Ondernemerschap, 2013

Het is april: mijn eerste kwartaal als zelfstandig ondernemer zit er op. En de tijd vliegt: een eerste opdracht is alweer een tijdje terug afgerond, mijn andere klus staat intussen aardig op de rails, het ontwerp van mijn nieuwe huisstijl begint definitiever vorm aan te nemen en als ik het nu nog niet zeker wist: de eerste aangifte van de omzetbelasting is ook de deur uit.

Het is een boeiende ontdekkingstocht met veel nieuwe kennis, inspirerende mensen, en – dat kan niet anders – vaak uit die comfort zone. Vorige week was ik daarom een dag op de Week van de Ondernemer om nieuwe ideeën en inspiratie op te zoeken. Maar het ochtendprogramma van deze dag, geleid door Wilfred Genee, deed me al snel afvragen of ik eigenlijk wel behoor tot de doelgroep van dit groots opgezette evenement. Er werd door de verschillende (uitsluitend mannelijke) sprekers veel gezegd over ‘het kennen van je klant’ en zijn taal spreken.

Op deze dag werd mijn taal in elk geval niet gesproken. Ik herinner het me als een ochtend vol met platitudes & flauwe moppen over het verschil tussen mannen en vrouwen en over voetbal; met alleen mannen van middelbare leeftijd in grijze pakken op het podium; en met een focus op zoveel mogelijk geld verdienen.

Dit is niet mijn soort ondernemerschap. Ik kies juist voor dit pad omdat ik diversiteit zoek, omdat ik wil werken aan de thema’s die ik belangrijk vind in deze wereld, omdat ik met gelijkgestemden wil samenwerken om het allerbeste resultaat te bereiken (en dat staat niet gelijk aan het meeste geld verdienen); omdat de wereld – en dus ook de economie – hard verandert en ik daar onderdeel van wil uitmaken.

Niets van dit bovenstaande heb ik terug gevonden op deze dag in Utrecht. Jammer. Misschien ben ik wel geen standaard-ondernemer – dat zou me zeker niet verbazen. Maar tegelijkertijd kan ik me ook niet voorstellen dat het gros van de mensen die zelfstandig werken, die een eigen bedrijf hebben, zich aangesproken voelen door dit verhaal van de oude en conservatieve economie wat voorop stond in Utrecht.

Sprak de Week van de Ondernemer echt de taal van zijn klant?

Urbanization in China

This month saw the formal change in leadership in China, with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang taking over the positions of president and prime minister at the 12th National People’s Congress.

It quickly became clear that one of Li Keqiang’s main policy items will focus on urbanization in China as a way to maintain economic growth. Urbanization has been an important development in China for the past decades, with the urban population outnumbering the rural population since 2011.

The China Economic Watch blog looks a little closer at this intended focus of the new administration:

“What is interesting about Premier Li’s approach is that it takes the issue of urbanization, which has been the primary driver of regional disparity and income inequality, and repackages it in a way that addresses those exact issues.”

It won’t be easy to tackle the issues that come with urbanization and urban development in China, and to turn them into a source of positive economic development. It will be interesting to follow how this works out in the next few years; also from a Dutch point of view. Many organisations from the Netherlands are involved in the topic of urban development locally but also in China as some news items & events from the past week will show:

  • last Monday, Pakhuis de Zwijger hosted an evening on working in China as a Dutch architect, including a screening of the documentary “The Making of the World’s Largest TV Tower” about the Guangzhou TV Tower;
  • last Thursday I attended the book launch for “The Shanghai Alleyway House; a vanishing urban venacular” at IIAS;
  • the Dutch company Arcadis has signed an agreement with the city of Wuhan to work on restoring some of the old parts of the city (article in Dutch);
  • the Dutch company Inbo recently was one of the experts at an expert meeting for the Shenzhen International Low Carbon City.

It seems that Dutch expertise can be useful in some of the issues that Chinese cities will tackle in the next few years. However, in my discussions on this topic over the last few weeks the big question remaining is how to successfully connect these many and various companies and experts to the right projects and local governments in China. My next few weeks will be spent exploring this question further to look for possible solutions.

North Korea, the risks of isolation

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Prof. Remco Breuker and his views on North Korea and recent developments on the Korean peninsula. I have been following him for some time through Twitter and as it turns out we are fellow Japanologists. Though I suppose we both hide that well – Remco Breuker has gone over to the Korean side, while most of my professional life over the past few years has been focused on China.

