City-zen Days, FuckUp Nights: Timing is Everything

On April 2nd, together with the FuckUp organization, City-zen organized an evening filled with stories of professional failure. Instead of sharing success stories that are often hard to identify with and even harder to replicate, sharing stories of failure has proven to be insightful, educational and entertaining at the same time. Here are two prime insights we gained that evening.

© brenda de vries 2019

Insight #1: Prepare for the Unforeseen

Marisca Zweistra of Alliander headed the Vehicle-to-Grid pilot. To be more specific: a handful of charging points for electric vehicles were placed in a particular Amsterdam area in order to gather data relating to use and effectiveness. In order to make sure absolutely nothing could go wrong, she made sure her team had identified every possible hurdle and either modified the pilot around it or came up with a suitable solution. They were very proud of their meticulous preparation, down to the smallest details of the device and optimal location. Nothing could go wrong. Or so they thought.

Mysteriously, one of the devices did not function as expected. It seemed to switch itself off at about the same time every night, but showed no signs of technical malfunctions. Closer looks at the data revealed no leads whatsoever. Eventually, Marisca and her team decided to organize a police-style stakeout. To their big surprise, a resident came down in the middle of the night to manually switch off the device. As it turns out, this particular resident preferred to sleep with the windows wide open and the cooling fan’s noise intervened with his night rest! An unforeseen turn of events, indeed.

The team discussed many ideas, ranging from adapting the hardware to relocating the program. After careful deliberation, the team decided to postpone continuation of the pilot until the winter season. Sometimes, all you need is time to solve a problem.

Insight #2: Be Patient

Time was also the origin of failure in the case presented by Annelies van der Stoep of Amsterdam Economic Board. Five years ago, Annelies was asked to find parties in Amsterdam interested in participating in City-zen’s retrofitting program. Armed with considerable funds, she enthusiastically set about approaching suitable subsidients. To her surprise and (understandable) disappointment, she found no takers for her seemingly irresistible offer. Why, she wondered, was it so hard to find people interested in being funded to start up a sustainable project?

Now, five years later, with the benefit of hindsight and the luxury of having a number of successful projects under her belt, she is finally able to provide the answer to this question: time was not on her side. Adapting a macro point of view, she took the audience on a journey through time. In succession, she revealed the social and political climates of 2014 to 2019 based on the most frequently used keywords and searches. Very insightful and quite sobering indeed. The circular economy simply wasn’t topical at all. 2014? Think Winter Olympics, World Cup Football and Flappy Bird. 2015? ISIS, Charlie Hebdo and the Dutch TV-sensation “Boer Zoekt Vrouw” grabbed more headlines than anything even remotely connected to CO2-reduction. It wasn’t until the political polarization of 2016 that sustainability reached the masses. Fortunately for Annelies, this meant finding more fertile soil on the receiving end of her relentless phone calls. And fortunately for City-zen, it meant launching more retrofitting projects aimed at reducing CO2 emissions in urban areas.

Time may not always on your side, Annelies concluded, but timing is everything – so be patient if the project needs you to be.

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    A city operating entirely on clean energy. In theory, it's possible. But in real life? How to integrate new solutions in existing buildings, systems and people's lives? What are the technical, economic or social barriers? And how to overcome these? That's what we learn by doing in 20 projects in Grenoble and Amsterdam.

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