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Construction in the Netherlands urgently needs to innovate. The shortage of housing, the achievement of sustainability goals and the maintenance of infrastructure make transition and innovation necessary. Professor André Dorée, President of the Department of Civil Engineering and Management at the University of Twente, investigated the question of how the Dutch construction industry – and infrastructure in particular – innovates over the past 30 years. “In this, I look primarily at the role of government,” he says. “It fulfills many roles. Among other things, the government is the master of the market, major buyer, licensing authority and enforcer.

positive spiral

According to Dorée, the government creates a business environment that can lead, on the one hand, to product innovation, process improvement, quality improvement, better working conditions and innovation. However, it can also lead to more creative forms of scams such as collusion, corruption, exploitation of staff or failure to provide sufficient quality. Dorée says: “Ultimately, the question is how to get construction and infrastructure development in the Netherlands into a positive spiral.”

An overhead view of a spiraling upward parking garage ramp
©Pexels

Construction lagging behind the economy

It’s easier said than done. The most complicated thing is that the construction follows the trends of the economy but is always a bit behind in the process. High peaks and deep valleys result. “When the economy is expected to collapse, you see that there are always projects in which construction can continue,” explains Dorée. “Sometimes the materials become even cheaper. But at some point you see the economy and the government start to contract. Expenses go down. Then the build starts to recover and it comes back down. When they start to rebound, as they are now, there is a shortage of people, suppliers and materials. Prices soar accordingly. It doesn’t help that long-term projects have certain price agreements at the start. With all the shortages and rising prices, these agreements are now in question. »

More stamps

“Things are actually either too good or too bad,” Dorée said. “When things are going well, they don’t have time to innovate. When things go wrong, they don’t have the money to innovate. It is a systemic problem. In the past, some of these problems were solved through collective efforts such as fundraising for research and development or training. “So in the past there were buffers built into the system. But these have been phased out over the past 20 years. As a result, construction is now hit harder by peaks and troughs. »

Organization of local production

To find solutions, discussions are ongoing with various parties such as the management of construction companies and the Ministry of Public Works. “For years it has been said that the sector should solve the problem itself in the event of a shortage of personnel, for example. But infrastructure, even housing construction, requires local organization of production. After all, you build a road where it will be used. You don’t build a road in China and then lay it here.

If the local production structure is not in order, we suffer socially, according to Dorée. For example, housing has become almost unaffordable. Another example concerns the closure of the Kethel tunnel in May 2022. This tunnel, an important piece of infrastructure, was closed because a number of Rijkswaterstaat employees reported sick. Chaos on the highway near Delft was the result. “So you can say that Rijkswaterstaat should have handled it better, but if you keep shrinking you have to realize that infrastructure has a social function. You can’t completely leave that to free market forces,” Dorée said.

Create more work

To have a functioning infrastructure, people need to be trained in time, there needs to be clarity on what innovations are needed, and enough people need to be brought into the sector. But the labor shortage will not be solved overnight. “We know there is a shortage of people now and there will be for the next 10 years,” Dorée said. “My plea is that with the people we have, we have to make sure we can create more work. All innovations that save labor and increase productivity are therefore very important. To get there, we must learn to interconnect spirals of innovation.

Portrait of André Dorée, smiling
André Dorée © 4TU.Bouw

Integral approach

This means that education, industry and research institutions must work together. Dorée thinks that there are currently too many different compartments and departments, each with its own grant structure. “It’s a maze of subsidies. We have to get out of this confusion,” he said. “Instead, we must jointly shape and apply the development of new technologies, work processes and skills.”

In one area, such an integrated approach is already working very well: the construction of asphalt roads. “Since 2006, training and further training in road construction companies has been supported with us. In doing so, we develop the technology in consultation and help them implement it,” Dorée said. All this comes together in ASPARi, a joint program between Civil Engineering & Management and the vast majority of road construction companies in the Netherlands.

Digitization in construction

In 4TU. Built environment – which Dorée previously chaired – efforts are also being made to collaborate and bring about change. In this context, special Domain Pilot Teams (DAT) have been established. Within these teams, researchers and students from the building’s five faculties work together on various themes such as energy transition, climate change and digitalisation. This last theme in particular is a powerful engine of building innovation.

Why is this particular area so important? “We have all these different boxes in all areas of society,” says Dorée. “But because we want to move towards an integrated approach, the lines of information and decision-making must also change. The most important thing we are doing now in the field of digitization is to develop a platform where we can exchange information without misunderstandings. Too often, different standards are still used. For example, there can be a lot of confusion about something like the “depth” of a pipe. Depending on who you ask, this can be interpreted as the top, bottom, or center of the pipe. »

Without ambiguity

To avoid this, systems of agreement and unambiguity and reliability of information are necessary. Dorée says: “Digitalization forces us to build a language and exchange tools. At the same time, we can work with the students on that. They can think about how we can move from paper to digital information as quickly as possible. In doing so, the idea is to standardize the descriptions everywhere. Dorée cites housing companies as an example: “The entrepreneur of one housing company must of course soon receive the same drawing as the entrepreneur of another company. We need a program plan for the whole of the Netherlands. This is only possible if the tools are built together to allow everyone to work well together. Digitization is therefore absolutely necessary.