CEresearchNRW: The Promotion of Sustainable Industrial Parks and the Desire for Industrial Symbiosis

Friederike von Unruh vom Prosperkolleg Team.

by Friederike v. Unruh

The tenth web seminar of the Virtual Research Network Circular Value Creation NRW(CEreserachNRW) dealt with the potentials and challenges of sustainable industrial estates and the endeavor to create industrial symbioses.

Prof. Dr. Franz and Carolin Schack from the human geography research group with a focus on economic geography at the University of Osnabrück presented their work in the project “Green instead of Gray – Industrial Parks in Transition[1]. In particular, they addressed the motivation and networking of companies. Prof. Franz began the presentation with the challenges of old industrial estates: In these, there are often too many sealed surfaces, soil pollution and heat islands. In addition, they are not necessarily well connected in terms of transport and have a negative image. This reduces the attractiveness for companies to locate there. However, Prof. Franz also emphasized that local authorities have an interest in the renewal and development of sustainable industrial estates, because they create and secure jobs and generate trade tax.

There is enormous potential for sustainable design in commercial areas. For example, greening facades, roofs or courtyards can improve air quality and reduce noise. The “Green instead of Gray” project aims to exploit this potential and develop and test concepts for how sustainable business parks can be an attractive component of the sustainable city. To do this, trees, green spaces and plants can be integrated into the commercial areas, whether on the buildings, in the streets, on the properties or in open spaces. These measures serve the triad of biodiversity, health, and climate adaptation.

How are companies now encouraged to implement these activities? And what role do networks play in this? Research shows that networks are “important drivers of sustainable change[2] and thus also of great importance for the development of sustainable business parks. This is because, according to Ajzen’s theory of planned behavior, subjectively perceived norms of the social environment have a great influence on one’s own behavior.

In the first phase of the project, 23 qualitative interviews were conducted with companies and 19 with representatives of municipalities. There was also a quantitative company survey and network analyses. The results show, for example, companies’ arguments for implementing sustainability measures. These include an increasing quality of stay, employee:internal satisfaction or even the image and aesthetics. The arguments against this include high costs, the complexity of the issue and the time and planning required.

In the following, Ms. Schack now reported on the establishment of company networks in different commercial areas. The first step was to create an atmosphere of departure. To this end, area managers can be appointed to serve as intermediaries, and public relations work can be stepped up. It is also important to identify so-called change agents and implement the first simple measures. It is advisable to start with an open topic and not to prescribe any event formats. Especially in this phase, time should be allowed to get to know each other and to inquire about site-specific needs. Agreeing on a common purpose can strengthen community identity and increase public visibility.

A more low-threshold approach should be used for network building, e.g. by hosting street festivals, business breakfasts or information booths. Continuity also plays an important role in network building. At regular regulars’ tables, the players can exchange ideas with each other. In networking, the focus should always be on what the needs of the business park being transformed are. The offers tailored to a business park should also be well communicated and publicized; after all, not all companies are involved in the development process right from the start.

After the initial networking activities, the networking work really begins: The exchange and personal relationships give rise to new projects. To continue the work, municipal funding programs, permanence and political will are needed. The exchange between municipal representatives from different cities can also bring new ideas. However, there is always a risk that the work will fall asleep if successes fail to materialize or if individual key players fall away.

In a second presentation, Julia Böhm(Wirtschaftsförderung Stadt Bottrop/ Prosperkolleg) gave an insight into the municipal perspective of sustainable business parks. At the beginning of her presentation, she explained that one fifth of German CO2 emissions are caused by German industry. [3] There are already 4000 industrial parks in NRW alone. [4] However, these tend to operate on a stand-alone basis, although the networking of companies would bring great potential.

First of all, Ms. Böhm went into the planning approach in industrial estates: Here, the focus is on soil & water, urban climate, energy, and mobility & logistics. Soil & Water is about integrating stormwater retention basins for collecting precipitation. In addition, roads with little traffic can be unsealed and roofs can be greened. Roofs and facades can also be greened for the urban climate. Photovoltaic systems on the roofs and waste heat can be used to meet the high energy demand in commercial areas. In addition, energy-efficient building construction reduces energy requirements. Also, electricity from renewable energy sources should be used. In the field of mobility and logistics, there is an opportunity to shorten transport routes. A site guidance system, bicycle-friendly infrastructure, access to public transportation, the use of electric cars or a commuter exchange for employees offer sustainable solutions.

The use of area managers is of great importance for the creation of networks in industrial areas. They can raise awareness and network, but also identify opportunities for change. Since many departments in the administration are responsible for the development and management of industrial estates, this can be well communicated. In addition, attempts are being made to establish company networks in order to exploit (economic) synergies between the companies. However, the city has limited influence in this regard, but it can initiate network formation.

