Note 17: Human Cities

We live in a world where rapid urbanization is a fast-approaching fact. Today, around 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. This is expected to increase to nearly 70 percent by 2050. A new urban agenda will be necessary to ensure that people continue to lead liveable and loveable lives. And as neighborhoods, villages and towns meld into megacities, how can we preserve the identity of people and places? How can we keep our cities “human”?

Our ingredients to create positive change in society

Social value creation – Our ingredients to create positive change in society (graphic)

Our initiative is an active expression of our company purpose to create everyday essentials to make people’s lives more liveable and inspiring. It’s everything we do with and for society and is our commitment to improving, energizing and regenerating urban communities across the world.

By combining our sense of care with our people, products and leadership in innovation, safety and sustainability, we are helping cities to meet the many challenges they face. We are using our products and expertise to help cities deliver a stronger sense of community purpose, pride and happiness.

Since the launch of Human Cities in 2014, many successful projects have been completed, bringing essential ingredients, essential protection and essential color into the lives of people across the world. For example, the initiative has given a sporting chance to blind and visually impaired people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as creating jobs for young people in North Asia and the UK. It has also helped to connect two secluded villages in Indonesia via the “Bridge of Hope” for which we provided coatings and expertise. In addition, historic landmarks such as Burkill Hall in Singapore and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, have been renovated and restored.

Through our Community Program, we’ve been transforming communities for more than a decade, while our global “Let’s Colour” program – which has been revitalizing urban areas for over five years – is now strongly linked to our Human Cities activities.

Positively changing urban environments

Since the second half of 2016, acts as an umbrella for everything we do for and with society. This includes the Community Program and global “Let’s Colour” initiative. These programs have been run separately in the past, so we’ve measured them in different ways. Therefore, we report them separately this year. Our goal for 2017 is to define a standard approach for measuring and managing the overall social impact and related business benefits. The following paragraph gives an overview of the positive impact our new Human Cities projects had in 2016 (excluding “Let’s Colour” and the Community Program).

During 2016 we carried out 62 additional Human Cities projects with a total budget spend of about €2.4 million (excluding partnerships). In total, 1,994 AkzoNobel volunteers supported the projects with 9,818 volunteer hours. Our products also provide a meaningful contribution to society – we supplied around 85,000 liters of paint for our Human Cities projects in 2016. In total, over 5.2 million people benefited. We couldn’t have done this alone, so we set up strategic partnerships at a cost of around €1 million to help amplify our efforts worldwide. These numbers and trends give an idea of the social impact we have with Human Cities. However, we are working on improving the way we measure and report this.

External awareness of Human Cities is steadily increasing through media coverage, as well as social channels, primarily contributing favorably to the reputation of AkzoNobel.

Striking a balance to drive results

We firmly believe that companies who think and care about the future will achieve the most success. Business and society both stand to benefit from working together. Studies suggest that 80 percent of people across the globe expect businesses to pay equal attention to business goals and societal goals (Edelman Trust Barometer 2016). In addition, 50 percent of consumers say they would pay more for products from a company known for its commitment to social value (2015 Nielsen Global Sustainability Report). Meanwhile, 50 percent of the millennial workforce would be willing to take a pay cut in exchange for a company purpose (Deloitte Millennial Survey 2015), and 25 percent of people are more likely to recommend as an employer companies that are involved in addressing broader social issues (Edelman Trust Barometer 2016).

We’ve already seen this trend at work within AkzoNobel, with the results of our engagement survey having improved for the seventh year in a row. Human Cities can help to accelerate this by building company pride and engaging employees in making a positive impact on society.

This means that for business, getting involved in society is now a crucial part of reputation management, recruitment and long-term growth. It’s been proven that companies with a clear purpose and corporate social responsibility strategy grow faster. Great brands are built on what they do, not what they say. Finding a balance between business and societal goals is an important part of running a successful and sustainable business because it:

  • Strengthens the brand and reputation of the corporate and product brands
  • Builds trust and strengthens relationships with a wide range of stakeholders
  • Opens new doors and grants earlier access to decision makers
  • Attracts and retains top talent
  • Boosts engagement, motivation and advocacy among employees
  • Drives commercial benefits by contributing to organic growth and innovation

Embedding our societal initiatives in our business strategy is a key priority. During 2016, our Decorative Paints business and its Coral brand launched the Unexpected Courts project in Rio’s Santa Marta favela in Brazil. It involves giving children the chance to test their sporting skills in surprising spaces, through the simple but ingenious use of paint. Several courts have been created so far, including a walkway that has been turned into a running track, a set of stairs and a wall that have become a basketball arena, and a series of clothes lines and pillars that have been transformed into a volleyball court. Projects such as this bring color and inspiration to people’s lives and drive the value and equity of our brands.

Towards the end of 2016, our Specialty Chemicals business showcased the power of urban gardens at the United Nations Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, by installing a vertical garden. We helped transform a bleak expanse of concrete into a colorful and more attractive space for local residents. The garden has no soil and is based on a hydrophonic system, which uses our micronutrients to provide essential minerals for the plants.

