Absent any change, by 2030 the Dutch morning rush hour will go uninterrupted and blend in the evening rush hour, to form one slugish day-long traffic jam. In a fascinating discussion with Dirk-Jan de Bruijn, programme director Tulip truckplatooning, and director of the Innovatiecentrale [i], an institute of the Dutch road authority (Rijkswaterstaat), I discovered how the Dutch government decided to go for a radical innovation strategy. A strategy which requires all stakeholders to drop their usual approach to building a case for innovation and forces the government to embrace a real leadership revolution. Why do they do it? What kind of leadership does this require? What concrete initiatives are coming from this new way of understanding governance? Let’s find out.
The foreseeable congestion of the Netherlands (A whole country!) is the result of too much of a good thing: Mobility. The number of vehicles on the roads has grown by 1 million (nearly 14%) over the past 10 years [ii]. The transport industry keeps growing and 75% of transportation uses the road. The current prognosis is that the state of road saturation will increase by 25% by 2020.
The Dutch ran out of dry land centuries ago, and each square meter is bitterly fought for. Still they have continuously increased rail and road capacity [iii]. Road density in the Netherlands is about twice that of the UK [iv], highway density seven times that of France [v], and even if building more roads was possible, it has spectacular downsides [vi]. The Dutch are the world’s number 1 cycling nation. 22.5 million bikes (1.3 per inhabitant!) ride happily along more than 35,000 km of dedicated cycling tracks. Cycling more won’t solve this either. Thought about going by boat? Oh yes, the Dutch also enjoy a busy network of 6,000 km of waterways. I am sure they would fly domestic if they could, but the country is so small that it hardly makes sense.
So besides teleportation, they tick all the boxes. The Dutch are extracting all the value their current space will afford them. It’s optimized to death, it is still not enough. And there is more… It’s not only about traffic.
The Rijkswaterstaat know that if they tackle the congestion problem separately from carbon emissions and road safety, they will, God forbid, be mediocre on all counts. And it needs to be European, too. In the Netherlands, drive more than 2 hours in the same direction, and chances are you have entered Germany or Belgium (Well, without a traffic jam of course...). Making traffic more fluid inside the Netherlands alone would result in an epic pileup for our neighbours… It’s all connected.
The challenge is to ease traffic and make progress on carbon foortprint and increase road safety in the Netherlands and Europe. I can almost hear you arguing that stacking too many requirements makes the problem unsolvable. Would you in fact be saying that the Dutch should choose between being mobile, safe or dry, but can’t have it all? Not much of a choice admittedly: they must tackle the monster, in all its monstrous complexity.
Fortunately, the Innovatiecentrale benefits from the lessons of a former initiative which went spectacularly wrong. After having built the highspeed train tracks used for the Thalys, cutting right through the country from Brussels to Amsterdam, a concession was also sold to a consortium NS-KLM to exploit the tracks with a fast-intercity commuter called Fyra. Long story short, despite a handsome 11 billion investment and 8 years of work, the results were dismal, and the programme was canned.
The 2015 parliamentary inquiry [vii] on the Fyra programme makes it clear that it is not technical difficulties but the angle of approach that defeated it. Each actor of the project acted on a very narrow understanding of their contribution, and did not look beyond it. Dirk-Jan commented “The stakeholders worked in silos and simply forgot the customer journey.”
The price of the concession fixed by the government was extremely high and put at the onset enormous financial pressure on the consortium, who on their part wanted to protect their market, which in turn made conversations with Belgian partners difficult. To meet the tough deadlines, the technical part was then rushed, resulting in unreliable trains which eventually had to be taken off the tracks. At each step of the project, the stakeholders approached discussions in an adversarial fashion where everything was considered except… how travellers might use and appreciate the ride.
“Solving the problems of our hyper-connected world requires that we embrace a value case, and methodically work the consequences of that value case backwards”
says Dirk-Jan. “Defining a value case means defining the future together as a connected network of stakeholders, and see what requirements arise from this definition. From there each actor can come back to their individual business case and define their own roadmap for transformation in the ecosystem.”
“The element of interconnection between stakeholders must be there at the onset of the programme. Ecosystemic solutions can only be created by actors that consciously act as an ecosystem when designing them.”
Dirk-Jan adds that “The challenge is not that stakeholders approach the conversation with the idea of maximizing their own profit, that is only natural. It is rather that they start from the mosaic of their own present situations to work forward, instead of a working backwards from a unified vision for the future.” For Dirk-Jan, this is not only a new way of working for the government, it is also a question of untapped potential:
“I think that we enormously underestimate and underuse the potential of the government as linking agent between all the economic and regulatory stakeholders.”
