Caspar Chorus on moving in with the neighbours

Nieuws - 01 september 2022 - Communication
Image by Marcel Krijger Fotografie

On 1 September 2022, Caspar Chorus officially began his role as dean of the TU Delft | Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. He succeeds Professor Ena Voûte, who led the faculty between 2012 to 2022.

When the news of his appointment first broke in May 2022, there was an outpouring of support from staff and students at IDE. With his experience in education, research, and innovation, there is no doubt that he will help IDE flourish in the years to come.

Despite being busy with all of his new obligations as dean, Caspar took the time to speak to IDE News. Keep reading to learn more about Caspar’s philosophy, his impressions of IDE, and whether we should read anything into his musical name.

Admiring from not so very far

Moving in with the neighbours is exciting for me, but somehow this change feels very natural. I have been based at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management for 25 of the last 27 years. First as a student and PhD candidate and then, after a stint at TU Eindhoven, as an academic staff member for 14 years. Aside from stays at universities in the US, I have had a rather stable academic home for a quarter of a century.

I’ve always looked at IDE and its ideas and its people with interest and a tinge of fascination. The free-spirited academic atmosphere and wide diversity of backgrounds and people are a very natural fit with my broad academic interests and more generally, with my attitude towards academic life.

IDE makes things happen and does so in a research-based manner. Academic institutions are all too often completely content to focus on contemplation and on gaining an understanding of how things work. IDE goes further, by intervening with clever and research-based design. Of course, TU Delft, as a whole, aspires to deliver such interventions, but IDE stands out in its explicit positioning as a faculty that combines thinking and doing, and which generates what I call, “knowledge for action”. TU Delft’s mission – impact for a better society – fits IDE like a glove. There can be no impact, no better, and no society, without design or design research.

I believe that research is the foundation on which any academic institution rests, including IDE. This implies that original, high quality, internationally recognised and fundamental scientific work forms the basis for IDE’s teaching, research and innovation activities. There are many noteworthy research activities being performed in the faculty; capitalising on these to further strengthen the position of IDE as an academic powerhouse in design is an opportunity that is worth pursuing in the coming years.

A career built on choices

As a teenager, my original plan was to study civil engineering in Delft but when I heard the, then, dean of TPM pitch the story of socio-technical systems and how to analyse and design them, I was sold. The integration of technology with social sciences, law, and humanities attracted me, and I went on to enjoy my studies at TPM, in addition to many other aspects of student life.

I saw a future for myself working in strategy consulting. Upon graduating, and after having done my propaedeutic and electives in Econometrics at Erasmus University Rotterdam, I repeatedly received feedback from job interviews that I was ‘too academic’ and not commercial enough for their taste. At the same time, I received a job offer for a PhD position from my MSc-graduate supervisor. Several members of my family have pursued academic careers, but I was hesitant at first. Ultimately, I accepted the position and looking back, it was the perfect choice. The strategy consultant recruiters were right!

Another reason I loved my PhD-years was because I got to travel a lot and was able to spend half a year at MIT as a Fulbright scholar, together with my then-girlfriend. During our stay in the US, I proposed to her, and she is now my wife and the mother of our two girls!

Continuing a career in academia after my PhD was a no-brainer. I accepted a position as assistant professor in Eindhoven, at their architecture faculty. My wife and I have fond memories from that two-year period, also because our first child was born there, but when the opportunity to return to Delft (TPM) came, we took it.

After two more years as assistant professor and four more as associate professor, I was promoted to full professor in 2014. From that moment onwards, I got to wear the gown that was also worn by my grandfather, a professor of Psychology in Leiden, for more than thirty years from 1947 onwards; each time I wear the gown, it feels special for that reason. And although it is a very thick and hence heavy and warm gown, I don’t dream of replacing it with a modern, lighter one.

In between, things were not always so easy – in 2013 I had a burn out, which had a lot to do with the over-zealous attitude towards work that I had developed over the years. I learned a lot from that episode, most importantly the notion that being ‘tuned in’ to work continuously is not a sustainable practice. Ever since my burn out, I thoroughly enjoy my spare time and that makes a world of difference… When I see my students or colleagues struggling with high levels of stress or burn-out symptoms, I try to capitalise on my experience to help.

Academically speaking, I made two journeys: one from specific to generic and one from analysis to design. The first is a classical development for many academics. I started out by fleshing out a super-specific topic: developing mathematical models of how travellers interact with travel information, and how their response shapes mobility patterns at large, such as congestion in road networks. Throughout the years, I started to broaden my perspective, towards modelling human decision making in general, with a special interest in finding mathematical representations of non-rational choice behaviour and morally sensitive decision making. My application domains broadened towards sustainability, health, political sciences, law, and more.

In parallel, whereas I, at first, only used these models for empirical analysis of choice behaviour, I gradually started to incorporate elements of design into my research. Having a good and empirically validated mathematical model of human decision-making helps design better policies, products, and services. For example, these models enabled me to help the Dutch Railways re-design their travel information systems.

More recently, I co-founded a TU Delft-spin off company called Councyl, which designs self-learning decision support software for professional organisations based on choice models. One of our employees is an IDE alumna; working with her and our growing team to make a real-life, but also a science-based impact is wonderful. For example, we were able to assist intensive care doctors with a COVID-19 triage tool, designed to do justice to the diversity of opinions in the triage team.

Empathy and Decisiveness

During my years as a head of section and head of department at TPM, I have come to learn how to strike the right balance, and find the right rhythm, between empathy and decisiveness. My instinct is to listen and try to understand people and their desires, worries, and ambitions. I always try to come up with solutions that work for most, or if possible, for everyone. But I do not shy away from making difficult decisions and making them quickly if time is limited.

I have learned to tap into the expertise and viewpoints of colleagues, for example, the management team (MT). Even more so in a partly new environment such as IDE, I think it is crucial to make decisions jointly, based on the experience of close advisors. I consider myself lucky to have such highly qualified and able members of the MT at IDE.

Finally, I learned how much I actually enjoy leading (part of) an organisation. Helping people develop according to their potential; creating a vibrant, ambitious yet socially kind academic atmosphere; and building self-confidence in the group, are aspects of leadership that I like a lot. After years of balancing a leadership role with regular teaching, research and entrepreneurial activities, I look forward to fully focusing on leadership at IDE, although I will continue my role as scientific advisor to Councyl for a maximum of four hours per week.

From this academic background, the step to IDE is quite logical to me, although I would not call myself a designer. And I certainly appreciate that some would even consider me an ‘outsider’. Nonetheless, based on my various interactions with IDE-colleagues over the years and in recent weeks and months in particular, I am very confident that there is a great match in terms of mutual interests, expertise, and way of working.

Don’t quit the day job

Chorus may well be my name, but most connoisseurs would probably label my musical taste as poor. I am very fond of somewhat camp 80s and early 90s music and bands, such as the Pet Shop Boys in particular. Great lyrics, catchy tunes, and fantastic video clips. I admire people who don’t compromise in their self-expression but do maintain a sense of style and class. Pop artists – certainly the Pet Shop Boys – tend to belong in that category.

I would happily take the advice given by the bodyguard of President Bush Senior. Hearing the president sing, he is reported to have said: “Don’t quit the day job yet, Sir”.

Luckily, my wife and two teenage daughters are quite musically adapt, so the house is filled with singing, dancing, and the sounds of piano, guitar, and drums. Some years ago, they even managed to teach me how to whistle (a bit). But as said, I intend to keep my (new) day job.