Ernst ten Heuvelhof Professor Emeritus

News - 29 May 2020 - Webredactie

Today is the last working day for Ernst ten Heuvelhof. His retirement will start next Monday. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 crisis, at this point we cannot offer Ernst the appropriate goodbye. Nevertheless, we would like to mark this moment and consider Ernst's contribution to the Faculty of Technology Policy and Management and Delft University of Technology. For those who do not know: Ernst ten Heuvelhof is one of the founders of our faculty and is the longest-serving professor at TPM. He made a major contribution to the development of our faculty. We cannot come close to listing everything here - but we would like to recall three important contributions.

The establishment and expansion of the Faculty 'Technische Bestuurskunde’

Ernst was appointed professor at Delft University of Technology in 1992. In the early 1990s, Delft University of Technology’s Executive Board decided to establish a new faculty, then Technische Bestuurskunde or TB, later Technology, Policy and Management (TPM). The reason for this was a report by the former Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, Henk Zeevalking. His committee found that there was a need for a new type of engineer - technically skilled and effective in political and social decision-making processes.

The faculty had to be built from scratch. There was nothing: no education program, no research program, there were no people, there was no building. And perhaps more importantly, there was no established tradition of multidisciplinary collaboration.

Three professors were appointed to take the lead. Two came from Delft: Henk Sol from Electrical Engineering, Mathematics & Computer Science and Wil Thissen from Civil Engineering & Geosciences. Ernst came over from Erasmus University as a social scientist. Simon Peerdeman was the director of the faculty and completed the leadership team. 

Ernst had a strong passion for the new multidisciplinary research - he really wanted this unique initiative to be a success. He immediately enjoyed working in Delft 'where it all happens'. He played a central role in the development of the faculty's research and education - and from the very first day invested a lot in networking with colleagues from other faculties.In the early years of Technische Bestuurskunde, an education and research program had to be be forged. This naturally lead to many conversations between the faculty members - engineers from different disciplines and social scientists.Ernst introduced his new colleagues to the ambiguity of socio-technical challenges, the non-linearity of change processes, the volatility of the environment in which problems must be solved. His desire was to break through the widely adopted mechanistic way of thinking about decision-making and change - by hammering out its problems and make way for more sophisticated insights. In turn, the colleague-engineers challenged him to translate all that complexity into a design - after all, this was Delft. A design: a coherent action perspective for those who have to act in that complex reality. That was new to many social scientists. Everyone challenged everyone intellectually - and everyone who choosing to be at the faculty was also happy to be challenged.

Ernst enjoyed this intellectual challenge thoroughly and took up the design challenge with great passion. An important line in his research is about strategies for change - which can cope with socio-technical complexity and ambiguity. This has largely determined his authority in the world of engineering: Ernst understood ‘real world’ complexity - and he came with an action perspective. Ernst was also curious - he was always looking for new ideas, for different perspectives, for something that could surprise him. He was and still is genuinely disappointed if he spends a weekend with a book touted by reviewers - which he considers too flat, not sharp enough, or under-creative. Conversely, he was and is genuinely enthusiastic about a text that inspired him - tell passionately about it and connect it to his research.

Next Generation Infrastructures

In 2004, Margot Weijnen and Ernst developed "Next Generation Infrastructures", a 40 million euro research program to run for ten years. It was a gigantic opportunity for the faculty - which suddenly got much more room for the research agenda. The basic idea of the program was as simple as it was powerful. In almost all public infrastructures (energy, transport, water, internet) there is a distinction between networks and services - and there was a push for a stronger role for competition. This provided a clear basis and need for a research program.

The program gave a huge boost to the faculty. It was scientifically innovative and socially relevant - and positioned TPM at the center of a national and international network of infrastructure research. An International review committee rewarded the program with the highest possible score and added: ‘The Committee has never seen a research programme as impressive as this programme in terms of quality, productivity and outreach’. Ernst could make the most of all his qualities: his intellectual strength and curiosity, his role as a team player - NGI was truly team science.

