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I have seen the future (of sport) and it is about sustainability and analytics

The grass is always greener on the other side… Or is it? I am on my way back home – to Melbourne – the most liveable city in the world as judged by a panel of wise women and men. And indeed, I live and love living in Melbourne (@cityofmelbourne) because of how great a city it is, with so much culture, art, sport, shopping, food and nature on offer, and so many business opportunities to pursue (@WhatsOnMelb). But it remains interesting that to date I have missed the amazing story of my former home town, the City of Groningen (@gem_groningen), in the Netherlands. I guess I had to move away from the place where I spent 12 years of my life as a student and young professional to fully appreciate how green the grass really is back there.

Earlier in the week I had spent a couple of days in Amsterdam, at the Sport Analytics World Series (@Sporting_Data) co-produced by KPMG (@KPMG). At this event, I was observing and engaging with a host of digital economy literates, who are transforming the landscape of sport business as we speak. Don’t hold me to the number I will present next as I took it from a slide that was presented at the conference, but during the past decade the business of traditional sport (delivered by clubs, national associations, federations and event owners) grew by about 70%. Pretty good growth rate wouldn’t you say? Well, the sport business value generated by the ‘new’ industry entrants (sport tech apps and devices, new sports, new events, gaming, gambling, esport, digital distribution etc.) has grown almost 900% and is likely to keep outpacing the ‘traditional’ owners of sport for some time to come. This means that those who own ‘digital’, ‘data’, and ‘data transformation’ will also increasingly own sport business. If you can’t profile your increasingly diverse range of sport consumer segments, then you will also rapidly become irrelevant as a sport content producer. So, on the one hand, the future of sport is digital but we knew that, right? Digital, and data combined with artificial intelligence will disrupt the current order of power and transform the way in which we consume sport. But beyond the digital, I believe, will always remain the real thing, so beyond a digital future, I continue to see a natural, and as such human future for sport.

During the latter stages of last week, I returned to Groningen for a couple of days, catching up with one of my PhD students, and spending a rare and delightful weekend with my sister and her family. The weather was awesome – unDutchlike sunny and warm – and I extensively took advantage of the number 1 Dutch preferred mode of transport, the pushbike. And my goodness, how green the grass really is in Groningen (and many other municipalities around the Netherlands for that matter). My family resides on the outskirts of the suburb of Lewenborg, where water abundantly cuts through the farm and wetlands, and where working windmills and locks control the flow of water from high to lower lands. If the Eskimos can distinguish between hundred shades of white, then the people from Groningen must be able to do so for the colour green.

What impressed me to no end though, is how the City and Provincial governments (with funding support from Lottery (@PostcodeLoterij), and National (@Rijksoverheid) and EU (@EUCouncil) governments) have regulated and facilitated the land to be returned to its original state, and to bring sustainable harmony between the human and animal residents that live there. Farmers are paid to grow a 2-meter-wide ring of wildflowers around their land to bring the bees back to do their essential pollination job. To house bees and fellow bugs, there are ‘insect’ houses located along the highways – wooden constructions that provide protective and attractive cover for flying creepy crawlers, away from the main residential areas to ensure that the public is not disturbed.

Although it seems that there is a lot of roadworks going on, further investigation tells me that the City has embarked on a three-year construction project that will see a number of main streets and highways ‘sink’ into the ground, to be covered by residential housing and green space. The vision is to return the City to those who walk, cycle, and those who use sustainable public transport. There is a busline that runs electric busses, charged at the final stop by solar panels on the terminal. The terminal is built at a major parking lot where commuting workers park to take the bus into the city trouble free.

In various suburbs, natural gas dependent households are being phased out (also because of recent earthquakes that are blamed on excessive natural gass drilling in the region). Any yet to be built housing will be designed and constructed ‘gas free’, running on solar generated energy only. If self-generated solar energy is not sufficient then residents can ‘buy’ a stake in a windfarm that will supply the remainder of required electricity. Blocks of hundreds of houses surrounded by water and connected by bridges, are fitted with solar roof panels as a rule rather than an exception, increasingly capable of supplying all of the household’s electricity needs. Older residences without solar capacity receive a government subsidy to fit their roofs with sun soaking cells or indeed, spend this money on double glazing or insulation. Shower and sink water is directed into the surrounding water planes where it is naturally filtered by the sandy soil and special wetland filters, before it is being returned to domestic use. Such water is also used to maintain some of the perfectly laid out pitches of the local soccer club – FC Lewenborg (@FCLewenborg) –  and you could mistake this facility for a professional club, if you did not already know that the Netherlands have some of the best, if not the best, community sport and recreation infrastructure in the world. Noteworthy is that the football club uses a combination of real and artificial turf pitches, to allow for maximum flexibility during extreme freezing or excessive rain conditions.

Leisurely riding your pushbike around City and countryside, without the stress of having to negotiate angry and ignorant drivers of cars is a sheer delight (Melbourne eat your heart out…). It is enabled by the fact that dedicated bike lanes in the city, and separate bike paths in the countryside communicate that those who ride bikes rule the road. FC Lewenborg’s facilities are picturesquely positioned within the wetlands, surrounded by grazing Scottish highlanders (who may end up on your plate as organic free ranging beef), and connected to the City by several smaller Futsal courts that are extensively used by the local youths. Holland may not be playing at the World Cup this year, but if enabling participation is a key success factor to qualifying for the World Cup, then the mighty Orange (@KNVB) will be back with a vengeance.

So really, I return to a City that can have it all and is working hard to make that happen. I have just seen the future, and it has been right on my doorstep without me realising it. I actually lived there for a while, when admittedly, the future seemed or was projected vastly different from the one we are facing today. But to touch and feel a microcosm of how a sustainable future could work, that it actually can be done, is both heartening and exciting. Of course, at present, such dedicated sustainability thinking and execution remains limited to a number of (small, wealthy and quite democratic) countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, to name a few (or to name the few?). But to see how small communities can quickly reach a tipping point of cheap solar energy, integrated and productive green space, and active transport prioritised suburban design, in which community sport is presented as a centre piece, is nothing short of spectacular.