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Integrated business cases: A more sustainable living environment and profit in one

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Published on: 18 June 2020 | Changed on: 19 June 2020

The 21st century brings major challenges. The weather is becoming more extreme, sea levels are rising, biodiversity is declining, and the quality of life in our cities is under pressure. Governments, companies and citizens want to meet these challenges. However, the associated budget is often limited. In the book ‘Reinventing Multifunctionality: innovation through integration’, Jurgen van der Heijden and Denise de Blok describe how to realise these ambitions in a way that does not cost money, but instead generate it. 40 case descriptions show that the Netherlands is not doing badly in this respect.

Our economy is built on the philosophy of the free market in which parties maximise their profit. A party chooses one goal and uses everything it can to achieve it as efficiently as possible. This way of working has many side effects. The negative side effects are the most well-known. These are things like greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. But, there are also positive side effects. For example, heat from industrial processes can be used as energy. To grow using this method of working, you need to increase in scale. This means that more resources, including raw materials and energy, are needed. The positive and negative side effects are also increased.

In recent decades, we have reached the limits of this working method. Resources are starting to run out. Also, negative side effects have been largely ignored. This has resulted in the big challenges of the 21st century. Jurgen and Denise are thus in favour of a new working method: the development of integrated business cases.

Integrated business cases

An integrated business case does not use all means to achieve one goal. It uses one means to achieve many goals. The positive side effects are consciously used to contribute to these goals. This approach cleverly links resources and goals. As a result, fewer resources are required, negative effects are reduced, and positive effects are maximised. It also leads to cost savings and higher yields. Den Bosch water purification plant is a good example of this.

The Den Bosch water purification plant purifies 12 million litres of water per hour. Biogas is released during this process. Until recently, nothing was done with this gas; it was an unused positive side effect. The Den Bosch water purification plant is next to the city's waste processing plant. The waste plant can use the biogas as an energy source for its trucks. In exchange for this biogas, the water treatment plant gets financial compensation as well as the biomass created during waste processing. The water treatment plant can power its processes using the electricity generated from this biomass.

Heineken has also joined. This party buys biogas from the water purification plant to sustainably meet its heat demand. With the money that this generates, the water treatment plant can invest in new goals. The new goals could be, for example, more efficient removal of cellulose toilet paper, which can be used as a sustainable building material.

This example shows that an integrated business case differs from a traditional business case in two ways:

  1. Cooperate instead of competing. The positive side effects created by the wastewater treatment plant are used to reduce the negative side effects of waste processing, and vice versa. This leads to fewer negative side effects and fewer costs. Working together thus leads to more value and profit than competing does. The traditional method of competition has winners and losers. An integrated business case only has winners.
  2. Integrate instead of increasing scale. Growth takes place not only through economies of scale but also through more integration. Heineken later joined in. The water purification plant could thus increase its income by using its positive side effect of biogas as a means for Heineken's goal. The income from this can then be used for a new goal: turning cellulose into building material without the use of extra resources.


The book ‘Reinventing Multifunctionality: innovation through integration’ describes in detail how the theory behind integral business cases works. It looks at what instruments there are and how they are applied. The 40 case descriptions range from the circular production of sugar beet to the development of nature reserves that contribute to water safety and water purification.