Ernst was also someone who wanted to understand how each of the sectors in the program worked, what the technical basics of the sectors were. He took the time to master it. That too contributed to the authority of his group's research - first you had to familiarise yourself with a sector, then you could participate and conduct research. First you acquired knowledge of a domain, then you could identify the interesting and relevant social science questions.

The program resulted in a body of knowledge about infrastructures, which is still visible - in the faculty, in the journals, with the policymakers. It was also a flagship program for cooperation between the technical disciplines and the social sciences and humanities - a theme that is now so high on the European and national research agenda.

In this period, Ernst also received the Delft University of Technology Best Professor Award - an annual award for leadership and excellence in research and education. He was the first TPM professor to receive this award. It was a very honourable recognition for Ernst. It also showed that Delft University of Technology values multidisciplinary research with social scientists.

So Margot and Ernst were leading a program that was almost a faculty within the faculty. Their role in running the program was key and were very active in their external networks - Ernst had always been very visible externally. Ernst also had strong leadership qualities. Within TPM, he was director of research, director of education and department chair. But he was also active outside TPM. He was chairman of the Supervisory Board of consultancy and engineering firm Tauw and a member of the  Supervisory Board of housing corporation Portaal. He was a member of many committees, often dealing with sensitive and politically complex issues - recently from a committee commissioned by Minister Grapperhaus to consider whether WODC research was influenced too much by employees of the Ministry of Security.

Leadership takes time. ‘Focus’, a key concept in the academic vocabulary, was not part of Ernst’s vocabulary. Het did everything, did good research, obtained funding, provided good education, was active in management - and if you do all that, something surprising always happens.

Online education

Ernst was a very gifted teacher. He taught many classes with practitioners, at senior-plus level. He always received sky-high evaluations - from undergraduate students, but also from a class with directors-general. Primarily because of what we mentioned above: his intellectual strength and curiosity, his drive to be relevant. But also because of Ernst’s humor. In his teaching he went deep in content, but he knew how to present it very lightly - the hallmark of the real teacher.

Don't start with Ernst about didactics. His didactics are Ernst - and the evaluations agreed with that. At the same time, Ernst was gripped by online education. Delft University of Technology has always been at the forefront of online education design, and Ernst was one of the small group of initiators. He was enthusiastic about online education from the start and co-directed the Extension School - the Delft faculty of online education - with Rob Fastenau. He gave presentation after presentation to enthuse directors and lecturers about the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs).

Ernst could enthusiastically throw himself at the operational questions of online education. How to design a course? How to keep the participants involved? Het was  equally intrigued by the strategic consequences. What impact will MOOCs have on the international university landscape? What if Delft University of Technology students could take parts their curriculum online, via another university?

Again, TPM's strong online portfolio would not have existed without Ernst. This also gives his farewell in COVID 19 time something special: TPM now reaps the benefits of the rich experience she has built up with online education.

There is much more to be said about Ernst - this overview sells him short him in many ways. But it has to be clear that he has largely defined the Faculty of TPM - of course not by himself and of course not entirely, Ernst will be the first to admit that.

Ernst has built TPM with an enormous drive and with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. At the same time, he can also put things into perspective. He always laughed at scientists who make themselves bigger than they are. On a spring day full of meetings, with the chestnuts on the Jaffalaan in full bloom, he could sigh that he wanted to get on his racing bike. He was very committed to his colleagues - at all levels. You could laugh very hard with Ernst. Through all this he created a wonderful environment for the many colleagues working with and around him. 

This also applies to us. Ernst is the rare kind of person you would like to stay forever, without whom the faculty will no longer be the same. But at the same time, you allow Ernst like no other to enter new territories and new wonders. To get on his bike and ride. 

Prof. mr. dr. Hans de Bruijn
Prof. dr. Michel van Eeten
Dr. Wijnand Veeneman