The lecture was very timely as of course the Korean peninsula is causing quite some headaches again. One of the reasons for my fascination with East Asia is in large part to do with the immense variety of the countries in the region: six countries with completely different political, economic and social systems.

The North Korean state is the one that possibly is the most puzzling in the region to most outside observers. Isolated, poor, but with a large population, large reserves of minerals and a definite streak of independence. And again the country is causing problems by renouncing the cease-fire with South-Korea, and testing its long range missiles every few months or so. Remco Breuker gave us some more background on why this is happening, and gave some interesting insights and thoughts. Some examples:

> Unification is growing more unlikely, not only because of the immense financial cost involved but research in South Korea is showing increasingly that in fact younger generations in South Korea don’t look at the North anymore as being of the same country. As Remco Breuker put it: they are South Koreans, not Koreans.

> No one wants any kind of armed conflict on the Peninsula, but in the current situation unintended escalation is an easy risk.

> Engagement is the only way to get any further in this process. Increasing sanctions on North Korea is only making things worse, as to the people in North Korea it confirms what they know of the outside world: everyone, especially the US, wants to destroy North Korea. However, engagement will not be easy – and to quote Churchill will have to be “failure after failure after failure”. It may also mean that some people in the regime will not get the punishment (straight away) they deserve as the first and foremost objective should be to improve conditions in the country itself for its population. It may be necessary to engage exactly those people who are responsible for the current situation to get there.

There is no easy solution, and there is definitely not an easy way out of the prospect of North Korea becoming a nuclear power. In Breuker’s view this will be something we will have to deal with, as it looks unlikely/impossible that this will be bargained off the table.

Especially the discussion on the role of the regional powers such as Japan and China was a part that I would’ve liked to go on for longer. The complexities of the region are many, and some aspects of it are not really understood here at all. Again, the abduction issue was brought up – the topic of my MA/MSc thesis – which is still having an effect on the Japanese position towards North Korea. I guess some things never change: what may look like an insignificant issue to us in faraway Europe means everything to a resolution that may or may not come.

I wonder what the future will hold for the region, a unified Korea – or two countries continuing to go in a very different direction?

Recommended: Shareable

One of my recent website/blog finds is Shareable, a website bringing together stories and news from the world of the ‘sharing economy’. I’m not too sure what I think of naming another concept – I’m not a fan of labelling everything that is supposedly different, but maybe not really.

Anyway, what I like about Shareable – and I don’t nearly read everything – is the variety of topics and the new things I find when looking through a few days’ worth of articles.

It’s where I found Legobombing, where I’m following the saga of a junior co-worker (which coincides with my own route of discovering fitting workspaces and the so often alluded to ‘serendipity’), and many more bits of information on what happens when people find each other and start doing stuff together.

I love the glimpse of optimism and creativity in the midst of so many depressing stories in the news these days.

Saturday reading: on street art in Beijing

My Saturday so far has mostly been spent catching up on my neglected Google Reader subscriptions, Twitter favourites and more. It’s been good taking the time reading about so many different things happening around the world, ranging from:

But the thing that has stuck with me most and that I’d like to highlight here especially is an article I found through UrbaChina, on the evolution of street art in China, focusing on Beijing. Interesting to read on something that has always been part of urban culture here, but which is still a very small movement in China. But growing. I would love to see the documentary about it as well, hopefully it’ll find its way to one of the (Asian) film- or documentary festivals here.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMfSjagb36s]

Verover de wereld!

Optimisme. Enthousiasme. Energie. Avontuur.

Dat is mij bijgebleven van de lancering van het Wereldveroveraars netwerk op 28 februari in Pakhuis de Zwijger. Want, is de boodschap tijdens deze middag, als slimme ondernemer zoek je je succes buiten de Nederlandse landsgrenzen. De export, dat is tenslotte het enige economische cijfer dat nog ten positieve groeit.

Het optimisme en enthousiasme hierover was aanstekelijk, en sprak duidelijk uit de korte interviews met de, door het FD en BNR als wereldveroveraars bestempelde bedrijven. Mecanoo, Bols, SpiritIT, Rituals – stuk voor stuk bedrijven die naam maken buiten Nederland.

