Podcast, Folge 36: Eva Gladek über Städte der Zukunft & A Smart Guide to Utopia

Eva Gladek
Liebe Leser & Hörer!

Allen Büchern von Großstädtern (meist Journalisten), die das Landleben für sich entdecken zum Trotz: die Zukunft unserer Welt gehört den Ballungszentren. Das kann man jetzt gut finden oder katastrophal – oder sich einfach so visionär wie pragmatisch Gedanken darüber machen, wie urbane Räume und communities menschlicher, umweltverträglicher, grüner und leckerer werden.
Ein in diesem Sinne großer Wurf ist das Buch „A Smart Guide to Utopia”, das Le Cool Agency mit Unterstützung von Mikro-Autobauer Smart und der Berliner Agentur K-MB herausgebracht haben. Darin stellen die Autoren sowie hochkarätige Gäste ihre 111 liebsten Projekte aus aller Welt vor – von cleveren Transport- und Arbeitslösungen bis zu Restaurants, nachhaltigem Shopping sowie einem Fünkchen Entertainment-Anarchie.
Ein großartiges, inspirierendes Sammelsurium von Initiativen und Innovationen, die urban areas mehr und mehr zum Lebensraum machen können oder könnten. Statt einer reinen Buchbesprechung wollten wir jedoch lieber mit einer der Expertinnen reden, die in „A Smart Guide to Utopia” zu Wort kommen. Unsere Wahl fiel auf Eva Gladek, eine Amerikanerin, die in Rotterdam lebt und bei dem Start-up Except als Technical Director und Industrial Ecologist arbeitete. Aktuell ist Gladek an Bord bei Metabolic Lab.
In ihrer Arbeit geht es derzeit um die Gärten der Zukunft und ein sehr star-trekkiges wachsendes Produkt für daheim. Da ich jedoch weder in Chemie noch in Botanik besonders gut aufgepasst habe, soll Eva Gladek gleich selbst erklären, woran sie emsig forscht und warum ihre Erfindung unser Leben verbessern wird. Schließlich hat sie den Master in Environmental Management von der Yale University und einen Bachelor in Molekularbiologie. Und nicht ich.
Im Buch selbst schreibt sie über die Wiederentdeckung von Lebensmitteln als Symbol einer Kulturrevolution. Zitat: „Since food is at the root of so many of our problems, from health to environmental sustainability, it must also be the source of the solutions. Urbanites can be joyously reunited with their food.” Ein Statement, das man erstmal verdauen muss.
Und während ich mich mit meinem Lunch renunite, wünsche ich euch viel Spaß mit einem geradezu utopischen Interview mit Eva Gladek.

Jetzt gleich hier auf dem Blog reinhören oder – unser Tipp! – ganz bequem und gratis auf iTunes abonnieren. In jedem Fall: Viel Spaß!

Shownotes zu Nahtlos! Das Lifestyle Podcast Folge 36/2012

How to reach us:

E-Mail: podcast ( a t ) nahtlosblog.de

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Links zu den Themen der Show

das Buch „A Small Guide to Utopia”
– Eva Gladeks Start-up Except
– ihr aktuelles Projekt Metabolic Lab

Lieben Dank für Ihre und eure Aufmerksamkeit. Empfehlt uns gern weiter :) Wir hören uns nächste Woche wieder!

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Und jetzt könnt ihr das gesamte Interview mit Eva Gladek noch einmal bequem als Transkript nachlesen:

Siems Luckwaldt: Now first of all, could you explain to me and of course, to our listeners, who you are and then, of course, the next question would be, A Smart Guide to Utopia, what brought you to this project?

Eva Gladek: Yeah. Sure. So my name is Eva Gladek and I’m the Executive Director of a company called Metabolic Lab, and over the last three years I was the Technical Director of another company, called Except Integrated Sustainability. Both of these companies deal with, I guess, transforming our current world into a sustainable one. Except was much more focused on, I guess, research and conceptual design work and with Metabolic Lab, which is a spin-off, we’re trying to do real-life projects and real-life sustainable development projects and clean-tech integration projects. So, for example, in the next couple of months we’re setting up an urban farm prototyping center in Amsterdam, where we’re going to be designing these symbiotic vertical farm kits that re-circulate all waste and energy between three different plant modules…fish, mushrooms, and leafy greens. So it actually turns out to be a really closed-loop renewable system. So, that’s me. I’m an industrial ecologist and a social entrepreneur and I’ve been doing this kind of work for the last seven years now.

