Making something out of nothing

Making something out of nothing

It took me a while to digest all the impressions I collected during the 4th Informed Cities Conference. First I want to say “Thank you” to all the hands and hearts that made it happen! But I don’t want to get stuck in documenting and reporting it. You will find a lot of sources if you want to – only to name one: search #infcities on twitter. What I will do instead is to point out a specific aspect of an “informed city”: The ability to supply its residents with all the necessities.

Die deutsche Version dieses Beitrages finden Sie hier.

One of our basic needs is nutrition. It may sound trite but it is not at all if we consider that nearly all groceries of a city are produced somewhere else. In terms of resilience it becomes a big issue. Another big issue is the organic waste the city produces – and the way we look at it. If we realize that (organic) waste isn’t rubbish at the end of a product-life-line but the resource and starting point for a new product, we are one step closer to resilience and sustainability.

Some years ago, in 2011, I heard about “The Blue Economy” by and from Gunter Pauli for the first time. 100 “blue” Business Models were proved and published to be reused and developed. One of this business models was growing mushrooms on coffee waste. What a great idea! Making food out of waste and relieve the climate by turning methane to carbon dioxide. Later I heard about Chidos – a Berlin-based startup that uses this principle and sells disposable grow kits as presents. Therefore, and because of my general interest in social entrepreneurship, I attended the group that went to RotterZwam during the Informed Cities conference.

Two young guys from Rotterdam, both with a strong economic background, started a mushroom-growing business based on the blue economy principle. But instead of stopping at the growing and selling mushrooms business they took it one step further and developed more products out of it. Homegrown kits being one of them (and I bought one to give it a try). Another product are the enzymes, that could be washed out of the mycelium – they can be used for producing bio-plastics. Furthermore they raise compost worms as a side-product of recycling the used mushroom substrate. They are sold in a system called “The Hungry Bin”, a wormery that turns organic waste into compost soil. At least the compost soil itself is sold as a ready-to-use product for farms and (urban) gardens.

RotterZwam - circular economy

RotterZwam – circular economy source:

It took them almost two years to start a running business. And some supporting circumstances came together: An already proven business model which can be realized with feasible investments, an existing knowledge of how to proceed, access to an extraordinary space that not only fulfills all necessary requirements but also generates attention, attention that helped to succeed a crowdfunding campaign to collect required initial funding. Also the economic background of the founders was helpful. A lot of especially social businesses fail because of a lack of that. As Siemen Cox, one of the founders, pointed out

“If it is not profitable, it isn’t a sustainable business. It’s a hobby.”

This mindset and the knowledge about how to create a profitable business without losing the social attitude is quite remarkable. But what impressed me most was the consistency in how these guys are running their business. Not only that they collecting the coffee waste with a cargo bike or choosing local suppliers for e.g. the home grow kit even when it would be much cheaper and would generate more profit to obtain it from China. They also have a strong commitment to the Open Source approach: They provide workshops and internships where you can learn about the “mushroom business”. They are part of the mushroom learning network where all information around are accessible online. And they share their business ideas like the floating urban mushroom farms.

Back to the “informed city” and its ability to provide all what is needed for its inhabitants: If a city wants to become resilient it has to find ways to be viable out of itself. Reduce – reuse – recycle is the magic formula for this. If we see waste as a resource we can make a lot out of nothing. “Take what is there and you will have more than you need.” is the slogan of the Blue Economy and this should apply for cities as well. To start sustainable systems some circumstances have to come together. It is the task of a city to provide the necessary conditions and support those entrepreneurs that are applying the magic formula. As Alexandros Filippidis mentioned on a panel discussion during the conference:

“Give people space and they will create great things that make their lives better.”

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This article was written by

Hi, my name is Soeren and I am a marketing and communication professional with a strong dedication for Social Entrepreneurship and the REconomy approach. I'm one of three bloggers for the ARTS region Dresden, Germany. Before I came to Dresden I lived and worked in different German cities. I travelled around the world for 9 month. I was co-founder of a Social Business Startup in Berlin and a coworking initiative in Dresden and I discoverd my passion for researching and fostering Social Business Models. On my personal website you will find different projects and initiatives in wich I'm involved.

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