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Geerte Udo

Geerte is the CEO of amsterdam&partners. She and her team have been working in collaboration with local and international partners to discover the DNA of Amsterdam and distill it through the iamsterdam brand.

Caitlin Morrissey

In what sense do cities have DNA, and do they literally have DNA, or is it a useful metaphor, or is it something else?


Geerte Udo

Well, I do believe that cities are living organisms. So the idea that they have a DNA should be quite common. I don't think we literally have a DNA, but the metaphor helps a lot in thinking about what a city is, was and could be in the future. And over the last 14 years, we worked a lot with it and we found out that there is something in the city that decides what it is and what it is not, and where it can differentiate from the rest and cannot.


And I think it's really helpful to use the metaphor of a DNA. Because as human beings, we have a DNA and it is much alike. We all share, I think, 99% of the same DNA, but it is this one % that differentiates us from the others that makes us unique. And that is, for cities, I think, the most important part: what differentiates you from the rest? And if I invest as a person in what makes me unique, then I will differentiate myself from the rest and I will grow.


If I invest in something that makes my brother unique, I will fail big time and my brother will always win. So that is why I think this metaphor for cities really helps in growing and shaping the future for next generations.


Caitlin Morrissey

And as you see it, what are the traits, what are the constituent parts of the city's genetic code?


Geerte Udo

That's an interesting question. I think it always starts with the rising story of a city. Why did people decide anyway to start, in that certain spot, to live together and work? Then you get the sort of building blocks that built the DNA structure, and I think it always has to do just with the physical circumstances, so the climate, the nature, et cetera, et cetera. It has to do with the sort of people and their beliefs from the beginning on what made them decide to live together. What are the values? What are the stories? What are the heroes?


Another building block in most of the cities is the history of how it was governed. Is it a city that grew in an emperor or in a royal or in a governmental or non-governmental area? And, of course, the infrastructure, the culture, the architecture also creates and invests in the DNA. But I also do think that that, for instance, architecture can be an outcome of the DNA of cities if you do it in the right way.


So that makes it always a bit hard to make the difference between DNA, what is inside you as a human being that nobody can see. And that is the same with cities: you can never see or experience the DNA of cities. You always can experience and see the outcome of the DNA. And that makes it always a puzzle – if you try to find the DNA of cities, you have to test and trial and error continuously, like what I name as being unique for my city, is it the outcome or is it the origin? And you need to find all the outcomes to, of course, find the origin, and some cities have the luck that the origin is so clear that it's easy to check the outcome. For other cities it's much better to do it the other way around, to take all the outcomes that make your city unique from the perspective of the residents, visitors, business, and then find what the common ground is.


Greg Clark

So why don't we take an example now and ask you here to just to say something about how did you discover the DNA of Amsterdam and what is it?


Geerte Udo

Well, we started the search for our DNA because we found as a city, as a lot of cities, I think discovered or experienced, that you have so many stories to tell to so many people that it's hard to decide which one is more true, more effective, more beneficial. And it's an easy pitfall to start telling the stories that every city does. Like, we're a city that's great to live in, we have a great shopping area, we have a lot of culture, we're great for investing, we're a start-up city, all true. But that's every city that doesn't make you unique.


And because as Amsterdam, we had more than 20 brands, we were a capital of culture, sustainable capital, capital gains, capital freedom, capital of whatever, capital investment, capital... And the only thing that was in common was that we were capital. And if we're honest, only the capital of the Netherlands, period. Because search on Google, you find all the capitals of whatever, so it doesn't add anything to your proposition.


So we said, OK, we have all these things that we believe are true, but what is the common ground that makes us really unique? And the process took about two and a half years, and it was a lot of talks with everybody that creates the city. So people that live here, people that work here, people that visit the city. To see what we think makes our city unique. But then, of course, we have had to test it from the outside in because other people can, a lot of times, tell you as a person also better what your qualities are than that you have to find out yourself. And that is the same for a city. So if you have an outward look on what makes your city unique from the rest, it also helps in finding these building blocks.


And like I said, from that point, you have to see like, OK, what is the outcome? What is the history? And of course, we as Dutch people started creating land together. And that is a very cooperative way. There was not a kingdom at that time or an emperor that said, "You make land." No, we just decided together that we needed each other to keep our feet dry. That is the perspective when we live in a swamp in Amsterdam, if you're honest.


So these are sort of the building blocks that you say, "OK, a lot of cities don't live in a swamp. A lot of cities, they didn't start from that origin." That makes that we have a sort of equalness in our society. And if you look into history, merchants had a big, big role in how our identity was created, because they accepted the government instead of the other way around. And if you look into all these stories, but also the examples in the now, you can see when you filter it through, like in a – what do you call that, where you put your things in in the kitchen?


