Sander van Stiphout, international director and innovation manager at Johan Cruijff ArenA, reveals in a webinar for Johan Cruyff Institute, the infinite innovation solutions that are being tested in this smart stadium, home of Ajax and pride of the city of Amsterdam, to reimagine the football and society of the future
The Johan Cruijff ArenA‘s head groundskeeper checks the pitch daily to ensure the playing field is in perfect condition, as close to a natural carpet as possible. And it is only a matter of time before he is also an agent of change. His work kit will include shoes with a special sole that will be able to measure the quality of the grass by means of different sensors connected to the chips already embedded in the pitch. This innovation will not only save him time, but will also help him in his decision-making and make his work more efficient. To define the Johan Cruijff ArenA as the stadium where AFC Ajax and the Dutch national football team play their home matches, or as the venue for unforgettable concerts, is an understatement. The Johan Cruijff ArenA is more than a smart stadium, it is a living lab that for 25 years has been dedicated to innovation, to reimagine the football and society of the future.
It was built in 1995 as an initiative promoted by Ajax and the city of Amsterdam to become the first multifunctional stadium in Europe. But those foundations were actually the incubator for a much more ambitious initiative: to be the smartest among the smart stadiums worldwide and a mecca for all those companies and entities that have something to offer in terms of innovation. “We went from being a multifunctional complex—with all the difficulties and challenges that entails, such as getting the grass to grow in an almost indoor environment, back in 1995—to signing an agreement with the city of Amsterdam in 2013 to become an icon of sustainability for the city. We created a complete ecosystem that will have the necessary impact to achieve all our goals and to contribute to the goals of the city of Amsterdam,” explained Sander van Stiphout, international director and innovation manager at Johan Cruijff ArenA, in a webinar for Johan Cruyff Institute.
The stadium was built on the outskirts of the city, southeast of Amsterdam, at the express request of Ajax and the city council, the main shareholders of the complex. In a short time, it became a magnet attracting and concentrating around it the most important leisure area of the capital, with companies joining as shareholders. Today, it is the paradigm of innovation in areas as diverse as sustainability, inclusiveness, security, fan engagement, sport and health, and smart stadiums and cities.
The Johan Cruijff ArenA has succeeded in creating an ecosystem focused on data analysis to spark the imagination and address solutions. “To be at the forefront of innovation and development you can use different ways: have a big budget and buy everything that is on the market and relevant or, on the contrary, and that’s what we do, be smarter by inviting and motivating our partners to use the stadium as a field lab, showing the world everything they have to offer and creating impact on society. And we do this based on three premises: we collaborate with the beneficiary companies, with our corporate partners such as Johan Cruyff Institute, and with startups. We innovate and accelerate.”
“To be at the forefront of innovation and development, we invite and motivate our partners to use the stadium as a field lab, showing the world everything they have to offer and creating impact on society”
Sustainability through the use of renewable energy is one of the Johan Cruijff ArenA‘s most ambitious projects. A spectacular roof housing 4,200 solar panels, combined with a system of new and used electric vehicle batteries, provides the stadium with energy storage that would be enough to charge 500,000 iPhones or power 7,000 Amsterdam homes for one hour.
The stadium also has an innovative LED lighting system that ensures grass growth, smart sensors to monitor the pitch, an anti-freeze system for the pitch using sustainable heating, and a cooling system for locker rooms and offices using water from the local lake.
In terms of safety and security, and in anticipation of EURO2020 that was postponed in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic, in which the Johan Cruijff ArenA will be one of the venues, new technologies are being tested and implemented. Intelligent imaging and 5G to create a virtual security perimeter instead of a physical fence are two of them. “When ready, it will not only allow us to meet security requirements but, at the same time, offer more freedom to visitors,” Sander explains. “The city and, in particular the National Police Force, are excited about this new service. The police are currently using the stadium and its surroundings to test new technical solutions with 5G technology that help them do their job better, with less risk and greater efficiency. It also helps us, because the perimeter of the stadium is safer on match days, as well as helping the police, because they can deploy the system nationwide.”
