The THNK Tank: Why Amsterdam Wants Your (Creative) Brains

The city of Amsterdam, the Dutch government, and a host of private sponsors are funding an accelerator for “successful dropouts and Harvard alumni” from around the world. The goal? More talent in Amsterdam.


Amsterdam is embarking on an ambitious experiment to attract foreign creatives: An invite-only, public/private-funded school and accelerator for international creative minds, leaders, and entrepreneurs. THNK: The Amsterdam School of Creative Leadership opened several weeks ago with an initial class of 30 drawn from across Europe, the United States, China, India, Israel, Mauritius, and South Africa. Classes and mentoring at THNK are held both in Amsterdam–in a home base inside a converted gasworks–and via telecommuting once participants return to their home countries.

THNK’s program lasts 18 months and has a €39,500 tuition fee. The first six months of the program are spent in short, week-long intensives in Amsterdam and telecommuting; after that half-year period, participants transition into a more conventional accelerator program where faculty assist them with their projects of choice. To Amsterdam’s credit, they’ve recruited some interesting faculty members for the program. Faculty members are primarily Dutch but also include other European and American experts. The organization’s advisory board includes Stanford founder George Kembel, Creative Commons vice chair Esther Wojcicki, Dutch architect Ben Van Berkel, and designer Marcel Wanders.

For Amsterdam, THNK is a slick business development project that simultaneously doubles as soft diplomacy. The thinkers and doers who will be joining in THNK’s activities will be connected with local entrepreneurs, artists, and firms–whom the city is doubtlessly hoping will be back in the future. THNK is a public-private partnership that is supported by the Dutch government, the City of Amsterdam, the Province of North Holland, Vodafone, McKinsey & Company, KLM Airlines, and a host of other private and public entities. McKinsey and Vodafone aren’t participating merely to be good philanthropists: Both firms have large presences in the Netherlands and doubtlessly expect that the accelerator will provide development opportunities and future potential. Although Amsterdam has a robust presence in the high-tech and design worlds, it has been overshadowed by London and Berlin as of late.

The thinkers and doers who will be joining in Thnk’s activities will be connected with local entrepreneurs, artists, and firms–whom the city is doubtlessly hoping will be back in the future.

Participants come from a variety of backgrounds–and are working on some very interesting projects. Ben Keene is the founder of the crunchy global south living project Tribewanted, Gines Haro Pastor is behind The Guardian‘s ambitious Social Enterprise Network, and Shona McDonald’s Shonaquip produces low-cost wheelchairs for rural areas. Quite a few of the participants are also affiliated with McKinsey, Vodafone, and other sponsors, providing handy professional development opportunities for the project’s supporters. However, the bulk of participants are what THNK’s promotional materials refer to as “a mixture of successful dropouts and Harvard alumni” that includes TED, Rockefeller Foundation, and Ashoka fellowship winners.


The public diplomacy portion of THNK also comes up thanks to a recent visit by Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan to India. THNK staff members traveled to Mumbai and Bangalore as part of a trade mission, where they hosted leadership workshops for like-minded local firms. Six of the initial thirty participants in THNK are Indian.

THNK participants are very enthusiastic about the program, and potential applicants can get more information on participating in the September 2012 class.

[Image: Flickr user Javier Candeira]

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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the program is free for participants. Fast Company regrets the error.