Caitlin Morrissey

A sieve?


Geerte Udo

Yeah, a sieve, and you filter it through, and you have to check and check again. What also works really well is look at the stories that you're not proud of in your history. Look at the symbols. And like we said, we discovered after a lot of discussion that it's always a crossover of creativity, spirit of commerce and innovation. Because that was the reason why we created land from water, that was the reason why we have this sort of equal system, but what's the reason why we're tolerant to people if they have another religion or another background? As long as we could work together and create value for each other, it was valuable for society. And there was not yet at that time a preferred religion or somebody who was directive saying right or wrong. That created all these things.


Unfortunately, it also created that we were very successful in slavery. It is also a creation of spirit, of commerce with creativity, so like human beings, again, your DNA doesn't only create your positive behaviour qualities, it also creates your negative ones, and most of the cities don't want to see it if you look from the perspective of promotion or branding, but it helps you in finding your DNA.


Greg Clark

This is a fantastic answer, Geerte. I want you just to say just a little bit more slowly again what the DNA of Amsterdam is, just the two or three phrases, creativity, spirit of commerce and innovation. Just that it's very clear because we'll use that.


Geerte Udo

Yes. So we found out after the research, the discussions, that our real DNA is the combination of creativity, innovation and spirit of commerce. And like I said, it's always the combination. It's like with the human being, you never have a separate DNA. And of course, you have to check in history, we had the first stock exchange that grew very fast because it was a creative business solution. We had Rembrandt, who knew exactly how to portray people and earn money with it.


Nowadays, we still have these icons. Both ways that show our identity, like Tony's Chocolonely is a very – well, I think world-famous brand at the moment. I'm not sure if it's famous in England yet, but it is in the United States and the Netherlands. They shifted the idea that people never want to pay more money for fair-trade chocolate. And these guys said, of course, they will if you brand it well, if you have the right story, if you make it fancy, if you make it popular, and they make bars that are fair trade as attention for the unequal process of making chocolate. It's much more expensive, but a lot of people buy it because they love chocolate, they love the story, and it has a great identity.


So these are the examples that help you in saying, "This business is unique for our country or for our city." It doesn't mean that all the others that are not pure on your DNA are not valuable. It's only if it comes to storytelling, to branding or creating, that it helps to focus on this DNA. And that is very important. Sports is not really in our DNA, but we love it and we do it and it's very healthy. So for the city, it's very important to have sports and facilitate sports. So you should never mix it up that if it's not in your DNA it's not important. It's just in your evaluation, in your progress, in your focus, in your identity-building, also to your local people, it helps to stick to your DNA for the long term.


Greg Clark

Great answer, Geerte, thank you so much. By the way, I'm just going to tell Caitlin, that chocolate is delicious if you get any. I had a meeting with Geerte in her office a few months ago, just before lockdown, in fact, wasn't it? And the chocolate was amazing. We were all just eating loads of chocolate.


Caitlin Morrissey

I don't ever need convincing to try a chocolate bar.


Geerte Udo

No, and the good thing is that they made it really a popular bar because it looks fancy, et cetera, et cetera. A lot of people in the Netherlands do not know the story behind it, which I feel is a pity, but if you open up the paper, it's everywhere there. Even if you see the bar, it's not divided in the right square blocks, but you have big blocks and small blocks because they said it's unequally divided in the world.


Greg Clark

Absolutely. It's very clever. Now Geerte, who needs to agree what the DNA of the city is? And do you get conflicts and disagreements, and does it matter?


Geerte Udo

Yes, you always get conflicts and disagreement, but as long as it enriches the discussion, it's OK. It helps. I think you should not bother residents with the DNA. I will never bother you with my DNA. You couldn't care less, you bother about me or my qualities, and that is what I think, to a lot of people, is the most important. If you compare it to a commercial brand, if you prefer to drink Heineken or Carlsberg, it's just your preference. You don't care about the DNA of Heineken or Carlsberg. So I think the DNA really helps for people that are behind the scenes, working with developing cities, investing in the city, organizing a city, branding your city, et cetera, et cetera, making the real decisions on where you prefer to invest in to make sure that you give an impulse to your own identity.


I do agree, though, that everybody that experiences the outcome, the USPs, should get involved. So locals, for instance, can have a lot of input saying like, what do you think makes us unique in the world? That is the outcome, these are most of the time times perfect, USPs or icons or whatever, again, because you cannot see my DNA. I cannot see it. I need specialists to tell me what my DNA is.