Dat optimisme was fijn – dat is tenslotte iets wat we weinig horen de laatste tijd, terwijl er ook gewoon nog een hoop dingen goed gaan. Typerend misschien is de reactie die ik vaak krijg wanneer ik vertel dat ik in januari ben gestart als zelfstandig ondernemer: “Dapper!” of “En dat in deze tijd…!”. Ja, misschien is dat ook wel zo; maar de groei zit toch juist in Azië en in duurzaamheid – in mijn stellige overtuiging in elk geval. Dat is dan toch een gouden combinatie? Ter vergelijking: vaak hoorde ik vorig jaar – toen ik nog twijfelend was – bijna alleen maar aanmoediging en enthousiasme. Hoe het ook zij, deze crisis vraagt nu eenmaal om wat creativiteit – en ja, optimisme.

Terug naar Pakhuis de Zwijger en de Wereldveroveraars. Daar was weinig twijfel te bespeuren. Hoewel bijna elke ondernemer op het podium sprak over de noodzaak van een goede voorbereiding en betrouwbare partners, was eigenlijk alleen Rituals zo eerlijk om ook de andere kant te vertellen. Bij het veroveren van sommige markten hadden ze al veel geld verloren. Want dat er risico’s horen bij het internationaal ondernemen is zeker.

De grens over gaan is zeker een avontuur, maar in de woorden van een wereldveroveraar klinkt het verdacht makkelijk. Of misschien is het inderdaad gewoon een kwestie van de juiste mensen kennen. Juist dat wat het nieuwe Wereldveroveraars netwerk wil faciliteren.

Africatown in China

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting article in a Belgian magazine that described Africans trying their luck in China, more specifically this became: Africatown in Guangzhou. Reading it, I mostly enjoyed the change of perspective: the last few years China is investing heavily in many African countries – and this is changing the landscape of development aid and trade with the African continent and the rest of the world, most notably Europe.* It was good to read a different side of this story: the increasing connections between Africa and China are also creating opportunities for Africans to go to China and make their fortune out of this increased trade.

Tonight, the Dutch television programme Tegenlicht expanded on this article and gave a more inside view of the motivations of these people from Nigeria and many other countries to head to China (sometimes after spending time in other Asian countries such as Japan and Taiwan) and make a living for themselves there. Again, an interesting view just like the article provided.

But what the documentary added to this view of Africans coming to China, in this case specifically to Guangzhou in the Southeast, was a perspective on migration – and the benefits that this offers our society. Ian Goldin explained how all places have developed as a result of migration. One of my favourite parts of the documentary was where he gave examples of how – throughout history – in every society migrants play an essential part in economic development, new innovations and realising new ideas. As he said: “all great leaps in economic development are the result of migration.”. These major effects of migration are something that we don’t hear about enough.

Tegenlicht continued with a glimpse of the future: with the active workforce in Europe actually declining, Asia is the next place that offers a large – and for the moment – increasing workforce. In fact, China is currently home to one of the largest migration in history, where the countryside of China is mass migrating to the major cities, mostly to the East coast of China. However, Goldin also shows that this development is flattening off, which will leave even China with a labour scarcity in future. What will be the consequences of this? And how can our economic system and our society respond to these changes? In Goldin’s view, the EU has been successful in one thing: opening its borders which did not create mass migration but did create economic freedom, an essential part of a healthy economy.

The Tegenlicht screening can be seen online, where you can also find additional reading and references to other sources.

* I recently came across this book, now on my Amazon wishlist, which discusses this development: From recipients to donors

Making Chinese cities ‘smart’

A lot is being written about ecocities in China. Smart cities, sustainable cities, future cities: you can call them by different names which mostly come down to the same thing. In my (non-official) definition: a city which is built for the future, which can offer its inhabitants a high quality of life while using its natural resources sustainably (i.e. staying within the limits of this planet) and making smart connections through IT, use of land, agriculture, nature etc – and of course through its people!

As you can probably tell from some earlier posts on this blog, it is also a topic I’m very interested in. It seems to be bringing together so many different things that fascinate and inspire me.

Architecture and design: what will these cities look like, and how do they need to be designed to offer a comfortable and happy place to live?

Sustainability: how can these megacities keep growing and offer space for so many people while using its resources responsibly? How do you feed a city with millions of people living in it?

Business: what role can companies play in inventing innovations which will make life in a big city so much smoother for the millions living there; and in Asia often in poverty?

