Space&Matter was founded in 2008 by three architects who knew not only that things had to change, but with clear ideas for how things could be done differently. Never an architecture firm in the traditional sense of the word, Space&Matter quickly made a name for itself as a company capable of finding and implementing creative solutions for a wide range of urban challenges. In the Netherlands, but also in Finland and the United States.
Optimism and an entrepreneurial mindset have always defined Space&Matter, its three founders (Sascha Glasl, Tjeerd Haccou, and Marthijn Pool) always eager to learn and rarely afraid to take matters into their own hands. And it shows. In the past decade, they’ve (co-)founded no less than four ventures, each of them committed to improving a different facet of the built environment: real estate development (Common City), bottom-up co-living initiatives (CrowdBuilding), biobased, modular construction (Boombuilds) and the restoration of nature (Sumowala). Together, then, the companies form one (business) ecosystem capable of changing the built environment in more ways than one.
Now, some 12 years after the first company was founded, I sat down with Ernestien Idenburg, the ecosystem’s newly minted group CEO, to discuss their new mission and all that lies ahead.
Esther Baar: Before we dive into the future, how was 2021 for Space&Matter?
Ernestien Idenburg: All things considered, 2021 was actually a very productive and significant year for us because it was marked by the birth of the Space&Matter ecosystem. It was the year in which we finally were able to formulate a compelling answer to the, admittedly very challenging, question of how to best bring together five seemingly disparate companies. We knew that they all needed each other, that their expertise and services were complementary, and that they sprang from the same source, namely, a longing to make the built environment more sustainable and equitable. We thought long and hard about how to create the optimal circumstances for each of them, how to tie together twelve years’ worth of ideas, projects, and initiatives. And we found an answer in the formulation of our new mission: By 2030, we want to realise one million square metres ‘within the Doughnut’ and rewild and equal amount of nature. So, in that sense, I’d say 2021 was a pretty good year.
That does sound very gratifying! Why this goal, why now?
The answer to this question is very much related to the previous one. Before formulating this goal, we asked ourselves, What’s the one thing that unites all that we do, the common denominator that runs through all our work? And we found that these companies all shared one very clear goal, which is to make the built environment more sustainable and equitable, and that the only way for us to achieve this goal was by working together as one ecosystem. With each of them helping and strengthening the other ones, so increasing our overall impact. And we believe there’s no framework better suited for accomplishing this goal than the one that was developed by Kate Raworth, which was first published in 2012. The Doughnut offers a vision of what it means for humanity to thrive in the 21st century and her book Doughnut Economics explores the mindset and ways of thinking needed to get us there. The Doughnut, then, consists of two rings, a social foundation, to ensure that no one is left falling short on life’s essentials, and an ecological ceiling, to ensure that humanity does not collectively overshoot the planetary boundaries that protect Earth's life-supporting systems.
"How can we measure our progress, how can we share insights with the people and companies around us?"
This goal is very quantitative, something that stands out given that so many other companies opt for softer goals like creating a ‘greener’ or ‘fairer’ city.
I think that you need a precise and clear goal to actually get somewhere. Because who doesn’t want to make the built environment more sustainable and more equitable? If a goal is not quantitative, it will be all the more difficult to measure progress. And for us, accountability and transparency are key. That’s not to say that it didn’t feel strange and maybe even counterintuitive to formulate a goal in square metres when the best thing for the planet would actually be if we stopped erecting buildings altogether. At the same time, people need homes and people need shelter. Then, we thought, for every square metre, we want to add an equal amount of new nature to balance out our other activities. Another important point here is that we do not want to simply add on one million square metres; a significant part of our efforts will, instead, be directed towards transforming, restoring and improving existing neighbourhoods.
Still, one million square metres in the span of eight years seems like a big feat for five companies, a few of which are still in a start-up phase.
Absolutely. We are fully aware of the fact that our ecosystem alone can’t meet this challenge. In effect, the ecosystem will assume responsibility for only a part of this target and will, next to and through this, focus on experimentation and the sharing of learnings. The other part comes from projects that we work on together with other people, companies, organisations, governments, you name it and in which we have a say in what the final outcome should be. And then the last part comes from what I like to call our sphere of ‘indirect’ influence, which is all that is achieved by others who make use of our knowledge and tools to build within the Doughnut too.
So you have roughly eight years, starting today. What’s first on the agenda?
We actually have two priorities. One is very practical: how do we make sure that all the companies get what they need in order to thrive? What services might be combined in a shared services centre, enabling each of the companies to fully focus on their core business without unnecessary distractions. And are all employees, the founders included, working on the tasks that best suit their unique abilities? The other priority is figuring out what exactly it entails to design, build and develop within the Doughnut. How can we measure our progress, how can we share insights with the people and companies around us? I actually think that figuring out exactly how the principles of the Doughnut economics framework can come to life in the built environment will constitute a big part of our efforts over the coming years.
You’ve mentioned transparency and honesty a few times now. Why is that an important value for the Space&Matter ecosystem and its mission?
On the one hand, we’ve set this incredibly ambitious goal for ourselves, and we realise that much is still uncertain about how and to what extent we can achieve it. We said to ourselves, let’s be honest and let’s be honest from the start. We wanted to open ourselves up to feedback because we know that’s the only way we can learn and grow. And on the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, we are fully aware of the fact that we can’t achieve this goal by ourselves. We rely on the insights of so many people around us who are just as committed as we are to creating a better future, and whose knowledge supplements ours. It’s imperative that we inform, encourage, and inspire the people around us, extend an open invitation for collaboration, if you will. The “Matter” part of Space&Matter will focus on developing knowledge, toolboxes, frameworks, all sorts of resources, that can be used by all. And we will be writing Stories in which we talk openly about what we’re doing, what challenges we’re facing, and what we’re doing to combat them.
What are you most excited about at the start of this journey?
The potential! We see on a daily basis all that isn’t working, how many people the system is actually failing, how very close and real the climate crisis is. So, there’s just an incredible amount of work for us to do. I’ve always loved cities and their energy, and I realise that if we don’t take care of them, of the planet and all its inhabitants, things will quickly deteriorate. So, I’m very excited to play a part in changing this.