Greg Clark

Great, back to Caitlin.


Caitlin Morrissey

And so it's very clear to me that you believe that cities can understand their DNA, and I know that Amsterdam has. And what about other cities? What would it take for them to understand this? 


And just a follow-up question to that is what's the risk if cities misunderstand their DNA or misinterpret it, or understand that the outcomes are the DNA or – what happens if cities don't quite get it right?


Geerte Udo

Yeah, well, I think, again, that it is not so easy that you can just take a measurement and take it out and say, like, OK, this is my DNA. So I think cities should be open for the functionality of the discussion about DNA. And if you accept that there is something that differentiates your city from others and that it's helpful for you to look at it and invest in it to make the future better, I think that is step one, despite if it's called DNA or not. Also, if people see – we have this discussion a lot, that people say, "Yeah, but your DNA really is the spirit of freedom." From my point of storytelling, that is because we have the combination of creativity and spirit of commerce that gives us the freedom of spirit, because we couldn't care less about your religion or colour or beliefs or sexual preferences as long as we add value to get.


At the end, the discussion is not that. It enriches what we think our city is about, so you shouldn't get into a fight over "is it DNA or not?" You only have to make sure that you have the discussion about the values of your city. The risk of not discussing is that you want to be everything for everybody, and it means you're nothing, especially in the world of globalisation. All cities are looking alike. It's quite awkward, I think, as a human being, that if you ask us personally what we want, we always want to have a unique experience. If you look how cities developed in the last 20 years, they started looking alike more than ever before. So there is a difference between what a city looks like and what people prefer.


So I think in the world of globalisation, and again, 99% – our human DNA is also the same – is the same. So it doesn't matter that much that you are becoming more alike, but it means extra investment to make sure what makes you different. Because why would people travel? Why would people invest? Why would people consult Amsterdam if it's 100% the same as London, Berlin and New York? There is something that makes us different, luckily, and that is why I think that if you invest your growth within your preference – like I said before, if I invest in what the qualities are that do not fit my DNA, I will be a copycat, and I will feel – sometimes not in the first year or in the second tier, but in the long run, I will feel, because there are people with the right DNA for the thing I want, like the comparison with pretending to be your brother or your boss or your whatever. And that is again what is very common nowadays with human beings. Try to see what makes you unique and invest in that part instead of investing in something you can never learn or become. That is what cities should do as well, because that makes you more interesting for its residents, for its businesses and for visitors as well.


Caitlin Morrissey

I know you've alluded to this across this conversation, but now that Amsterdam understands its DNA has identified these three traits, how has it used it? And more broadly, how can cities use that DNA once they understand it?


Geerte Udo

Well, I think that you can use it in several ways. You can use it if you want to develop a part of the city. There can be many focus points of what you want it to be, but I think it helps if you also take the layer of your DNA to make sure that it is a new developed area that preserves the identity of your city, because we all know when new areas are developed, it will take a time before it feels part of the city and before all the residents feel that it's part of the city. It helps if you and the ground-layer already discussed and checked in what ways it does and does not fit. I'm not saying it should always fit, but you have to think about it and if you decide to get off track, then it has to be a reasoned decision instead of a mistake or not thinking about it.


But of course, it also helps a lot in telling the right stories to the right person at the right moment to gain the right goals, for instance, if we want to reach something in the United States I will tell a different story to a businessman in the United States than to a visitor in France. But how do I pick and choose the stories that I tell about my city? And if it comes to the reputation, the branding part, it helps if you always do the check of the DNA, because then at least the chance that it's an original Amsterdam metropolitan story is much higher than that I present something that I'm proud of, but maybe another city is much more good and much more famous about, and people from the outside think, "Awkward! Great with your sustainable whatever, but I know that Sweden and Stockholm and Copenhagen are much better. So why are you bragging about this story?"


That is always, of course, if you're living in a city, it's hard to find what the reputation from the outside is. The good thing, though, is your DNA is the same, but the U.S. DNA stories can be different. I as a person, somebody in China probably thinks that I'm a European lady, somebody in the United States probably thinks that I'm Dutch, somebody in Belgium probably thinks that I'm from Amsterdam, and in Amsterdam they think I'm from the east side. These are different reputations; my DNA is the same. And that is the biggest difference: my DNA is inside; the reputation is from the perspective of the others. And again, you can also differentiate it for target groups. Of course, a pharmaceutical company that's coming from the states and looking for a destination to put their European headquarters, you tell different stories than you would do to a visitor or a resident. But you have to make sure you tell them why they should choose Amsterdam above London and Barcelona. And I think you really have to be honest, not everybody should choose our destination. If you dare to choose and attract companies, residents, invest in your own residents that fit your identity, it will create much more value to the whole living organism that the city is than just attracting a company that applies jobs and that's it.


