Are Amsterdam’s aspirations hidden behind a veil of smoke?
Amsterdam is quite possibly the most liberal city in the world. This title carries with it many praiseworthy attributes, as well as numerous challenges. The bicycles, the marijuana, the tolerant people, the openness to new ideas seen in industries as varied as architecture and sex, a world-class, social healthcare system; all defining characteristics of a liberal and progressive city.
One idea that struck a chord with me as I explored the city was the huge potential Amsterdam has as a Tech hub. This idea may sound quite alien, but multiple circumstances exist in the Dutch capital that lead me to believe it is a very real possibility.
The first advantage the city can lay claim to is a well-educated, multi-lingual, young and progressive population. My AirBnB-hosted student accommodation next to the University of Amsterdam exemplified this – the University was in the process of becoming a dual language University in order to attract overseas students; everyone we met was at least bi-lingual, while our host spoke four languages fluently; the rapid uptake of new services such as AirBnB was astonishing, and an AirBnB party I attended in the city revealed that hosts range from students funding their education to friendly pensioners looking for interesting and varied company. This population has more potential than any other I have encountered to succeed at building a startup ecosystem from scratch.
An AirBnB party for all the hosts and guests in Amsterdam: it got busy!
The second advantage Amsterdam has is a well-established corporate business environment. Holland has an illustrious history in commerce, dating back to the 17th century exploits of the Dutch East India Company, often regarded as the world’s first multi-national corporation. Today some of the worlds largest and most successful firms operate out of Amsterdam: ING, Heineken, Phillips, Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell and KPMG to name but a few. The R&D resources these industry giants possess could be utilized to kickstart a startup culture. It is with this vision of Amsterdam as an emerging tech hub that I arrive at my most contentious issue with the city: the widespread use of marijuana.
The coffeeshop scene in Amsterdam is crazy, to say the least. Prior to my arrival I was under the impression that smoking cannabis was legal, but confined to a limited number of streets or to a particular neighborhood, much like Amsterdam’s infamous red light district at De Wallen. Instead, the smell of weed permeated the entire city, coffeeshops on every street corner. In my mind there is nothing wrong with a country legalizing marijuana, in fact I think legalization and taxation is the best way to partially end the failing war on drugs that has come at a huge cost to the taxpayer. However, because Amsterdam is touted as one of the only places in the world where weed is sold freely, it has become a magnet to the wrong types of tourists, particularly men on stag-dos (bachelor parties for my American friends) and University students. I am so proud of Britain in so many ways, but I am constantly ashamed when I visit European destinations accessible by budget airlines that are overflowing with fat, rude and disrespectful Brits looking for (to quote Jay from The Inbetweeners) “sun, sea, sex, sand, booze, sex, minge, fanny and tits. And booze. And Sex.”
Dutch authorities have taken the initiative to ban marijuana for non-Dutch citizens, in a move I whole-heartedly support if Amsterdam is ever to emerge as a European tech and startup hub. Critics argue that the cannabis trade brings in over $1 billion in revenue to the city each year. I personally feel that any loss in revenue could be more than compensated by an influx in investment Amsterdam would be likely to receive from previously wary VC’s and other investors; investors who would feel their money would be much safer with the ban in place.
I left Amsterdam with very mixed feelings. While the city is extremely attractive and the people friendly, my experience was soured by the extent to which the city catered to potheads and stag-dos, along with the incessant rain. Perhaps I will return in a few years to find the city attracting startups and world-class engineers instead of the Brits who make it hard for any foreigners to see what is “great” about Great Britain.
Next stop: Berlin!
Until next time,
P.S. Did I mention the bicycles? Put simply, Amsterdam has an unbelievable amount of resources dedicated solely to bicycles. Bike lanes, bike stands, bike traffic lights do not play second fiddle to motor vehicles in Amsterdam, rather they take precedent. I had heard about the Dutch being famous for their cycling, but did not expect the “rush hour” in the Netherlands to consist of hundreds of bicycles jostling for position in the (already road-width) bike lanes!!