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'Cooperation starts with a personal click'

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

After two years of scientific directorhip of 4TU.Built Environment, Maarten Hornikx (TU/e Built Environment) hands over the baton to Max Hendriks (TUD Civil Engineering). Hendriks sees sustainability as one of the most important themes for construction. A common scientific vision is needed, and therefore cooperation between the 4TU and partners in the construction industry. An interview with both of them.

What was it like to start as a 'newbie' at 4TU.Built Environment?

Maarten: "Quite challenging. The management team of 4TU.Built Environment had been there for years and has a lot of experience. I came in and immediately became scientific director and chairman of the MT. For me it was really a matter of finding my role."

Max: "I recognize that. Of course I had heard of the 4TU.Built Environment, but I did not know the exact role and the tasks. The image I have is that the construction sector is now very fragmented. I feel a personal challenge here to connect the parties. You used to see this fragmentation within universities too, but now we know how to find each other there. My conviction is that this is also possible within the sector."

What is that role of 4TU.Built Environment, how do you see it?

Maarten: "The 4TU connects the four technical universities. Together we represent an important part of scientific research, from a technical, a social and a non-commercial objective. We therefore also have a social responsibility to ensure that research is relevant in the long term. In the BTIC (Construction and Technological Innovation Center) we already find many partners, but on some topics our vision differs from that of the broader network."

Max: "4TU.Built Environment sometimes looks further than other organizations, has a 'further' horizon. That allows us to give a neutral perspective on a societal challenge."

What has been achieved in the past two years?

Maarten: "4TU.Built Environment was always a research-oriented centre. Since 2018, it wants to be more of a network centre, because we see that a connection with the whole sector is needed. Research is only valuable when it can be implemented, when it provides a concrete improvement in the construction sector.

For the past two years, we have been busy establishing those connections. Internally, between the various research groups of 4TU.Built Environment, and also externally, with partners in the BTIC. In doing so, we have taken the first steps towards becoming more visible. Within the 4TU and beyond."

Did you also gain any personal insights during that time?

Maarten: "I mainly learned to play 'the game' between strategy and pragmatism. In recent years the societal challenges have become more clear. A programmatic approach is logical; through cooperation with government and businesses, practical innovations connect well to social challenges. The universities contribute to this with scientific research and can only do this with the certainty of funding, so we also respond very pragmatically to calls. However, this pragmatic interpretation of projects must contribute to the societal challenge.

Our contribution, scientific research, is only a part of the whole. Much more is needed to achieve actual improvements in the construction sector. That is why it is also important to know your own role in the innovation chain. And grant partners their role as well. It's a bit of give and take."

There have been many social constraints in the past two years, which has made the role of 4TU.Built Environment a-typical. How was that?

Maarten: "Difficult. Already since 2018 the 4TU wants to be a network organization. So does 4TU.Bouw, especially for the construction sector. But if everything is digital, it is difficult to motivate people intrinsically and to really involve them. To establish new relationships you need a personal click, and that is difficult to achieve online. In that respect I also hope that we are moving towards a better time now. I think we are all looking forward to being able to meet in person again."

Retrospectively, are there things you would have done differently?

Maarten: "Organize meetings earlier and plan in the summer. We have become very reactive to the continuously changing measures, but we could also have organized something that had to be cancelled if necessary. There were a few months in the summer when a lot was allowed, but then it was too late to start organizing."

How do you look at the construction sector?

Maarten: "With 4TU.Built Environment we have more and more contact with governments, but with individual companies it remains difficult. There, the focus is often mainly on what is going on at the moment, a much less programmatic approach. We do have contacts with sector organizations, which in turn of course have a line to companies in the construction industry. And we also see that large construction companies are showing more interest in broader innovation and want to seek cooperation. But we're not there yet."

What does 4TU.Built Environment want to achieve in the next two years?

Max: "There is now a basis on which I want to continue. That means making 4TU.Built Environment better known within the five underlying faculties and involving their researchers more actively.

And also play the role of mediator in the network much more actively; bringing parties together. For example, we want to collaborate more actively with universities of applied sciences. There are also plans for a kind of PDEng course. I think it's very useful to see how the universities of applied sciences can create added value for the training on offer. That starts with making contact."

Maarten: "Recently, a large organization also indicated that it would like to enter into more structural collaboration with 4TU.Built Environment. We want to make that practical; make those connections that have a societal value."

To do that, you also need to know what's going on. How do you go about that?

Max: "Getting to know people, knowing what they are doing. And not just my own network, but from the five faculties. It is precisely this breadth that is needed to offer social added value. To be able to anticipate new research questions. To then be able to make a quick and good connection between researchers."

What are the biggest challenges facing the construction industry?

Max: "As a professor of concrete structures, I immediately say: sustainability. That theme has been confirmed politically and socially, and is now 'sinking in' with asset owners and engineering firms. New standards need to be set for construction, we as 4TU.Built Environment can make a concrete contribution to that with research."

Maarten: "Similarly, there are several social urgencies: the energy transition, digitalization, mobility, the climate challenge... Everything must (and can?) be faster, better and preferably cheaper as well. In this regard, I do see a challenge for the connection of universities in the innovation chain; a great deal of doctoral research does not result in a concrete innovation. And vice versa: many innovations fail and would be more promising with more knowledge. And that's exactly what you need the collaboration for."

What tip would you give Max?

Maarten: "Everyone is always busy and networking is never the highest priority. Networking is not a goal; the goal is to improve our research. Therefore make sure there is also something to gain in terms of content, for those you want to involve. For example, make a useful link between two research groups when they can strengthen each other substantively, and then facilitate the meeting."

The 4TU.Built Environment Center is a cooperation of the building departments of  the four universities of technologies in the Netherlands (Delft, Eindhoven, Twente, Wageningen). Read the Strategy 4TU.Built Environment