“By being active in a network, we place the challenge in the hands of those who will benefit from the innovation, without leaving them alone. They are involved in the design, and as soon as the project becomes more concrete they are committed, because they see the business opportunity, not just the cost of change. In fact, facilitating a networked approach produces results we could never achieve by decree. The government can’t make that solution, it is too complex…”.
Truck platooning is such a vision, actively promoted by the Netherlands to optimize truck traffic on the road, with a lower infrastructure footprint, cleaner transport and higher safety. Platooning means that you take say 10 trucks, form them into a convoy and drive them from A to B. At first it just looks like driving trucks better. But it’s not. It’s a whole new way of understanding mobility [viii].
Clients of transportation (Like the chains of supermarkets [ix]), truck drivers branch and unions representatives, trucks constructors, the road authority (Rijkswaterstaat), road regulations, and vehicle registration agencies of European countries and the government itself are all involved as partners in its ecosystemic design.
For me the WOW moment came at the end, when he explained that for this approach to work “the government has to accept that the results are not 100% predictable or guaranteed. We need to become the expert at moderating the collective innovation process and let go of forcing decisions we hope everyone will follow.”
Letting it go, without letting it be…
Maybe it is the unique set of geographic, environmental, and population constrains faced by the Netherlands that make it a de facto trailblazer in societal innovation… I don’t know for sure. But a government adopting the leadership revolution? How exciting!
Dirk-Jan de Bruijn is Programme Director Tulip Truckplatooning. He is a civil engineer with postgraduate studies in Management Consultancy. His professional life is at the image of his convictions on governance: Networked and portfolio like.
Dirk-Jan is the Director of the Innovatiecentrale, an agency of the Rijkswaterstaat with a mission to promote networked innovation in smart mobility. Dirk-Jan has authored articles and books such as Doorbreken (Breaking through). He also sits on the board of several organisations such as the Dock foundation, a support network fostering mutual aid in communities all over the Netherlands, and Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland, a foundation dedicated to supporting refugees in their effort to integrate in Dutch society.
[i] The Innovatiecentrale is the governmental network organisation driving traffic innovation and smart mobility, an agency of the Ministry for Infrastructure and the Environment (Rijkswaterstaat), https://innovatiecentrale.nl/nl , https://www.rijkswaterstaat.nl/english
[ii] Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (Hereafter CBS), 2017, Trends in the Netherlands 2017, Statistics Netherlands, p49.
[iii] The Dutch government is investing heavily in public transport and has for a long time. Railroad mileage has increased 8.7% between 2005 and 2017. For example, the RandstadRail fast-tram line which since 2008 links the metro networks of Rotterdam and The Hague, has registered a 400% increase in traffic in the past 10 years, going from 8,000 to 37,000 travellers per day on average. Public transport is great (you can take get on the tube with your bike out of peak time!) but still not enough.
[iv] The UK network features 422,100 km of roads for a total area of 242,500 km2. The Netherlands network is 139,000 km long for a total area of 41,543 km2 (Wikipedia).
[v] France is 14 times larger than the Netherlands but has only twice the highway mileage (Wikipedia).
[vi] See on this subject the illuminating book of Abrahamson, Eric Freedman, David H., 2006, A Perfect Mess, The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Makes the World a Better Place, 328pp. Chap. 9 The Politics of Mess, Road Mess, pp 222 – 226. Creating new roads comes with induced traffic. When a new optimized road is constructed between A and B, it is immediately used by the drivers who usually had to go between A and B, but also attracts other drivers who optimize other itineraries as well. This induced traffic immediately defeats the purpose, and demonstrably results in making things worse…
[vii] Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, Parlementair Onderzoek Fyra, October 2015, De Reiziger in de Kou, 519pp, Introduction, § 1.1 and 1.2, pp 4-6.
[viii] Requirements for platooning are demanding: they must drive at constant speed (Emission), almost touching one another (Congestion). Much like flights have a take-off time, a flight plan and an air-traffic control tower, so would truck platoons need to be managed with a pilot and external control mechanisms (Safety). The first truck drives the whole platoon. All other trucks are self-driven and just follow. They are data-linked to one another and to the road infrastructure, which also needs to be redesigned for that purpose. Road regulations need to be adapted in the Netherlands and harmonized in other countries (European). “If the game stops at the border with Belgium or Germany, truck-makers will not play, so it needs to work seamlessly cross-border” adds Dirk-Jan. It creates new requirements for driver education, for data security and privacy (Hacked a truck anyone?). It creates new requirements for car drivers as well… Truck platooning on YouTube
[ix] On weekends a city-centre supermarket in a Dutch city may be resupplied up to 10 per day.