You grew up where?

I grew up in New York City.


But I’m also Polish, so my entire family is Polish and even though I was growing up in New York City, I was in this very international environment at the United Nations International School. So I had this extreme mix of influences, and when you’re that influenced by different cultures…there were so many different nationalities represented in our world, for a 100-person class.


And I never had an American teacher. All of my teachers were from all sorts of countries around the world.


Then you end up having this very neutral stance towards things. So it’s hard to say where I’m really from.

Okay. So do you consider yourself to even have a nationality then or are you what they call cosmopolitan?

I think it would probably be more accurate to say that I am a global citizen but I do identify with being Polish certainly and being from New York, as well.

What brought you to Europe then, because that’s a big leap even if you’ve grown up to know several nations and stuff like that, and what brought you here? You’re located in Amsterdam now, right. Is that correct?

No right now I’m actually in Rotterdam.

Oh, okay.

And I’m moving to Amsterdam shortly, because that’s part of the headquarters where Metabolic Lab is going to be, but what brought me here? As I was growing up, I always did feel more European than American, because of my family and spending a lot of time here every summer. I moved to Warsaw for a year, after I did my first degree in molecular biology, and then I went to Yale University, back in the states, after that year in Warsaw. While I was at Yale, I met my partner, Tom Bosschaert, who is Dutch, and we together re-launched Except, which was his company before, but we reinvented it into a collaborative with all these international, I guess, freelancers working together and focusing in on sustainability. Because I met Tom at Yale, because we were both studying there, I just came to the Netherlands because he was Dutch and I didn’t really care where I lived.

Now, to just give our listeners a little more an in-depth view of the projects you involve yourself in, what is the actual aim? It sounds very let’s make this world a greener, better place but what’s the business model behind that? I mean are these just design jobs that you do and you have corporate partners or cities who fund them, or what’s the concept behind your ventures?

Sure. I’m happy to talk about that. I mean, every single one of our projects does have a business model behind it and they’re quite different in scope, the project themselves. If you look at the work that I’ve done with Except, we’ve done urban redevelopment plans. For example, the Schiebroek-Zuid (5:50) project, which was done for a big housing corporation here, and in that case, that was a job for a client that wanted to take one of their social housing neighborhoods and transform it into a self-sustaining, exemplary kind of neighborhood. But another one of our projects was Polydome, which is actually the reason that I was involved in writing this book, Smart Guide to Utopia, because the work for Polydome was covered in a lot of press and we were finalists for the 2012 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which is kind of like the Nobel Prize of sustainability. So that was a real honor and I think, because we were heard from about that, I was contacted to author the chapter in this book. The Polydome, I guess, project has a really great business model behind it. Basically, it’s an ecosystem inside of a greenhouse. So instead of growing just one crop like you normally see in most modern farms, you grow a poly culture of plants, animals, and fungi, and all of these different elements are food producing. So you have mushrooms.

You have plants growing in the ground that like shade and then above that you have different types of taller plants and then you have hydroponics system hanging above it and then your fish that are feeding off of the…so it’s this kind of constructed engineered ecosystem and there’s a few benefits financially for doing that. One thing that we’ve noticed when we’ve been talking to a lot of farmers is that they’re basically getting squeezed to death by supermarkets and wholesalers. Here in the Netherlands, which has the most greenhouses in the world out of any country and the most advanced greenhouse technology, you have farmers who have 20 million euro a year turnover on these 20 hector greenhouses but they’re making 30 thousand euros of profit to take home. So they’re barely scraping by.


And it’s because they don’t dictate the prices at which they sell their products. There’s a really concentrated supply chain. When you’re growing one product, the only way to buffer yourself against that is to expand the size of your operation. You just have to keep adding more hectors so that you can sell a bit more at that tiny margin that you’re getting, but what the Polydome model does instead is it allows people to grow poly cultures. So you’re producing 50 to 100 different products from one facility that are all supporting each other in their growth because they’re exchanging these nutrient flows and they’re also protecting each other from pests, in many cases because you have something called pattern disruption. Imagine if you’re a bug that likes to eat tomatoes and you enter a greenhouse that’s full of tomatoes. You’re just going to reproduce and spread through that entire thing in five seconds.


