Metabolic was founded in 2012 to respond to the runaway exponential growth of our society and the resulting impacts to our environment. Our founding mission continues to guide our activities; we aim to transition the global economy to a fundamentally sustainable state. As we turn 5, Chris Monaghan reflects on what we have achieved and shares some exciting plans for how we will apply what we’ve learned to scale up our global impact over the next 5 years.
2012 to 2017: Metabolic makes its mark
Our apartment in Amsterdam East served as our office for the first 6 months of 2013.
Metabolic is headquartered in Amsterdam and although a large part of our work is based in the Netherlands, we operate around the world to build a thriving circular economy. In the past five years, we have worked on more than 200 projects with over 100 clients. We wanted share five areas of our work that we are particularly proud of:
Circular Cities & Regions
Four years ago, we helped develop and build De Ceuvel, Amsterdam’s sustainable business park and cleantech playground. At De Ceuvel is Metabolic Lab, our education facility and event space. We continue to help shape the future of De Ceuvel to be a place of experimentation and learning around circular cities.
Soon after De Ceuvel’s development, we created a framework for circular urban development in the wider neighbourhood, Buiksloterham. We went on to develop the masterplan for Schoonschip, a floating sustainable residential community. We’re now working with the City of Amsterdam and have been scaling up our work across the Netherlands, working with over ten regions throughout the country. Most recently, we have developed a framework for how cities and regions can collaborate towards circularity across Europe, and we are taking these ideas to other countries. Our work in this area demonstrates how our approaches translate to on-the-ground action and a broader momentum that has scaled to other locations.
Food System Transformation
For over two years, Metabolic and WWF Netherlands have developed research and analyses of the food system to identify methods for systemic change. Following an initial report on the global food system, we looked at the role European actors should play to move the system towards sustainability and how to leverage consumer behavior to induce market change. Most recently, we’ve been looking at pathways to implement the planetary boundaries at the organizational level through the One Planet Thinking program led by WWF NL in collaboration with IUCN Netherlands. With the food system representing one of the most complex and impactful systems on the planet, we are excited about taking our work forward with such great partners to lay the groundwork for global systems change.
New Business Models
Metabolic has worked with corporate clients across every economic sector to incorporate circular economics and deep sustainability practices into their business models and supply chains. For C&A, a leading textile brand, we produced a comprehensive roadmap for how to achieve closed material cycles. We have since formed a partnership with Fashion for Good to provide tools and KPIs for circular design. With Schiphol, one of the world’s largest airports, we mapped the material flows going in and out of the airport and quantified the gains that could be made by incorporating circular economy principles into operational processes. We’ve also increasingly been working with festivals to create zero waste, sustainable environments on a smaller scale.
Our work is showing that organizations of any size and at every stage of the journey towards sustainability can significantly benefit from working within the circular economy.
Successful new ventures
One of our primary goals in founding Metabolic was to build new ventures and organizations. We need thousands, if not millions of new organizations to sprout and thrive. There are so many critical problems to solve, and an increasing set of tools with which to solve them. While Metabolic will itself always remain a broad umbrella–effectively a knowledge company–we feel that truly scalable solutions need focus, specialization, and often a unique organizational dynamic. Scalable solutions also need entrepreneurs, which come in a variety of different flavors but whose passion is essential to push something critical through its toughest (and often earliest) days.
In 2013 we founded Metabolic Foundation, which works to empower people and build resilient communities by making knowledge and tools open and accessible. Starting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Metabolic Foundation moved to Aruba in 2015 to continue its work building replicable models of local circular economics and community capacity building.
Our first commercial venture, Spectral, was spun-off into an independent company in 2015. Spectal’s aim is to revolutionize how we produce, store, and share resources. Energy has been their starting focus, and over the past 2 years they been developing technological solutions that unlock the value of energy storage, demand flexibility, and locally produced renewable energy, propelling the evolution of smart energy networks. (See founder and CEO Philip Gladek talk more about Spectral).
