Onward! To the best of times!

Q&A on the integration of City-zen results in Grenoble and Amsterdam

In an intimate setting, the Deputy Mayor of Grenoble, the Director of the Amsterdam Economic Board and the two local City-zen Project Leads discussed how this program has influenced their cities as well as their ways of working. Moderator Froukje Jansen dug deep as she tried to find out if and how the project contributed to the acceleration of the much-needed sustainability transition. How did they integrate the project’s various results in their ways of working? How did the project influence their sustainability efforts already in motion? What were common or shared obstacles on their way to CO2-reduction?


Froukje Jansen (FJ): “We are very much aware that the City-zen project has not been the only effort of your city to contribute to the reduction of CO2-emissions. How did the project fit in your already existing strategies towards carbon neutrality?”

Vincent Fristot (VF), Deputy Mayor of Grenoble: “In Grenoble, we really try to show that the transition towards carbon neutrality can positively influence well-being. This goes for smaller scale efforts, such as serving local and organic food at school canteens and by social services to the elderly. But also for larger scale efforts, such as aiming to provide 100% renewable electricity to all households in Grenoble by 2022. The transition is part of our public policies, from public buildings to retrofitting and sustainable mobility to food.”

Nina Tellegen (NT), Director of Amsterdam Economic Board: “We share that same ambition and drive. Amsterdam aims to be completely free of natural gas by 2040, for example. In 2050, our CO2-emissions should be 95% less than they were in 1990. To guide that transition, we have roadmaps pertaining to buildings, mobility, electricity and industry. The Amsterdam Economic Board, as an independent entity, strengthens cooperation between companies, knowledge institutions and governments in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area.”

VF: “That’s where we really benefitted from City-zen’s help: the metropolitan scale. We organized events such as City-zen Days and the Biennial of Transition Cities to showcase our innovative projects. We also had a very successful workshop with national experts of data privacy issues that directly related to data collection in one of the energy projects. The workshop delivered very interesting learnings.”

NT: “The dissemination of learnings and outcomes has taken place in ways beyond our expectations and to an impressive variety of audiences. I can safely say that awareness has certainly increased, within our city and beyond. Presentations to students, sessions with delegations and online communication all contributed. But also connecting people, such as bringing together Professor Van den Dobbelsteen and the Amsterdam Alderman for Sustainability so they could discuss the roadmap approach. Of course, it helped that we were able to offer City-zen innovations that other cities could very well relate to. Take the biorefinery in Buiksloterham for example, or the Sanquin demonstration where pharmaceutical processes are cooled with cold from drinking water.”

VF: “Increasing awareness was key to our retrofitting efforts as well. The City-zen program allowed us to boost high energy performance in social housing. It was especially useful to reach and involve those who were lagging behind.”


FJ: “Has working with a consortium of over 30 partners impacted your sustainability efforts and  how about the connection between Grenoble and Amsterdam?

NT: “Partnering with Grenoble was very interesting and inspiring. The intensive renovation guidance that is offered to owners and co-owners, for example, is something we could use in Amsterdam as well. The holistic approach that Grenoble is using for retrofitting guidance, is something we’re actually slightly jealous of, to be honest.”

VF: “From our side, it was interesting to discover Amsterdam’s history and current development with natural gas. In Grenoble we develop gas from biomass – a different approach to reduce the footprint of our energy mix. Also, we found the Amsterdam Smart City platform very inspiring. It shows us how we can use an online platform to boost our city’s image as well as promote better collaboration with private partners.

Speaking of partners: the City-zen period really helped to strengthen links between the local partners in Grenoble. GEG with Atos, then with the Metropolis, the CEA research institute with the district heating company, the local energy and climate agency with landlords of social housing and with the urban development corporation,… I am convinced that these partnerships will provide fertile soil for new innovative projects.”

NT: “How nice of you to point out the Amsterdam Smart City platform. It is one of the programs of the Amsterdam Economic Board and one where we really manage to work together with multiple partners. It has given us insight in many things, such as the long-term innovation goals of those partners. But is also helps to avoid the known pitfalls of working in partnerships. And we are continuously looking to provide our partners a platform for their visibility.”

FJ: “Looking back, could you share your learnings as City-zen consortium working with the EC?”

Marjolein Bot (MB), Project Lead Amsterdam: “A 5+ year project like City-zen is very complex. Look at the Description of Work document, for example, it is a theoretical framework but the real-life situations in our cities do not always let themselves be controlled by the project partners. Managing changes is quite time-consuming. The EC has been flexible with City-zen in terms of moving timelines and changing scope, we were very fortunate with that. But it wouldn’t hurt to explore ways to add more flexibility. Adapting intermediate goals or adding consortium partners for a specific task or maybe create specific moments to reconsider. It would be great for the EC  to develop a less complex amendment process. Why not work more agile? Then we allow ourselves to put people above processes, put results above documentation, choose cooperation over negotiation and respond to change which deepens the results and strengthens the outcome.”

Nathalie Moyon (NM), Project Lead Grenoble: “It’s an interesting point, because compared to most French projects, the City-zen project was very flexible! The 9-month extension of the project duration, the addition of new partners and demos that were allowed to join after the start, are good examples. On the other hand, a project we were very proud of was rejected because it was considered ‘out of the initial scope of the call’. This power-to-gas demo was extremely relevant to Grenoble’s context and we expected it to contribute significantly to achieving our energy transition targets. Fortunately, we had a good and constructive dialogue about this. Grenoble partners and I do appreciate that the policy officer is French-speaking!