But if you’re a bug that likes tomatoes and you get in there, and there’s all these other things, and you get confused and you can’t really find your next tomato. So, there’s all these different protective measures from diversity but what it does economically, for a farmer, is that you can suddenly become the supplier for a restaurant or a greenhouse or consumers directly. Sorry. I said a greenhouse. I meant a supermarket. So, you can serve people directly. You can produce closer to a city and you cut out that entire predatory supply chain, plus you cut out the packaging and a lot of the logistics if you locate your farm correctly and you can get really high margins on what you sell. Let’s say you buy your tomatoes for three euros a kilogram. The farmer could be getting one to ten cents for that depending on how…of course, that would be like the complete caricature scenario of how little farmers get for this but it’s really quite low.

And you can even throw Monsanto into the mix and it gets even worse.

Yeah. Of course. So there’s so many players on that supply chain, none of whom have the interest of the consumer or the farmer really in their minds, because they’re companies that are engineered to make money as their primary goal and it’s not even their fault, in that sense, because they’re just machines at this point, that don’t operate with a conscience. So these kinds of systems really have the potential to put the farmer back center-stage in the food production process and also the consumer. The kit thing…just really quickly…


Is a kind of scaled down version of the Polydome model. Instead of having this whole ecosystem in a greenhouse, which is what we ideally would like to reach, you have these modules that kind of, in isolation, do the same thing that Polydome does and it’s suitable for some. For example, the kit that we’re designing now is suitable for use in the dark. So you can actually use really undervalued real estate, like basements and closets, and things of that sort, to actually produce very healthy food because fish and mushrooms grow in dark conditions and the leafy greens that we’re using, we’re using an LED setup so that you can actually make use of those dark spaces.

And that is for the end consumer or…

Well, actually, what we’ve been thinking is that our target market is restaurants and catering services because those are the companies that really use the same type of product every month. So, if they have trout on their menu and Shitake mushrooms and want arugula and parsley for their staple dishes, then you can have these sorts of kits inside a restaurant or catering service and they will consume that very large flow of products. Whereas, at home, you could have one at home for a family but would get really bored of eating _____ (12:27).

Same stuff over again.

Yeah. So it’s better for a community.


Let’s say, like, if you have five different households and you mix up the products quite a lot so that you have some more variety.

Now, coming to the book, A Smart Guide to Utopia – 111 Inspiring Ideas for a Better City…first of all, what got you involved into this project and then I want to get into a little more detail.

Sure. I was personally approached by one of the project managers of the book, Kati Krause, and asked to write an introduction to the food and the Eat and Drink chapter because of some of my work in this area and I was happy to be asked about it because I love this topic. So that’s how I got involved. It was pretty simple.

Now many people will hear even the title of this book and they will say this is some pseudo revolutionary stuff and do-gooders come together to dream and fantasize about what could be and probably will not be, because there’s politics, of course, involved all over the place. How would you counter these prejudices against a book that has the term Utopia in its title?

Well, in response to those comments, specifically…I mean, the great thing about this book is that all of the examples in there really exist. So in some ways you can use it as a really fun tour guide to Europe. If you’re going somewhere into a new city, you can check out what’s in there and see some really cutting-edge initiatives going on, sometimes even right outside your door. So this is not fantasy. All these things are actually happening and they’re happening in greater and greater number. This isn’t the only book of its type. There are lots of books that are guides like this to amazing initiatives or social ventures and one of them was World Changing, which was that big book that came out a few years ago. We actually published one last year as Except, called Greenprint, which also had these inspiring ideas. It’s amazing how much stuff is out there that we just don’t see and that isn’t publicized, and that not knowing that it’s happening leads to a kind of sense of…

There’s nothing we can do…like fatalistic…

Yeah. Like the fatalism and a lack of recognition that things are actually really changing because they’re changing surprisingly quickly and the cool thing is that, when you have real social entrepreneurship that’s driven by an actually solid business model, not like a predatory business model, like what I was just describing, you don’t have to make the most margin. You don’t have to make the most profit. You just have to make enough profit so that you can support yourself and support people in their work and then you can actually have a balance between your social values and your financial values, which is something that people should just start accepting more often.

If I may interject here.


That, I find so interesting because that’s a phrase you hear more often increasingly this…it’s not about making the most money anymore. It’s becoming rich in the monetary sense is not enough anymore to motivate young entrepreneurs like yourself to…well, to work their asses off in a way, because that’s always what it’s going to be like. Is that something that you’re conscious about, that you really know, or is it just a sign of the times right now?