Meanwhile, our Performance Coatings business is busily preparing for the 2017/2018 Volvo Ocean Race. As well as entering the race ourselves with team AkzoNobel, we are also supplying coatings and technical expertise to all of the boats in the race. Human Cities activities are being planned at each of the 12 host ports to help create more liveable and inspiring harbor cities around the world.

The meaningful contribution we make to society is typified by the complete portfolios of sustainable products that we offer. Around 60 percent of what we make ends up in cities and many of our products have a direct social impact. For example, we produce coatings that provide fire protection or heat-reflecting functionality for buildings. We also supply coatings that can prevent moisture and mold in classrooms and promote sanitary conditions on hospital walls. We even help to create safer nurseries by providing suppliers such as IKEA with formaldehyde-free, lead pigment-free and solvent-free products.

In addition, considerable time and effort goes into building and maintaining strategic global and local partnerships in order to amplify the reach of our projects, the profile of our brands and the awareness of our company purpose. This includes working with 100 Resilient Cities, the Johan Cruyff Foundation, the Human Cities Coalition and the Plan organization. Together, we can make an even bigger positive impact on people’s lives.

Any partnerships or projects created as part of the Human Cities initiative reflect the principles of our Planet Possible agenda so that we can deliver the most sustainable work for our communities.

Programs and partnerships

Community Program

Community program (line chart)

AkzoNobel’s Community Program encourages sites and employees all over the world to use their skills and the company’s products for sustainable projects that benefit local communities. The program – which makes funds available for worthwhile local projects that include hands-on involvement – is highly valued and has become an integrated part of the way we do business.

Cumulative Community Program involvement
Cumulative data, since 2005

Social value creation – Cumulative Community Program involvement (bar chart)

The Community Program is also an easy and accessible way for employees to contribute to the company’s Human Cities initiative. For example, team events are very popular and have become an annual tradition for many departments, frequently being included in conference agendas. They are also great for team building and help to enhance employee engagement, as well as promote the development of new skills and talent.

During 2015, the ten most inspiring community initiatives were selected as part of the celebrations for the Community Program’s tenth anniversary. In 2016, these winning teams were personally awarded their prizes by senior management in recognition of their valuable work. All prize money was spent on approved worthy causes and charities.

2016 projects by region

Social value creation – 2016 projects by region (pie chart)

During the course of 2016, more than 3,600 AkzoNobel volunteers from around the world took part in 146 new Community Program projects. These included the refurbishment and repainting of schools, as well as upgrading buildings and facilities used by seniors and people impacted by addiction or homelessness. Other projects involved offering vocational training and health, safety and environment () workshops.

A particular highlight was a team event which saw 220 of the company’s senior executives paint outdoor furniture and create colorful artwork which was donated to 12 Salvation Army and “Volksbond” charities in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. A few months later, various teams of employees revisited these locations to repaint the benches and flower boxes that had been donated in order to protect them against humidity and winter weather conditions.

In Vietnam, 77 employees from Wood Coatings and Powder Coatings participated in projects to assist orphans and the elderly, which included helping with personal care, painting, cleaning, cooking and planting fruit trees.

Several projects organized during 2016 were also focused on assisting refugees. In Sweden, for example, our employees worked alongside a number of refugees to build pavilions made out of recyclable materials. They were also put in contact with local organizations for participaton in vocational training sessions and to learn more about work opportunities. In Germany, employees worked with migrants to repaint the doors of a refugee center, while in the Netherlands, employees invited refugee families to visit local museums and zoos, and set up site visits and educational workshops.

Another project in the Netherlands involved employees organizing a Talent Day for refugees at the AkzoNobel Center in Amsterdam. Thirteen refugees with university degrees attended, the aim being to provide them with the skills needed to find a job in the Netherlands, possibly within AkzoNobel. As a follow-up, a mentoring program will be rolled out to assist the refugees in their search for a job and further contribute to their development.

“Let’s Colour”

Let's Colour (line chart)

Our “Let’s Colour” program believes in the power of paint to improve people’s lives. By adding color to Human Cities initiatives, we help to improve urban environments and make people’s lives more liveable and inspiring. Together, they make an important contribution to improving and inspiring people’s lives around the world.

During 2016, our employees took part in 99 “Let’s Colour” projects, impacting 3.8 million lives with 81,000 liters of paint. One notable example was the ongoing project in the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro. This year, we staged the launch of Unexpected Courts, an inventive program which encourages children to try out different sporting activities through the simple but ingenious use of paint. The project won a bronze award at the 2016 London International Awards in the design category for installations and displays.

“Let’s Colour” is also focused on giving people a chance to learn a trade. We gave training to 1,577 people around the world, which will help to improve their lives by enabling them to have a sustainable profession and earn a living through paint.

