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Constance Buyne: “Innovation is never done alone.”

Constance Buyne is the driving force behind the Startup & Scale-up action program UPALMERE! of the municipality of Almere. Additionally, she is a core team member of the public-private Green Innovation Hub. How do these roles complement each other? And how does she reflect on year 1 of the Green Innovation Hub? We discussed these topics. “There is a strong willingness in Almere to collaboratively build an open innovation ecosystem for sustainable urban development.”

As the program lead for Startups & Scale-ups within the municipality of Almere, you lead UPALMERE!. What does that entail?

“UPALMERE! is the municipal action program that encourages and facilitates Almere-based startups and scale-ups to strengthen their growth and innovation capabilities for international scaling. UPALMERE! originated in 2019 and emerged from the strategic economic agenda of the municipality for the 2019-2023 term. This program was developed from scratch, as Almere had no programming for startups and scale-ups before 2019, unlike surrounding municipalities within the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area and the rest of the Netherlands. Startups and scale-ups remain a significant theme for the municipality of Almere in the new strategic economic agenda, and I’m thrilled about that.”

You are also a core team member of the Green Innovation Hub. What is the connection with UPALMERE!?

“UPALMERE! consists of a small team that closely collaborates with stakeholders and partners in the city, region, nationally, and internationally. The Green Innovation Hub is a crucial partner because both entities work on the societal challenges of the Municipality of Almere with innovation at the core. When we talk about innovation, it directly involves startups and scale-ups. However, there are differences: the Green Innovation Hub is a (inter)national, open innovation platform with a physical location in the center of Almere. Programming takes place with a focus on five themes: local food security, mobility, circular construction, sustainable energy distribution, and inclusion—social connectivity among city residents. Within the Green Innovation Hub, the OSI model holds a central place in all its activities, namely: Meet, Collaborate, and Innovate. It serves as a meeting point for exchanging knowledge, forming collaborations, developing, testing, and validating innovations. Subsequently, these innovations are scaled up and implemented in the city.”

“While UPALMERE! programming is intended for and targeted at Almere-based startups and scale-ups, companies and entities in the case of the Green Innovation Hub can come from anywhere: Almere, Flevoland, other parts of the Netherlands, and abroad. The developed innovations will initially land in Almere. Consider, for example, the newly developing district, Pampus, where tens of thousands of people will live and work in the coming decades. I see UPALMERE! as a valuable reinforcement of the potential and programming of the Green Innovation Hub. Almere-based startups and scale-ups from the UPALMERE! community can connect with many more partners and companies through the open innovation platform and the field lab function of the Green Innovation Hub that can potentially contribute to their digitally-driven innovations for Almere. This strengthens the growth and economic vitality of this city even more.”

Why is Almere particularly attractive to startups and scale-ups?

“Almere provides a favorable environment for innovation and has an innovation ecosystem that is rapidly developing, given the collaboration between businesses, knowledge institutions, research institutions, and the government. If we just look at the city’s development, startups and scale-ups can apply significant and innovative solutions for the sustainable city of the future in Almere—a place where there is currently nothing, offering a plethora of possibilities. I’m referring to Almere Pampus, the first of several new districts that will emerge in Almere in the coming decades. Simultaneously, Almere is already a city with 80,000 homes and 218,000 residents. In its future urban development plans, Almere will increasingly adopt new economic and circular principles. With UPALMERE! and the Green Innovation Hub, we provide startups and scale-ups with an inspiring environment where they can develop, test, validate, and scale their innovations in co-creation with other parties. Moreover, Team UPALMERE! has established various connections between Almere-based startups and scale-ups and the innovative small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in different areas. As the engine of the economy, innovative SMEs are indispensable in supporting startups and scale-ups in scaling their innovations.”

How does UPALMERE! build that bridge to innovative SMEs?

“The UPALMERE! action program consists of two essential pillars: the Startup & Scale-up Hero Journey and the KVK Business Challenge Almere. Both programs are designed for startups and scale-ups looking to grow through innovations focused on digital-driven innovations, sustainability, and measurable societal impact. In both programs, we establish connections with innovative SMEs. The Startup & Scale-up Hero Journey is a compact program from UPALMERE! featuring inspiring sessions and workshops. The recently elected winner was Static Entertainment. All eight finalists enhanced and refined an existing innovation to ultimately scale it in the market. Each of the eight finalists was paired, through speed dating, with two entrepreneurs from an Almere mentor pool consisting of 400 innovative SMEs. These mentors selflessly offer their coaching and network to growth companies, which I find fantastic. It shows a strong willingness in Almere to collaboratively build an open innovation ecosystem. This coaching is crucial because innovation is never done alone; you need others. Moreover, innovation needs vary, as was the case for these eight finalists. Through this program, they found answers to questions like: how do I search for a co-creation partner to further develop my innovation? Should I experiment with my innovation, or should I first seek investors? Other innovators focused on the question of how to attract talent as a requirement to realize their growth ambitions.”