Well, I’m very conscious about it because I do it intentionally and around me, I see a lot of my friends turning down very well-paying jobs left and right so that they can really pursue things that they think are meaningful and that they’re passionate about and that they know are doing something good for the world. So it’s something that I really see.

And will all these projects that are listed in the book, A Smart Guide to Utopia, and of course many, many more that could not be included in there, are these enough? Is this micro-level that most of these projects range on, is that enough to really make a larger difference or are these local initiatives that probably, for the foreseeable time, will stay local?

I don’t think they’re enough on their own but they’re a really important first step in actually catalyzing change and you need this kind of a buildup you need an avalanche to grow and eventually it spills over and…

Like ground-frost.

Yeah. Exactly. There’s also this book by Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest, which is about the hundreds of thousands of local-level initiatives around the world and he cataloged them. These were all the social initiatives. You catalog them to make them visible and when you start making people aware of this and start building this network of consciousness between different groups like this, and a book like this can be used to make them visible, put a spotlight on them, and allow them to link up a neuro network of some sort. Then you start giving it strength and also, you start allowing it to be copied. I think that’s one of the key things that people are afraid to do things that are new or that haven’t been proven.


The economy is structured that way, too. Taking risks by investing in new things is often punished.

It’s about trailblazers, in a way.

Yeah. So I think it’s a lot about these trailblazers, about experimenters, seeing which of these things actually end up being very successful and which ones don’t…a kind of a natural selection process will happen, too, and then you end up with things that people can replicate much more quickly and then it doesn’t matter if the politics says that this is not the direction you want to go. Because if this stuff is working and if people are doing it more frequently, and making choices to not choose the high pay but choose the high value plus good pay, then you end up with a different landscape of the economy and of society.

Before we wrap things up, I wanted to quickly ask you to point out just a couple of projects that are in the book and that are very dear to your heart or that you thought were especially amazing.

Well, that’s a really tricky question and I was looking through the book this morning trying to think of which ones I might say. Also, a lot of them are part of this similar sort of trend. Under the Eat and Drink chapter, you have a lot of these great urban farm projects and urban garden projects, which are all wonderful. I think some of the stuff that I like the most, in some ways are the collaborative consumption concepts, which are really leading to a shift in the fundamental operations of our economy. Among that, there’s complimentary currency projects like The Brixton Pound, but I also really love cowork spaces and the Hub is in here and the Hub is something that I’m really a fan of because I’m connected to the Hub here in Rotterdam and in Amsterdam. Also, three years ago Except started its own collaborative workspace called The Rotterdam Collective. These are amazing new models for people working together and I can’t say how surprised I’ve been at how wonderful and successful they are at creating community, at creating a constant flow of ideas and support for people in trying new things. So that’s great.

What’s special about the Hub…just quickly to give our listeners a more rounded view? I mean, these are spaces that a company rents out to freelancers from different fields. Or, what’s the concept or the selection process behind it?

Okay. So there are lots of different cowork spaces emerging around the world right now. The Hub has one central business model. I’m not sure where it was started…I think in San Francisco and now there are like dozens of these around the world. They pop up in different cities. What happens is that a person who wants to start a Hub rents out a building in a central location in a city and then they make it this really cool space and they rent out time to different entrepreneurs who want to work there, where freelancers have small companies and need a place to work with better facilities…so like shared internet and printing but also just a community and that’s one model where you rent out time. At the Rotterdam Collective, we rented out space so that we had people build up their own desks. They would get a certain amount of square meters and that creates more permanence. The Hub creates more transience but it’s also quite flexible because, once you’re a member in one Hub, you can work at any Hub in the world and you can also take advantage of the different events and workshops that they organize, which are great.

So this cowork model is really taking off. There’s dozens of examples and in the Smart Guide to Utopia, I think it’s, there’s three listed somewhere.

Two more questions before I let you go. The first one would be, as everyone asks all the time, what’s the next big thing in social entrepreneurism that maybe hasn’t been tackled as much as it deserves? So what could be another field? I mean, we have micro lending. We have all sorts of things. Many are in the book, at least with examples. What’s something that you are looking at, maybe not even for yourself, but that you would like to see being worked on by inspired entrepreneurs?

