Economic power and influence in the Netherlands is generally concentrated in the ‘triangle’ of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven. The Zwolle city region would like to reshape that axis of power into a square, making itself the fourth point. A place that has had the feeling of being left in the shadow of its neighbours is now primed to try to assert itself more on the national stage.
Having has a population of 685,000 people in 20 municipalities, Zwolle added another municipality in October 2018, bringing the population to 840,000. Economic growth (3.3% in 2017) and labour participation are higher than the national average while unemployment is lower (4.2% in Zwolle versus 4.9% nationally in 2017) thanks to the large numbers of job-creating SMEs and family businesses in the area.
A diverse mix
Zwolle's local economy is based on a diverse, balanced mix of sectors such as plastics, polymers, agri/foodtech, logistics, health, IT and e-commerce – a factor that enabled it to avoid too much damage during the global financial crisis and keeps it on stable footing.
“We are a logistics centre. We also want to attract companies within our specialities of polymer science and e-commerce – which are two sectors that are growing,” says Zwolle first deputy mayor René de Heer, whose cabinet portfolio includes the economy, education and work.
“The other thing we want to do – there are big opportunities that we have on climate and energy transition. But you also have to be attractive to firms who work in that kind of development. So we have a climate campus connecting all firms working on climate adaptation, in the hope that if there are large firms and educational institutes working in this area, they will want to come here as there huge advantages.”
The appliance of science
Zwolle is also putting a heavy focus on applied science and open innovation through such centres as the Polymer Science Park, Perron038, TopCentrum E-Commerce, Health Innovation Park and the Agri & Food Innovatie Cluster.
Polymer Science Park, an open innovation centre focused on plastics technology, created a local pride point in the form of a bike path made completely from recycled bottles. The park carries out research into high-performance polymers, including composites, rubbers, engineering plastics, coatings and biopolymers, bringing ideas to product-ready prototypes and working with recycling technologies and 3D printing.
Perron038, another innovation hub that is creating a buzz, is a collaborative space for companies working in smart industries that is set up in old factory buildings (Perron means ‘platform’ in Dutch and 038 is the local dialling code).
Laurens de Lange is commercial director at Unica (an insulation company with 2500 employees), a member of the economic board for Zwolle and the chairman of VNO-NCW Zwolle, a business and entrepreneurs association. He believes there is a bullish mood in this once understated region. “Zwolle has one of the great entrepreneurial ecosystems in the Netherlands, with an excellent track record in recent years. This is an area with very well trained people and a highly ranked education system – there are three universities within a one-hour drive – and the ethos and work ethic of people here is very good,” he says.
“The infrastructure is also very good. We are well connected and close to the main economic area of Germany, we have three harbours and we are the second rail hub of the Netherlands. Importantly, quality of life is excellent,” he adds. “The triangle is absolutely becoming a square.”