Our venture building has given us the ability to understand where the real problems are, transform ideas into piloted solutions, and then scale up what works.
Research and development comes in many different forms. For Metabolic, which is working on multiple fronts to accelerate a transition to a sustainable economy, it has meant not only integrating proven technologies together so that the end result is greater than the sum of its parts, but also reducing the cost of key technologies and components to enable economies of scale. From symbiotic agridomes to energy trailers, we’ve worked on a number of projects that have fueled our knowledge base and improved our ability to implement projects. These R&D trajectories have also helped shape and drive our culture and ambition as an organization. In a blog last month, I looked back at some of these initiatives in more detail.
2017 to 2022: Scaling up our global impact
Metabolic team and some of our Alumni at our 5 year birthday in June 2017.
One of the most important lessons we have learned is that we cannot decouple our ability to create positive impact from the need for our own financial growth. Another important lesson has been that directly engaging in the problem areas we want to impact is, on its own, not systemic enough to reach the scale of transformation needed to set the global economy on a different path. Though it may be satisfying to work on projects that present immediate opportunities for change, we must also focus efforts on pursuing higher-leverage activities.
Ultimately, we believe we can achieve our mission through building replicable models of sustainable communities and facilitating their development and spread. These models may include blueprints for both the hard (buildings, agricultural systems) and soft (governance, finance) infrastructure of human communities. To get there, we need to build out the knowledge, networks, resources, credibility, capital, and tools that are needed to undertake such a feat. Here are our three focus areas for the next five years:
Enhance our consulting and insights arm
Although we want to be less reliant on the income from our consulting work, we recognize this is still an essential part of achieving our mission. Consulting gives us the opportunity to work on hard, custom problems while also continually bringing in new knowledge to the organization. We will be further developing our core consulting competencies to include operations traditionally associated with ‘think tanks’; this will include building out our reputation as global thought leaders and providing transformative insights that shift the way people live, work, and do business. To do this, we will increase the impact of our work through more high profile communication, specific educational programs, and the targeted delivery of information to influencers and key stakeholders.
Develop new software and tools
Over the coming years, the skills and roles across Metabolic will proliferate as we develop our team towards more specialized expertise in data science, modeling, software development, and interaction design. An essential part of this – and a pillar of our future strategy – is to build out a Metabolic software arm that can generate scalable and impactful products, focusing on the leverage points that we have identified in our first years of operation. Our consultancy practice will develop in parallel with this growing expertise in data science and we will focus our non-think-tank-services around tool development, indicator development, dashboard development, and the interpretation of results and insights emerging from our own in-house software. We already have our first of these new software tools being piloted by some of our partners, and for the last few months we’ve been architecting a new software spin-off that will house the majority of our software development activities. There’s a palpable buzz in the office as building a new venture is giving many of us a fresh taste of the start-up mentality.
Build new ventures and partnerships
From our earliest days, turning ideas into actions has been part of Metabolic’s DNA. In the past couple of years, we have had less time to roll up our sleeves to maintain the level of technology innovation that was present at the company’s founding, but in the coming years we plan to develop and launch larger-scale programs within the company. We will also build on the strength of our established network and forge new vital partnerships, coordinating larger, global consortia on specific high-impact topics that we identify through our work as high priority. We are already working on the development of a global hub of technology and venture development for the circular economy in Amsterdam, and we hope to confirm plans for this later in 2017. This will become an important node in a new European and global network of socially-driven technology acceleration that changes how we build cities, manage resources, and live with nature.
Today, Metabolic is a solid and respected business with a proven business model. We’ve managed to build a brand, a great team, an impressive body of work, successful ventures, and some important core assets. Metabolic in 2022 will operate at a higher level of impact, driven by the desire to engage more directly with global problems: working with people in need, protecting our planet’s dwindling natural resources, and contributing to the forefront of innovation. I hope you’ll join us in making this happen.