This interview took place on May 21, 2021.
Would you mind telling us a little about your backgrounds first? How did you become the figurehead for the Water & Maritime Top Sector?
I studied chemical engineering at the University of Twente a long time ago. My ambition to do development work started at an early age. So, I started that during my studies, working on drinking water projects in rural West Java. Unfortunately, I got sick there— so sick that I had to abandon my dream and seek out a new passion. That became the environment. You could say that I moved from people to the planet. After graduating from TU Twente as a reactor scientist, I started working in soil remediation for Tauw. That may seem like an odd match, but I had a visionary boss there; he was not keen on excavating the entire Dutch landscape and wanted to look at the soil as a reactor. It was truly a pioneering world at the time. Although it was not a conscious decision, it gave me a huge career boost. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I was still greener than spring, but that job took me to the most incredible places all over the world. It was a wonderful time. I later shifted to the water sector at Tauw. It is a sector that has existed for hundreds of years and requires at least 25 years of experience if you want to be taken seriously. I’m kidding, of course, but because the water sector is so well organized, the platform for change is not a given.
After my work for Tauw, I worked in sustainability at four different government departments for 14 years. My last position was at DG Water. In that role, I was also a member of the first top team with Koos van Oord, Nick van de Giesen and Meiny Prins. My involvement with the top sector ended when I returned to Tauw as director in 2012. In 2019, I became the figurehead for the Water & Maritime Top Sector. I was appointed Director of Deltares in October 2020 and, on 1 April 2021, I handed over my role as a figurehead to Thecla.
After graduating in naval engineering, I immediately started working for an international engineering company based in Paris that certifies ships and shipbuilding organizations. I specialized in the stability of large ships. I was eventually asked to transfer to the Dutch branch. I had the benefit of speaking fluent French, and could serve as a liaison with the head office in Paris, which was great for my Dutch colleagues. Despite my young age, I was welcomed with open arms right from the start. It didn’t take long before management was asking for my input whenever there were challenges. One such challenge concerned safety awareness in the maritime sector as a whole— not just in the offices, but also on the ships themselves. Being a pragmatic person, I immediately thought, “where is this already well regulated?” We took the good from the petrochemical industry and translated it to the maritime sector. My out-of-the-box thinking helped me make a difference pretty quickly. I was then asked to reorganize two large companies, after which I joined the family business. Sadly, my father passed away soon after that. It was a huge challenge, but I made the conscious decision to carry on with the company. My goal is not necessarily to keep the business in the family but to ensure its continued existence as a family.
I felt very honoured when I was asked to succeed Annemieke as sector figurehead. At the same time, I also felt that it was more than I could handle right now. I knew the top sector, of course, from the human capital agenda that I drew up, and before I said no, I studied up on everything that Annemieke has done. My conclusion was that I didn’t want to say no at all.
You have a long history with the Water & Maritime Top Sector together. What developments have you seen in recent years?
I became involved with the Water & Maritime Top Sector in 2010. There were huge government cutbacks just after the credit crunch, and the idea was that we should start making our money abroad. The question we asked ourselves was which sectors play in the Champions League internationally— which sectors can help revitalize the Dutch economy? The water sector emerged as the obvious choice, which is why the emphasis at the start of the top sector policy was on the internationalization of our work and the importance of knowledge and innovation to that end, with the main emphasis on economic growth. In short, turning knowledge and skills into revenue. Today, we have switched to mission-driven work methods. I consider the change a positive one. It forces us not to rely solely on past routines but to ask ourselves how we will connect the water transition—which is already underway—with other worlds that may have different logic and motives. The nine top sectors all still want to be top sectors, but the joint objective is to contribute to broader missions. Mission-driven knowledge and innovation policy have become more important than the success of individual sectors, especially in The Hague. Our job is to make sure these things continue to go hand in hand. It is still extremely important for sectors to think about their vitality to stay in the Champions League of the world. That is very sector-specific, while your livelihood is much more about the missions.
I was first introduced to the top sector when I drew up the human capital agenda. I enjoyed that. I was ready to yell from the rooftops that we don’t just have a lot of technical knowledge and intelligence, we also have golden hands. We can only innovate if we continue to combine them all. Maxime Verhagen called me about that and said, “Alright, if you’re going to talk the talk, I hope you’re willing to walk the walk.” Fortunately, I had a strong team at the time, and we had already shaped the entire human capital agenda together with the other top sectors. I am very positive about the transition we have made to the mission-driven policy. The mission-driven policy will also inspire a lot of youth. After all, many young people enjoy working on solving societal challenges.
Annemieke, what are you most proud of from your time as a figurehead? And what kept you awake at night?
