Hofplein 19 is home to more than just the new premises of Unilever Netherlands. Occupying the first two floors is LaatBloeien, a base of operations for unconventional entrepreneurs. Jorn Wemmenhove (37) is one of those entrepreneurs. The co-founder and creative strategist of Humankind, above all he is passionately inquisitive about the most creative ways to tackle society’s thorny urban planning problems.
‘Hello. We are Humankind. Agency for urban change.’ reads the intriguing greeting on the website of Humankind. The word agency alliterates with the word energy, Jorn explains over a cup of coffee in the snug café of LaatBloeien, where we’ve arranged to meet. “The way we work is energizing; we inject energy. To change existing processes and systems, we go in search of the question behind the question. But then we go a step further. If we’re going to shape the city of the future, there’s no sense approaching that new city from our current thinking, with our current systems and processes. We need to do it all differently. That’s why Humankind is a network of not only urban planners and architects, but also psychoanalysts, social entrepreneurs and communication specialists.”
Rotterdam is a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, but also of haves and have-nots. In the next few decades, the port city will face the tremendous challenges of bridging gaps and integrating cultures to ultimately transform into a safe, clean and inclusive city. “Urban centres are grappling with massive challenges. For one thing, Rotterdam has to become more sustainable in order to cope with the consequences of climate change. We also need to build more neighbourhoods to accommodate growth. But build Feyenoord City, and you impact working class Hillesluis. So, what do you do?”
By the look of it, Jorn isn’t discouraged. In fact, his eyes light up. “Climate change is a fact. Urban expansion is a fact. The challenge consists in how the city of tomorrow, the Rotterdam of the future, will respond. With each of these questions, and when answering them, our focus lies on the people who live here, on the human dimension, not on the concrete and infrastructure. The philosopher Aristotle articulated this long ago when he asked what is good for that human. What’s certain is that buildings outlive people, and will influence generations to come.”
The way to build a human-centred city is not through spreadsheets and a fixation on profit margins, Jorn stresses, but on a foundation of mutual trust. “When developing the Schieblock, you have to take account of the noise level. That’s a given. And the city of the future needs some rough edges, too. The fact is, it can never be perfect. Accept that that is unachievable, as well as being quite personal. To get the people living here on board, you need to have a story that can show it will be better for everyone. How do you get that? Well, you can hire a ‘story-catcher’ to listen to inhabitants with a different ear. But also by firing up our imaginations to try to envisage the city of tomorrow right here and now. It’s a muscle you have to train.”