Earlier this week I came across an online talk by Dutch architect Neville Mars, talking about ecocities and what the many issues are in developing these successfully in China. Interesting talk, which he gave at TEDxTheBund last October in Shanghai.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-uVfV2WFSw&w=560&h=315]

The Netherlands is also following these developments, some examples of which are a seminar on smart cities in Asia late 2012 (of which you can find short excerpts on developments in the various countries here), a Dutch sustainable building platform in Shanghai and other activities both by the Dutch government representation in China and by companies and individuals active in this field.

There seems to be a lot going on, but at the same time making real progress is difficult – which Neville Mars’ talk illustrates clearly as well. Some of my preferred websites to keep track of these developments are, for example:

Any favourites yourself? I would love to add a few more to this list!

CSR in Asia

Outside of the office, the last few weeks I’ve been working on my professional plans for the upcoming new year – I will be sharing more on that later but it will not be a surprise that they center on Asia and CSR. Those are also the topics that I (irregularly) write about here.

However, these are also two topics that – in the Netherlands, at least – don’t automatically belong together. CSR discussions and events here are often focused on issues that concern companies in their activities within the Netherlands itself. Understandable, of course.

But at the same time CSR doesn’t limit itself to the borders of the country where a company is based. Especially in a country where international trade is so important to economic growth, companies are naturally confronted with international issues as part of their CSR policy.

I am specifically interested in how CSR is developing in Asian countries, and what this may mean for Dutch or other international businesses. Of course Asia includes some of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies. This means that many foreign companies do business in this region and developing CSR policies that fit local activities will be increasingly important for them.

I try to keep track of many different sources of information on these two topics, but again it seems as if these two themes do not really find eachother on a Dutch platform. As a cautious beginning I started a Dutch-language Twitter account where I will be collecting news, information, blogs and whatever else is interesting to send out into the world about CSR-developments and sustainability topics in Asia. For those in the Netherlands, I hope to see you as followers! Find it here: MVO in Azië

Books with impact

A few weeks ago I posted my favourite books on China: what are must-read’s on this country if you want to get an idea of what is going on in this country, according to mthld of course.

But I don’t only read on China (and in that case, that list possibly would’ve been longer). Especially some of the books which I’ve read on the topic of sustainability and corporate social responsibility have made quite an impact on how I view these topics and what I have done about them in my personal life. But not only that, reading about these issues and getting a better understanding of them has also led me to work towards a career shift. I’m in the middle of this career shift right now in which I will combine the topics of international business and CSR much more than I have done so far. Exciting stuff.

More will follow about that later, for now – what are these books that have made such an impact?

Collapse by Jared Diamond
Diamond is the writer of another fascinating book (Guns, Germs and Steel) which is a recommended read as well – but for me this book is the more interesting of the two. In this book Diamond describes what made the difference for societies to either be successful or to fail. Often, according to Diamond, the reasons behind this are in part environmental and also dependent on how societies work with their natural environment. He sketches how caring for and maintaining the natural environment properly is a critical factor in the survival of a society. Fascinating reading, which gave me a much better understanding of longer term effects of environment and of not handling it as well as we should.

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
Despite the title of this book, this book – and the one-week experiment that resulted from it, the No Impact Project – has probably influenced my personal life and the choices I make the most. The book is the result of one year living with no (or at least very minimal) impact on the environment in the middle of New York City. Colin Beavan’s year goes to a lot more extremes than is considered comfortable living, but it also shows what is possible. By participating in the No Impact Project (twice, and it’s starting again in the Netherlands in spring 2013) I’ve discovered much more about the possibilities of changes in your own behaviour towards a more sustainable way of living than I expected.

Prosperity without growth by Tim Jackson
Is continuous economic growth possible within the limits of the earth? Jackson argues that it isn’t , but he also argues that economic growth is not necessary for prosperity. However, this does require major changes in the current economic system, and in this book he explains some of them and how to make them work. Persuasive reading, and especially recommended if you are interested in the economic & business side of sustainability.

The necessary revolution by Peter Senge, and others
This is another book which looks at the more economic side of sustainability and the changes needed both to make business more sustainable but also how this will impact the rest of society. It looks at creating partnerships across society and how this will enable change to happen. Interesting ideas, and it contains good examples and best practices.

The ecology of commerce by Paul Hawken
This is an older book on the basics of what sustainibility means for business, and how business can work with this. Still worth a read.

With the amount of books written about CSR & sustainability of course there is a lot more out there. For the moment however, these are my personal favourites – and of course I am always curious to hear your’s. What is missing from this list?