Education Fund

AkzoNobel is proud to be associated with a variety of organizations and initiatives in ways that help to make a positive difference. These partnerships allow us to bring the AkzoNobel brand to life and create value for our stakeholders. One of our flagship partnerships is with the Plan organization in the Netherlands – a member of the Plan International network. The cooperation was established in 1994 to help children in developing countries fulfil their potential by improving the quality of their education. It has since evolved to also support the employability of young people via vocational training programs designed to set them on a proper career path. Over the years, tens of thousands of young people have benefited from dozens of projects in countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, China, Ecuador, India, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Our most recent projects in 2016 focused on economically empowering young people in China and India through vocational training and education. In China, we are working with Plan International and the Chengdu Qing Yang District Youth Employment and Entrepreneurship Center to help give 800 vulnerable young people from the Chengdu region access to stable and decent employment. In India, we are working with Plan India to help more than 500 adolescent girls from Bengaluru become empowered through better education and life skills training.

Global partnerships

Our work with the Johan Cruyff Foundation is designed to support projects that make sport more accessible to children around the world. As one of their top partners and preferred paint supplier, we help them to create and maintain facilities in neighborhoods where children lack the possibility to play sports in a safe environment.

During 2016, seven new Cruyff Courts were built using our products, including one in the US, three in the Netherlands, one in Israel and two in Spain. We also opened a Special Cruyff Court in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for blind and visually impaired people. It’s located on the premises of Urece, an organization which gives blind and partially sighted people the opportunity to play sports. The Special Cruyff Court was funded by the Johan Cruyff Foundation, with AkzoNobel providing the paint.

Human Cities Coalition

The Human Cities Coalition (HCC) is a public-private partnership of Dutch organizations from government, NGOs and business that want to make a positive difference in the world’s cities. Initiated by AkzoNobel in an effort to positively impact more people and cities around the world, it brings together more than 20 partners and 140 members to focus on realizing Goal 11 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Sustainable cities and communities.

The projects that the HCC supports will focus on making slums more liveable, as well as addressing issues such as land rights, public spaces, drinking water, sanitation, drainage, housing and healthcare facilities. The first two HCC pilot projects will take place in Manila, the Philippines and Jakarta, Indonesia, with a trial project having already been completed.

The trial project took place during the UN Habitat III Conference for Sustainable Urban Development, staged in Quito, Ecuador, in October. A special route through the city, known as the “Ruta de la Experiencia”, was revitalized to help make the area more liveable and inspiring for local residents. One of the largest Habitat III projects, it involved a combination of physical, social, economic and cultural interventions designed to leave a legacy of future growth in the area.

As partner of The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, we are also continuing to launch projects in the flagship cities identified at the beginning of our partnership. Two game-changing projects announced in 2016 involved a partnership with Shanghai’s Jing’an District in China and an agreement with the Rotterdam Delfshaven projects in the Netherlands. These projects are focused on creating more inspirational public spaces, protecting heritage, working with school children to create more liveable neighborhoods and bringing color and protection to landmark buildings.

AkzoNobel Art Foundation

Our renowned Art Foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2016 with the opening of the AkzoNobel Essential Art Space at our Amsterdam Center in the Netherlands. A public and multi-functional meeting place, it is open to everyone, including employees, customers, art lovers, local residents and visitors from around the world.

More than 30,000 people have visited our Art Foundation’s Essential Art Space at the AkzoNobel Center in Amsterdam since it opened in early 2016. (photo)

More than 30,000 people have visited our Art Foundation’s Essential Art Space at the AkzoNobel Center in Amsterdam since it opened in early 2016.
Pictured artworks by Bernard Frize, Alan Uglow, Callum Innes and Yutaka Sone.

The Essential Art Space follows through on the company’s purpose to make cities more liveable and inspiring. It welcomed more than 30,000 visitors this year, who were quick to praise the quality of the art on display, as well as being enthusiastic about AkzoNobel’s commitment. It represents a colorful and logical connection between the company and society.

Art reflects who we are – as a society, as individuals and as companies. Art is stimulation, innovation, communication and, above all, inspiration. These values – founded on the autonomy of art and the values associated with AkzoNobel – also reflect the company’s global Human Cities initiative.

Our art collection is just one of the ways we help to maintain and preserve our international cultural heritage, as an expression of AkzoNobel’s corporate, cultural and social responsibility. It is run by an independent, not-for-profit Foundation, with board members from the cultural field, as well as AkzoNobel’s senior leadership, including CEO Ton Büchner and CFO Maëlys Castella.

The Foundation seeks out primarily young and unknown talent in the art world, buying ahead of the markets, investing small while achieving great results. The pioneering and insightful spirit of artists helps make art and culture trailblazers for innovation.

Human Cities

Everything we do for and with society is channeled through our Human Cities initiative. This incorporates AkzoNobel’s Community Program, which encourages and gives financial support for employees to get involved, hands-on, in their local communities; and our “Let’s Colour” program, which uses the power of color to improve people’s lives.

Human Cities

Everything we do for and with society is channeled through our Human Cities initiative. This incorporates AkzoNobel’s Community Program, which encourages and gives financial support for employees to get involved, hands-on, in their local communities; and our “Let’s Colour” program, which uses the power of color to improve people’s lives.


Health, safety and environment.