As a figurehead, I tried to latch on to the developments in 2019. To be honest, I found that difficult. We were in the middle of drawing up the knowledge and innovation agendas; they were extremely broad, and the various departments mostly had the final say in matters. It was all a bit bureaucratic. I received documents that were sometimes far removed from the reality that entrepreneurs have to deal with on a daily basis in the water sector. That is where my primary concern lay. Are we still helping the sector as a whole? It was very focused on knowledge programming. You could say that the focus used to be on international strength but had shifted to knowledge and innovation when I returned. We decided to turn it around. Together with the Top Team, I looked at what was already going well without interference from the top sector. We don’t have to worry about those things. We looked at where cooperation between parties and active dialogue between policy, companies and knowledge institutions would make a difference— that is what we need to focus on. We targeted several concrete actions which can differ per sub-sector (water technology, delta technology, maritime, etc.). For example, for the water technology sector, we looked at how we could scale up the entire SME field. That is much less of an issue in delta technology, for which we focused on completing showcase projects that unite hardcore technology and civil engineering with the ‘building with nature’ approach. The Markerwadden project is an example of that. For the maritime sector, we targeted the transition to autonomous safe and zero-emission sailing. The primary focus there was on the dialogue between knowledge institutions and companies, which must also see the added value, and the government, which can serve as a launching customer with the Coast Guard ships, for example.
Thecla, after Annemieke’s retrospective, we are very interested in what you want to focus on as the figurehead in the coming years. Can you give us a clue?
Although I already know the top sector well from my earlier role, it feels like a bit of a roller coaster with abbreviations coming at me from all sides. I have already spoken to many people in my first few weeks. One thing is certain: I will continue down the path Annemieke has taken. Her approach suits my pragmatic nature well. It is clear and offers a solid foundation for the future. The first positive steps have already been taken, such as the NEW-TTT project in which the Water Campus is also heavily involved. The project will serve as an important link in knowledge valorisation and bringing innovative water technology to the market. And hopefully, we will harvest even more of what has been sown in recent years. For example, we are now working on the National Growth Fund. The top sector strongly supports it— not just myself, but the entire team. Working with missions was new to me. I like that we are working on social issues and earning capacity in a much more goal-oriented way. It is not just knowledge but also the skill and the financial side.
I would also like to focus on cooperation with other sectors. It is important that other sectors fully recognize the importance of water. They must realize that they cannot exist without sufficient, high-quality water. Water is still taken for granted by many sectors, but I am seeing the urgency increasing. Just look at agriculture or housing, for example. I also want to work on scaling up innovations and implementing them in practice. From there, we can try to make them take off and improve the export position of the Netherlands. The Netherlands is huge in technology development, and I’m not just talking about our world-class knowledge institutions, but also about technology companies. I experience it almost daily in my own company. In addition to the innovations from knowledge institutions, many innovations come from production. I see it all the time in my own company. Ultimately, most innovations come from SMEs, and there are 1,200 of them in the water technology sector. We simply have a lot to offer the world. The great thing is that the world knows it too. I expect a lot from the WTEX10 programme, and I am thrilled that Annemieke is willing to stay on board with it.
It’s great that the top sector is committed to strengthening its export position through innovation. I realize that many pioneering innovations originate from the Netherlands. But we do not excel at achieving economic impact within water technology. Or, at least, I feel there are still many opportunities there. Achieving economic impact with innovations is a complex matter, one which we are trying to tackle as a sector. Where do you think the greatest opportunities lie, and how will you manage to increase the export position tenfold?
We regularly conduct research in the sector into how we can further strengthen our international position, precisely because we have such insane niche technology. One thing is clear, playing in the Champions League requires a certain scale. If you look at the structure of our sector, aside from the huge SME field Thecla mentioned, there is a lack of multinationals. In contrast to countries such as France, which have multinationals in this industry, water supply and wastewater purification is a public duty in the Netherlands. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is good that it is in public hands, but water companies and water boards are simply not international companies. That creates a barrier to scale-up for the private sector. In other sectors where we do succeed, companies are constantly scanning for SMEs to incorporate. That can take an SME from a scale of 20 to 200 in an instant. On top of that, you have multinationals with international sales forces, lawyers who know how to keep the company compliant, tax specialists who know the tax regimes, etc. An SME with 20 employees can never use that knowledge to conquer the world. In short, that is where the obstacle lies.
