and then you see that the MRA and that region can learn from each other.”

That’s how it goes on good days. How are you on bad days?

Then you get a kind of administrative spaghetti and you forget a number of important players. People’s representatives in the province and municipality want to keep an eye on what is happening and that is becoming more difficult with all those organisations. The same applies to the smaller municipalities, that do not have a large civil service. It is therefore important that we keep in touch with those parties. That we give them enough information and that we also ask them.”

Marleen Stikker argued here for more representation of civil society organisations. The province of Flevoland has many citizens’ initiatives. Would you value their representation on the Board?

“I think the thought is very good. Civil society organisations and residents have become more assertive and proactive. Their initiatives sometimes run up against all kinds of rules and it is actually a shame that we do not use their commitment and strength. We still have to think carefully about how that could take shape in the Board. After all, who represents which group? Perhaps organisations and residents themselves have ideas about this. We must certainly make good use of that wealth from the whole of society. In Flevoland we try to do that with our game Flevoland 2050. In this we ask residents and other organisations to think about the future, on various themes. We then use that input to shape our strategic view of the future.”

What would you hope to accomplish at the Board?

“I already told you that we don’t have to inspire each other anymore. We need to rise above the project level and look even more closely at how we are going to achieve that transition. Do you dare to take steps that go against your own short-term interests? Anyone can do a fun project, but do you also dare to do a project that cuts your own meat? What takes you to the ‘place of trouble’? Everyone has to take that pain somewhere in order to be able to take significant steps towards a social, sustainable economy based on broad prosperity. Because in the end we all benefit from this, both professionally and privately. I will do my best for that, so that we can be an example for Europe and the world.”

Text: Mirjam Streefkerk

More Board Talk

The interview with Cora Smelik is part 19 of the Board Talk series. In this series we talk with Board members about the biggest challenges for the Amsterdam metropolis. A region which offers healthy, sustainable living, responsible digitalisation and meaningful work for everyone. These are also the most important themes for the Amsterdam Economic Board. Read more interviews in the Board Talk series.

11 July 2022

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