There’s a ton of things that I want to see worked on but if I was to answer the questions of what I think the next big thing is, I think that micro investment is actually breaking through into a much bigger sphere of influence. So you have things like cake starter, etcetera, which are where lots of people can pool small amounts of resources to support, yeah, a single venture but I thing sustainability stock exchanges and investments, where lots of investors can pool resources to invest in higher risk projects, which sustainable ventures typically are. That’s something that’s happening and then, in terms of topic areas, content wise, there’s so much that still has not been done and it doesn’t matter how much we’ve already managed to accomplish with all these examples that you can see in Smart Guide to Utopia. We’re far away from the goal and for a lot of these environmental thresholds, we’re really missing targets anyway. So I want to see…

It’s never enough.

Well, it is enough at some point. I want to see cities to really be transformed into metabolically active environments that have closed-loop, renewable, energy flows and an infrastructure that is socially just and regenerative and I think that you can see that if you start taking all the existing solutions that we have and really applying them in existing urban context. That has not really happened yet. All of these projects are outliers. They’re people on the outskirts of cities or in individually funded shops or something like that doing these projects. What we need is we need governments and private investors, and all these different stars to align in a sense and really put their money where their mouth is and let these things happen.

And let them happen like in city center, right on stage, right.

Yes. Exactly. And I’m trying to do that on a smaller scale now, with a clean- tech installation in Amersterdam. So, basically, we want to create a closed-loop utility, which has waste purification, energy generation, food production, all linked into a system that is closed loop and renewable, to give power to a small community, power and various other services, and the amount of permanence that you need to get and there’s so much stuff that’s standing in your way. The safety issues are nonexistent because it’s on a new plot and this really shouldn’t be a problem but the existing regime, it doesn’t even know but it has all of these blocks and guards throughout the entire…yeah.

Is that to protect the status quo?

I think that there are. It’s funny though because, if you go to a water utility or something like that, the people who work there, they’re great people. They’re not sitting there thinking like, oh, how do we protect our interests and our status quo? But I think that there are these rules that end up filtering into the system because they do maximize profit for these companies and that is scripted in there and these companies are…of course, especially public utilities here are still quite connected to the government even though many of them have been semi-private. So yeah and sometimes you do meet people who are explicitly trying to protect the status quo, as well.

So persistence is a prerequisite for the entrepreneur and especially for the social entrepreneur.

Definitely. I would say that.

Now, the last question I wanted to ask you. On a lighter note, you sound like a very environmentally conscious person…someone who cares deeply for their surrounding and of course, in a way of the planet itself. How green are you, and where are areas in your personal life where even you find it hard to change?

I guess, by most standards, I’m quite green. I’ve become a vegetarian for the sake of, well, reducing environmental impact and I don’t have a car. I bike everywhere. I travel by train everywhere…even to remote places where it’s very annoying. I always eat eco products. I mean, like I do all of that standard stuff and I’m very _____ (29:44) in terms of what I do, and of course, I’ve re-geared my entire life to focus on this work, which I think is the main way in which I’m conscious, which is the main sign of me being conscious. Because the impact that I can have through working on this stuff is much higher than anything that I have, like not eating meat or not using disposable products but it is hard anyway because the products that you want that really have no impact or that are ideally, truly, socially beneficial, just don’t exist. So, as a consumer, you can’t buy the things that are really good for the world. You can buy the things that are least bad and that’s annoying because then you’re like well, why am I…?

Why even bother.

It does make a difference because a lot of the eco products that are out there are much better than…and also the socially produced products. Although, now I hear things about fair trade no longer being as good as it once was, etcetera. The biggest problem is that it’s a time-sink. You have to constantly think about what you’re buying and why and how and that produces this low level of stress. Like if I want to get my ecological washing powder, I can’t go to the normal supermarket. I have to go to the other one that’s only open on random hours. So that weighs on me and the way that, I guess, I’m least eco friendly is still plane travel, which I am not going to cut for now because it’s so critical to me being able to actually execute the work that I need to do but my plan, eventually, is to get a sailboat.

Okay. Eva Gladek, thank you so much for taking the time to speak, not just about A Smart Guide to Utopia but your work and if our listeners want to find out more about you, your company, what to do, what’s the best way they can reach you?

There are two websites. One is the Metabolic Lab website, which is www.metaboliclab.nl and it will be launched in the next couple of weeks. So it’s not up yet.

All right.

And the other one is the Except website, which is www.except.nl and that’s except as in exception and not as in I accept you.

Great. So we encourage, of course, our listeners to check these websites out and of course, the book and at this point, we wish you all the best of luck for making our world a little better and greener. Eva Gladek, thank you so much.

Thanks a lot Siems.

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