Greg Clark

Can I ask a couple of other bits there? So these are like three or four quick questions, Geerte. So one of the things you're saying is you should only pursue things that are appropriate for the DNA that you have.


Geerte Udo

No, not only. I think that a part of the success – of course, if a company comes to Amsterdam that doesn't fit our DNA, but it's just a very interesting company that helps us in our sustainable growth, for instance, we think that is very interesting because it creates value. Of course, you should be welcoming to everybody because we're an open and tolerant city. I just think that the chance of success that a company lands here, sticks into the ground of our metropolitan area and stays here, is maybe even bigger if it is a company that adds value. Part of the adding value is to DNA. The other part is the challenges that we're facing at the moment. And that is, of course, different for Amsterdam than Beijing or whatever.


Greg Clark

Wonderful. Three or four other quick questions. So when New York was first created, it was called New Amsterdam. And some people observe that there are some aspects of New York's DNA that might be quite similar to Amsterdam's DNA. Do you think it's possible for the DNA of one city to be transplanted into another?


Geerte Udo

Yeah, absolutely. But you already gave the answer yourself, because there is a history between us and New York. So the Dutch, together with the English and some other Europeans, travelled [inaudible 00:27:12] land in Manhattan, created the sort of society, of course, with the ideas and the values and the rules and legislation that were common at that time in the Netherlands. So, yes, of course, like I said, there's a lot in history that adds to your DNA. Although because it's a different climate, it's a different country, so yes, I think you have shared DNA, but it also added a lot of other things because of course, it's a different location in a different country with different roots.


I sometimes compare it as the same with countries and cities or metropolitan areas and cities, but also from this perspective, like interconnection, that it's like a big family. I have much more DNA in common with my brother than I have with you. But still, in the bigger picture, the more back we go, the more in common we probably have.


Greg Clark

Wonderful. Because I said too much in the question, can you just say a sentence or two that says something like, "People from Amsterdam established a colony in what we now call New York, and it was called New Amsterdam. And this involved some of the DNA of Amsterdam being transplanted into New York." Because you didn't say that. I did. And we need you to say it.


Geerte Udo

No, of course! For example, the Dutch well, actually, Henry Hudson, he was English, but we supported him financially. And he took a lot of Dutch blokes with him, went overseas, and they established the colony, New Amsterdam, that is now New York. And of course, we brought our values and our way of organizing the community and how we treat and how we are in discussion with each other or connect our relationship. Some of that DNA is brought overseas to this continent. But I don't want to brag about the importance of Amsterdam in New York because New York is a fantastic place that, of course, evolved over time because of their climate, their position, their politics, their nation, their everything.


It's also very Dutch to say, "Oh, we have the base of New York!" I think London can maybe tell the same story.


Greg Clark

Yeah.


Geerte Udo

You were just the lucky people that came there first, and we supported Henry Hudson for the last time. After two times he failed under your auspices.


Greg Clark

Yeah, well, because you have the creativity and the spirit of commerce and innovation. That's why. Now, in epigenetics, it's possible for human beings not to acquire new elements of their DNA, but for their DNA to express itself in new ways, in different parts of history. So do you think that a city can add to its DNA and create new traits or new elements in its genetic code? Or does it always have the same DNA forever and ever?


Geerte Udo

Wow, that's a bit semantic, I think, because, like we said, it's still a metaphor, and what is the DNA and what is not? I think my DNA is always the same. But there can be a genetic difference if I have a stroke or whatever. But that's where my biological knowledge stops. I don't have a clue. I just read an article that you can inherit traumas by your DNA. So there's a lot very unknown about human DNA as well. What I do believe is that you have to be very careful that as soon as you have another word that feels very common for your city, or another goal or another dream, that you say, "OK, we add it to our DNA."


For instance, we had eight, nine years ago, the whole sustainability started becoming more and more popular and important for cities. And then our mayor at that time said, "Ah, so we have creativity, innovation, spirit of commerce and sustainability." And now you could have said, "Oh, yes, and we have tech or start-ups or scaleups, and we will have AI in the future."


I think the most valuable part in branding and storytelling and identity is just use the DNA in these themes. So we said, "No, we have to focus. Within the whole sustainability transition that everybody in every city is in, what are the examples that are unique for them? Why is it that we invested so fast in electric poles for cars in the whole city, so we have a lot and we're now the best in it? Is that maybe something that had to do with this creativity, innovation and spirit of commerce combination?