But, without a doubt, the space that enjoys the most applied technology is the pitch. “We have weather sensors on the roof of the stadium that give us information about humidity, temperature, wind; plus sensors inserted in the pitch that measure the quality of the grass, its density. We believe in the great potential of data analytics, so we collect all the data, we filter it, we analyze it, and we continuously improve our maintenance processes. And it makes perfect sense for us because, as a multifunctional complex, we organize events even during the football season. That means that, if Ajax plays a match and in the following days we have a concert, we have to cover the turf for the show and uncover it again for the next match, and restore the turf so that it’s in top condition again. It’s always a challenge and we have a lot to learn, so we develop algorithms to keep improving that process.”
“We believe in the great potential of data analytics, so we collect all the data, we filter it, we analyze it, and we continuously improve our maintenance processes”
Covid accelerates innovation processes
The Johan Cruijff ArenA is a top student in innovation processes, and the arrival of the Covid has accelerated its efforts even further. “We are contacted by a wide variety of suppliers working for a club or facility looking for solutions,” Sander acknowledges. “We collaborated with Ajax, the Netherlands Football Association, City Football Group, UEFA, KPMG and the European Union, which funded part of the project as part of its development program for the region. Our aim was to find solutions for the different activities affected: How can we connect with fans when they are at home? What protocols should we implement to prepare for the fans’ return to the stadium? Can we improve their experience when we are able to welcome them back with full security measures? On a recreational level, how can we maintain their interest in football in times of restrictions? In search of answers to these and other questions, we launched a powerful marketing campaign through LinkedIn and received a multitude of proposals with presentations and had conversations with relevant experts from different sectors,” says the director.
The result of the campaign, active for a period of two months, was as impressive as it was productive: more than 4 million online impressions, 1,481 members joined the innovation platform, 75 countries were represented, 329 solutions were proposed to ‘reimagine’ football, there were 1,150 interactions with the members of the innovation platform. After presenting the ideas to the stakeholders, 27 proposals were selected. “Ajax, for example, has implemented a solution focused on digitizing ticketing to have a better approach to those who buy tickets and improve its commercial offer. But not only that; with Covid, the law requires us to follow security protocols and the application contains those questions that must be answered and incorporates a code that is enabled before the event once those questions have been answered correctly,” explains Sander.
On this long road to the ‘new normal’ new initiatives have been emerging that will help to take precautions and contain the contagion. For example, an application by the Dutch government that gives an entry code to events when you test negative. Or a system that detects the behavior of aerosols in the stands of a stadium, or disinfection equipment based on the use of ultraviolet light for enclosed spaces, such as toilets, presented by the company Signify, one of the winners of the contest ‘2020 Reimagine Football’.
Monitored safety distance
With the reduction in capacity and the recommendation to maintain the safety distance, technology takes precedence over any human procedure. The Johan Cruijff Arena has already started using beepers for stadium tour visitors that emit a sound when that invisible 1.5-meter line of distance between people is broken. “We can also, thanks to the technology developed by TNO, monitor that distance in the stands, detecting free and occupied seats, and how long that minimum distance is not respected, so we can alert security to reposition people if needed. Other examples that we are going to test are applications that visitors can download for mask detection, or to ensure the aforementioned distance in spaces where people are concentrated, such as a queue, through video analytics.”
And while people are still being asked to control their behavior, initiatives are also emerging to enhance their leisure time. Close, another winning company of the ‘2020 Reimagine Fooball’ campaign, has launched an interesting social media platform that allows you to target small, specific groups of fans who will receive different messages, practical information for getting around the stadium and also content about the match or event in question. “The Covid has accelerated the digitalization of event management and at the ArenA we are also working on constantly improving the visitor experience so that they can access more services or enjoy the event or match from a personalized view.”
“The Covid has accelerated the digitalization of event management and at the ArenA we are also working on constantly improving the visitor experience”
Sander van Stiphout and his innovation department assist and advise in the construction of new smart stadiums, as they did for the World Cup venues in Brazil 2014, Russia 2018 and the upcoming Qatar 2022. “Our message is that the stadium can be used as a laboratory if you take the right precautions. It is a facility that is underutilized, as is the case with most venues, and it is our goal to test and bring new initiatives that will allow us to meet our challenges and, by extension, deliver social impact to the city of Amsterdam, one of our main beneficiaries. This is how we activate our partnerships, based on cooperation. It’s a trend that already exists and will continue to grow in the future.”
“Our message is that the stadium can be used as a laboratory if you take the right precautions”
Activity never stops at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. When its staff is resting and its doors are closed, those smart sensors are still doing their job. Who said that lab workers always wear white gowns?