How does the KVK Business Challenge Almere promote local innovation?

“In 2023, Team UPALMERE! collaborated with the Chamber of Commerce (KVK) to organize another Almere edition of the national KVK Business Challenge. In this open innovation platform, the focus is on the local Almere SMEs with a new, non-Googleable innovation challenge. Startups and scale-ups from around the world can respond with a solution.”

Back to the Green Innovation Hub. What does your role as a core team member entail, and how do you experience that role?

“It involves doing a lot because the core team is a strategic and operationally active team. Tasks range from setting up the new accommodation for the Green Innovation Hub in the Floor building in Almere to coordinating with all core team members on strategic programming, and everything in between. I experience the Green Innovation Hub as a wonderful place where innovations related to sustainable urban development can be collaboratively developed and scaled by a large number of parties, ultimately landing in Almere, Flevoland, and the rest of the Netherlands.”

How do you look back on the first year of the Green Innovation Hub?

“The hub was ceremoniously opened in February 2023. Based on the strategy we established with KPMG at the end of 2022, significant development strides had to be made in this first year. However, the outside world was already curious about what we were going to deliver. Therefore, in 2023, we also looked at our programming: how do you ensure that there is more activity in that physical space in the Floor building? We came up with Green Innovation Hub cafés, events on a specific theme related to sustainable urban development, followed by a networking reception. In July, we also organized the Green Innovation Hub Contest 2023. UPALMERE! was part of the jury. There were interesting participants with relevant solutions. For example, a company that makes it transparent through an innovative platform when certain regional harvests are ready, so that residents of Almere know when local food is available and can be served locally: from farm to table. Such a contest is, of course, just a first step toward an innovation that ultimately takes shape in the city. But it simultaneously has a magnetic effect because it attracts parties that say, ‘Count me in, I will contribute from my idea to further develop and make this innovation successful for another company.’”

“We have already started the initial preparations for the Green Innovation Hub Contest 2024. I encourage everyone with an innovative solution for the sustainable city of the future to sign up for this competition with the Green Innovation Hub.”

Recently, the Green Innovation Hub also launched the Minecraft Challenge for Almere Pampus. A competition with impact?

“Absolutely. With the Minecraft Pampus challenge, students can digitally contribute to the future Almere Pampus in the game. That’s fantastic. Last September, at the launch of the Minecraft Pampus Challenge, we enticed 200 students from Hogeschool Windesheim to participate in the challenge. The night before this launch, we had a dinner with about eighty national stakeholders of the Green Innovation Hub and Microsoft stakeholders. The value of the network that has already emerged within the Green Innovation Hub is enormous. It was an excellent kick-off for this challenge, which recently also garnered much interest at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, where we had a large delegation from Almere.”

Can you tell us more about Almere’s role during that event?

“During this international congress on sustainable urban development through the use of technology, the Green Innovation Hub and UPALMERE! were part of the programming at the NL Pavilion. A special part of the pavilion was set up for the Minecraft demo. International visitors could experience on the spot the possibilities in the field of urban development in Almere Pampus with Minecraft. It was amazing and attracted a lot of attention. I can confidently say that we have internationally positioned Almere as a valuable innovation ecosystem for sustainable urban development. Almere is truly a city of action. It happens in Almere.”

Allow me to introduce Constance Buyne.

Constance Buyne is a core team member of the Green Innovation Hub. Her professional background includes roles in marketing, sales, management, and HRM within the corporate sector. Afterward, she transitioned to the municipality of Almere. During her nine years there, she focused on strategic HRM, involving the recruitment, engagement, and retention of the right talent for internal clients such as executive teams and management teams. Seeking more engagement with the outside world and entrepreneurship, Buyne shifted within the municipality of Almere to the department where she has been working ever since: Economic Development & Land Affairs. In this role, she serves as the program lead for the strategic theme of ‘Startups & Scale-ups.’

Buyne expresses, “What fascinates me is the development of people and organizations: this theme has been a common thread throughout my career. I was shaped by the results-oriented nature of the corporate world. Even in my current work, I find the combination of the ‘hard,’ business side and the ‘soft,’ human side essential. Additionally, I enjoy starting something from scratch. Reflecting on my career, I have always been active in places where people said, ‘We have never done this before, but we believe you can.’ The Green Innovation Hub is another such new place where we started from scratch.”

Author: Wim Danhof, December 6, 2023