Personally, I think City-zen was a great opportunity to help implementation of sustainability projects at urban scale. In my role as the local coordinator for a program of this size, I really enjoyed working with the consortium partners. The Municipality’s role was to help local partners and it was a role that suited me personally as well.”

MB: “I share that attraction towards scale, I find it fascinating to work with a large consortium where different parties have different interests but all are looking to drive towards one overall objective. Especially in this project, within the context of innovation, working with citizens and learning from mistakes. Technically, everything is possible, but City-zen is all about what happens when you do them in real life. It was very exciting to see that happen and to be a part of all that!”


FJ: “It sounds like a very dynamic period indeed. Could you share some highlights? How about learnings you picked up along the way?”

NM: “The City-zen Days event we organized in Grenoble in 2018 was certainly one of the highlights. Probably the first of its kind on energy transition organized in Grenoble, open to a wide audience. It is always difficult to attract regular citizens to such an event but the site visits and the evening conference worked pretty well for that purpose.”

MB: “The events were certainly among my highlights as well. The so-called F*-Up Night in Antwerp, for example. Project managers from Waternet, Alliander and AEB openly shared failures and what they learned from them. They told their stories from the heart and those stories are therefore memorable.

Another highlight was the series of field visits during the City-zen Days in Amsterdam. Home-owners told passionate stories about their retrofitting projects and that was really great. Throughout the project we have been trying to leverage the motivation and drive of these frontrunners. Seeing and hearing them tell their stories was very touching. We really try to support and motivate them. The acceleration of the energy transition must come from various forces, including these frontrunners.”

NM: “I always saw City-zen as an excellent opportunity to accelerate as well. It is why I tried to secure the district heating loop of the Flaubert area in Grenoble, in spite of the administrative issues. And I also tried to have a condominium retrofitted within the City-zen time frame as an example of private housing retrofitting.

Regarding retrofitting, Grenoble stakeholders work hard to massify the process: so projects are becoming difficult when it is about retrofitting everywhere in the city. I think that social and behavioral aspects are underestimated in the energy field. We definitely need more time and budget, although we can pride ourselves on the results achieved within the City-zen ‘social monitoring’ work package.”

MB: “Social monitoring really emphasized the need for proper communication with the participants. I think it is critical to analyze the target group: who are they, what motivates them, how do they decide to participate? Create specific engagement approaches and keep the dialogue flowing throughout the project so they will remain involved.”

NM: “Involvement is key, I agree. At the start, we missed a couple of important local stakeholders in Grenoble: La Métro, which is the metropolitan authority, and ALEC, which is the local energy and climate agency. Having the right organizations and the right people on board allows you to build a common vision and share knowledge within the community.

Sharing is important, too. As long as people are involved, they are very happy to share their progress and are keen on site visits, et cetera. It is not part of their routine, but project managers need to be more visible.”



FJ: “The project is now finished. Hopefully, your learnings and insights will help accelerate the transition you were talking about earlier. What aspects of City-zen would you like to see continued? If you were to start a similar project, what would you do differently?”

NM: “I would definitely involve academics as City-zen partners. It is a dimension we are taking into account more actively now. I would also make sure that we have enough personnel to serve City-zen partners and projects more effectively. Storytelling experts and graphic designers should join the project from day one. Knowledge deserves to be shared effectively.”

MB: “Yes, completely agree with the need for good images and graphics! They really help getting the message across. And that is particularly useful when you are trying to replicate or deploy the project and its learnings. A scale-up approach should be part of the Description of Work, in my opinion: how do we progress from individual buildings to an area-specific approach and then relate it to city scale? Also, determine upfront who will be responsible for upscaling of working innovations and business models when the project reaches its end.

NT: “In Amsterdam, we are fortunate that some things managed to find a natural way to their continuation. I am pleased to say that eLaad has picked up from Alliander and continues to work on vehicle-to-grid and smart charging stations. Waternet is about to build a new neighborhood with a  biorefinery. Learnings from City-zen will be leveraged in Atelier and EMPOWER 2.0, two new EU programs.”

VF: “We see a similar development in Grenoble. The implementation of our Energy roadmap continues. PV panels are going to be mandatory on new buildings, for example. We will continue development of self-consumption plants, something we successfully implemented within City-zen. We will also continue to make our district heating network more ‘green’, striving for 100% renewable and recovered energies by 2030. The small-scale data platform developed within City-zen will continue at metropolis scale: we need a tool to show and understand our energy consumption.

Grenoble will join new EU programs, too. SONNET is about social innovation for energy transition and Grenoble is one of its City Labs. Our most recent development? We have just applied to become a candidate for the European Green Capital award of 2022.”

  • The Project

    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've learned by doing in 20 projects in Grenoble and Amsterdam.

  • Our Activities

  • Achieved Impacts

    • 20 innovations in Grenoble & Amsterdam
    • 35,000 tonnes CO2 saved per year
    • 76,000 m² renovated residential buildings
    • 10,000 dwellings connected to a Smart Grid