At the end of her presentation, Ms. Böhm briefly touched on the practical side of things: Because there it often looks quite different. Particularly in existing industrial estates in Bottrop, it is difficult to create industrial symbioses because, for example, in the case of residual materials from other companies, there is no reliability and contractual commitment as to exactly what they should or can supply and when. In addition, company locations are already spoken for or there is only a limited selection of applications in the award process.

Jana Nicolas (Research Fellow at the Wuppertal Institute) addressed the question of how to support the emergence of regional industrial symbioses in the third presentation. By industrial symbioses, she means symbiotic coexistence in the entrepreneurial environment that brings benefits to all involved. For example, residual quantities and materials as well as energy, but also capacities or infrastructures can be exchanged or shared between companies.

First, Ms. Nicolas asked what are the success factors or barriers to industrial symbioses. The most important aspect is trust. Companies must disclose and share data and information about their processes and, for example, material quality, and assume that it will be trusted. Supply and demand must also be brought together. Often companies do not really know what their neighbors produce and sell. Digitization plays a major role here. In addition, the networking of companies is an important factor. Companies need to get to know each other before an exchange can take place. The transaction costs here are usually very high: The companies have to find their potential partners in addition to their day-to-day business tasks. In addition, the data requirements in industrial symbioses are very high. Symbiosis must be integrated into existing processes, which must be plannable. Legal aspects are also not to be neglected. If materials have been declared as waste, they may no longer be passed on.

In the research environment of digitally supported regional industrial symbioses, different questions have to be addressed. For example, how extensive digital support must be and how much must continue to be covered by “analog” offers and services and the companies’ own commitment. In particular, it is interesting to see to what extent digital solutions can support the creative part that it takes to discover new solutions and uses for materials. Long-term issues should also be included because, for example, legal aspects may change.

In addition, Ms. Nicolas presented the current regional research project InSym, which is developing needs-based digital support for the creation of industrial symbioses. Two model symbioses are to be created here, as well as a network, which will be supported by symbiosis managers. Of course, the Corona pandemic makes networking activities more difficult, as no classic networking events can be implemented as planned. Digital networking is one possibility, but it does not replace personal exchange. In addition, the project will produce a transfer manual for the development and technical implementation of regional symbioses. An active working group of regional companies will also be launched, as will the development of digital support. The focus is on transferring this to other regions.

In a fourth presentation, Roman Wolf(Zero Emission GmbH) and Marius Beckamp(Institut Arbeit und Technik) addressed the SymbotiQ project (Symbiotic Industrial Parks: Sustainable Approaches, Potentials for Structural Change Regions, and Possibilities and Limits of Transferability to Mixed-Use Neighborhoods). The project explores the question of what a prototypical symbiotic business park could look like, what framework conditions need to be created for it, and what the transferability looks like?

Mr. Beckamp first elaborated on an expanded definition of industrial symbiosis, which was very similar to that of Ms. Nicolas. Industrial symbiosis is thus described by the local exchange of materials, energy, water and by-products, as well as the use of land and infrastructure by several companies. In addition, services can be used by several companies. So far, industrial symbioses have been of little importance in Germany. At the moment, there is more of a bilateral exchange between companies. In Germany, power plant sites as well as chemical and industrial parks are pioneers in this area. In research work on existing symbioses in industrial estates, one repeatedly encounters the problem that there is a lack of contact persons and that ownership and utilization structures are very heterogeneous.

To discuss barriers and success factors for industrial symbioses, expert interviews were conducted describing more top-down approaches. In business in particular, it is still a niche topic. Here, there is a lack of knowledge, data, resources and established procedures. The sites are poorly networked and there is no established funding backdrop.

Among the success factors for municipalities, Mr. Wolf mentions active maintenance of existing contacts, i.e. using and activating contacts, the previously mentioned interdepartmental approach and the provision of investment funds for measures. In addition, the exchange at the location is very important, as there are often hardly any communication structures there. Barriers identified included information gaps about locations, lack of staff capacity, and non-availability of investment funds.

The barriers for companies are to exchange information with other companies in addition to their day-to-day business. The work can therefore initially be started with a small alliance of the willing. In addition, the data situation at companies is usually rather poor, so that potentials in the area of resource efficiency can be poorly estimated. A wide variety of industries can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, it’s hard to include everyone; on the other hand, diversity offers greater matching potential. The use of business park managers, who support communication between the companies and solve problems that arise in the business park, also turned out to be a success factor.

[1] Joint project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research within the framework program “Research for Sustainable Development” (FONA); First funding phase: July 2016 – September 2019; Second funding phase: October 2019 – September 2021.

[2] Schneidewind, U. (2011): “Sustainable development – where do we stand? UNESCO today”, No. 2/2011, p. 9.

[3] Federal Ministry for the Environment 2016

[4] Action plan commercial zones 2019