The same with start-ups. We said if you're really in your creative phase, go to Berlin. It's much more creative. If you really want to have the big money, go to London or to Silicon Valley, because the real investors are there. But if you are on the crossroad of creativity and spirit of commerce, we have the best breeding ground for your start-up.


So I'm not saying that it's not discussable, but you have to be careful that you do not mix up trends with USPs, because we will have as a city these challenges that are coming up years, every time we have the same challenges. That connects us. I will not say that you can never change the DNA, but you have to be careful that it's not wishful thinking.


Greg Clark

Brilliant. Thank you, Geerte. And then you've already commented on my next question, which was about traumas and shocks. So cities, like people, can go through traumas and shocks in their lifetimes. It can be all kinds of traumas and shocks. 


What do you think can be revealed about the DNA of a city when it goes through such a shock or such a trauma?


Geerte Udo

Well, I think it does have a lot of effect on how cities behave because it's a common history and like I said, the whole DNA is a piling up of stories and histories, etc. We, for instance, in the Netherlands, had Rotterdam that was in the unfortunate position of being bombed in the Second World War. Because they had to build up the city fast after the Second World War, all businesses combined with government, combined with other people, they have a totally different way in how public/private works together. That doesn't mean that they have a totally different DNA, but it has an effect on how the city is, how it breathes, and of course it influences their identity as well.


So, yes, I do think that big shocks or heavy impact things that really covered the whole city have impact on the identity of cities and how they how they create their value proposition, their stories, their hero, their unique selling point, their proud.


Greg Clark

Great, and I think I'm wondering if I should ask you for another example of that as well. So the bombing of Rotterdam is a great one.


Geerte Udo

But, you know, you have to - again, and that is the vague part, where is it DNA or is it something that's above? I always think that you have to focus on the value of the discussion and not on having right or wrong if it's DNA. You know, I think that the DNA of New York didn't change because of 9/11. I think their DNA helped them to be very resilient in coming back even more powerful than before.


Caitlin Morrissey

And so we have one final question, which is about what does this concept of the DNA leave out about the way we understand cities and about how they evolve? You made a good point earlier about the fact that even human DNA is being discovered and learned about all the time. 


And so, what does the concept of the DNA of cities leave out about the way we understand cities? 


Geerte Udo

Yeah, I think you should never, ever think that the DNA of cities is a fixed concept or that you have to find if it's true or not. It's just a very, very powerful instrument to have a guideline in the discussions where you want to go as a city for your future residents. I think you miss out if you focus too much on the right or wrong. And I think you should focus much more on how it can add value to the discussions.


It has to take time, a long, long time. Like we said, I'm here for 14 years. Luckily, nowadays, if you see another string of DNA going on, people are saying like, "But our DNA, isn't it creativity, spirit of commerce and innovation?" The people behind the scenes, so people from the public administration, etcetera. But that took a long time. Do not get annoyed. It takes time because it's a quite complex theoretical framework that can help people. But you have to discuss it over and over to get the right idea behind it. So there are still parts elsewhere in our city that probably never use the DNA of a city in developing, whatever, a building or not.


The good thing, though, is it really connects public, private cultural, universities, because if you share the stories, people say, "Yeah, sure. That's right." And then it helps again in guiding complex discussions about the future of whatever of your city.


I do not think that it really matters if the DNA of cities really physically does or does not exist. I think it's one of the most valuable tools to use to discuss what your city is all about, what you think makes it unique for the people to live there, to work there and to visit it. And the discussion about it gives you the right discussion or where you want to invest to create the future for the next generations.


Caitlin Morrissey

We always finish up with one final question, which is if we were to have asked the right thing, would there have been anything else you would have wanted to say about the DNA of cities?


Geerte Udo

No, not that it pops up in my mind right now. Again, I think that it's really valuable to have a common ground. And again, for people that work in our profession, it feels sometimes like a religion. Imagine that it's true. What would it help you?


Greg Clark

Yeah, if you imagine that cities had the DNA, how could you use it? 


Geerte Udo

Yeah. And again, we have, as Greg now knows, a very left-wing mayor and city council. They're really discussing the whole idea, "Is that our DNA?" And you cannot talk about the spirit of commerce anymore because it's too much connected to the slavery and you shouldn't be so proud of it. And for me – and the future will tell if I'm right or wrong – that's just the moment. I do understand, because Black Lives Matter, and our slavery history is coming back, and it should be coming back to discuss it much better, what the part of it in our history was that these discussions are there. And again, that's great because you re-discuss it again, and I believe that at the end, we will go along with this DNA because, again, it helps to discuss the future and not if it's right or wrong. But you never know, politics can be very powerful. So maybe!


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