Nevertheless, we have joined forces with WTEX10 and plan to give it one more try. We have been analysing it long enough. The question is how to create the scale needed to grow the sector tenfold. We are looking at a role for public companies that are very active internationally for other reasons. The WaterWorxs programme is one example. We believe there is an opportunity to connect the Dutch business community to the programme without becoming technology push. This is not about Bring in the Dutch but about Integrating the Dutch. The innovative Dutch business community can ride the public sector’s coattails. Scale can also be achieved through partnerships. Companies need to trust that when we work together to make the pie ten times bigger, individual organizations all stand to benefit. It’s about building consortiums and coalitions.
Lastly, it’s about supporting companies with knowledge they do not have in-house, like drafting good contracts. After all, we are dealing with technicians in love with their own technology, working out the content first and thinking about money at the end of the process. Money is simply not their driver. As a result, they often fail to consider the financial side of things until it is too late. Project funding and business funding affect each other, especially in large projects, and we are going to help them with that.
Thecla: I want to add that the COVID situation also offers opportunities. Digital missions are currently popular, and that can help SMEs connect. I recently went on a digital mission to Colombia, Peru and Ecuador for the delta and maritime sectors. Due to time zone constraints, the mission was from 15:00–20:00. We did this three days in a row, visiting a different country every day. The great advantage of a digital mission, especially when time zones are involved, is that everyone could continue work during the day. On top of that, Ecuador and Peru were extremely happy with the mission—before COVID, everyone only went to Colombia.
A nice mix of twenty companies joined us, a combination of large dredging companies and innovative SMEs. Many of the SMEs had never been on a mission before. They simply do not have the time to go on a mission for five days, especially as it is difficult to estimate the results beforehand. The digital approach has made them enthusiastic, and all but one will join us for our next physical mission. I expect that we will continue this approach after COVID.
Human capital is also of great importance to achieving economic impact. What do you consider the main challenges in human capital? What solutions do you see to tackle these challenges? What role can the Water & Maritime Top Sector play in this?
Population ageing is a major challenge for all three subsectors in the Top Sector Water & Maritime. We tackled this problem from the start as a top sector. There is a lot of attention, and we have joined forces with the other top sectors. A variety of programmes have been developed and are actively promoted. As the Water & Maritime Top Sector, we hold talent programmes such as ‘De Stroomversnellers’ [the accelerators]. It is great to see that the universities of applied sciences have become much more closely involved with the top sector in recent years. It further links the knowledge to the business community and enables the immediate implementation of innovations. We are doing that all over the country. The universities of applied sciences work very well together. As I mentioned earlier, I think the mission-driven approach really inspires young people. We previously discussed the differences between the three blood groups in the Top Sector Water & Maritime; I believe that the greatest similarity lies in human capital. The colleagues in the three sub-sectors are all incredibly passionate about their professions. They really are the same type of people.
I completely agree with Thecla that the people in the three sub-sectors have a lot in common. Earlier in this interview, we talked about ‘the techie’ who is often not driven by money. That is an important point to consider if you want to achieve economic impact. I still remember my visit to WaterCampus Leeuwarden with Focco Vijselaar during my induction period. It was a wonderful and inspiring visit. We had lunch with several entrepreneurs during the working visit. I brought up the factor of ten and asked the entrepreneurs what they needed to become ten times bigger. Some of the participants indicated that they did not have that ambition at all. They love their work and believe they can still manage on their own at this scale. It’s very honourable of them, but I think that we need to challenge entrepreneurs in this area. I have met many engineers throughout my career who think they cannot handle upscaling or will lose something by scaling up. If you talk to them a bit more, they often get excited about the idea of making a real impact. We need to push the technicians to cross the threshold. We can do that by creating a joint platform to showcase inspiring examples like Yousef Yousef from LG Sonic. He demonstrates that you can be 100% owner of a business, remain authentic, and make an amazing leap in scale at the same time.
I could not agree more. We have to make good examples like this visible. Good examples inspire people. I also think that we need to be smart about combinations. If a small SME is unwilling or unable to make the leap in scale, it could become a supplier to a larger company instead. The larger companies are happy with the arrangement because it allows them to distinguish themselves in the market.
This has been a great interview. I have one final question. My next interview is with Menno Holterman. What would you like to ask him?
Menno is my buddy in the WTEX10 project and a huge driving force behind the whole thing. With Saur, Nijhuis has now acquired foreign shareholders. Menno has stipulated that knowledge development will remain in Doetinchem. I wonder if it will be possible to get ten times as many people in Doetinchem and the surrounding area to work for Nijhuis. In short, will the tenfold ambition succeed? Or will it succeed precisely because they have been able to arrange entrepreneurial financing?
That is a great question. I want to add whether Menno would have taken the same step if Nijhuis had been a family business.
Interested to learn more about entrepreneurship at WaterCampus?
Please contact Ronald Wielinga our manager entrepreneurship via +31 6 121 38 876 or Ronald Wielinga.