Interview with Nienke Maas

Pride is the most important thing for alumni

Nienke Maas

Nienke Maas is senior energy transitionconsultant at TNO, and in her work she still has regular contact with TU Delft. She can also often be found on campus; she is a member of the board of the Delft University Fund. “It’s great to see the university’s  commitment in its communication with alumni.”

Nienke Maas was always fascinated by the built environment. “Even when I was a child, travelling in the car with my parents, I wondered how bridges or viaducts were built.” Civil engineering was an obvious choice. “I was attracted by the visibility: you’re not working on something minuscule in a lab, but on infrastructure that people use every day.”

Collective solutions

At TNO, she has spent more than 20 years working on complex urban issues. “Right now I’m working on the energy transition, a major issue that will have a huge impact on the built environment. It’s relatively easy to make 10 houses energy-neutral, but what if we have to scale up current solutions for entire housing estates? This requires smart collective solutions, but we also need to have a clear picture of how our electricity system as a whole should function,” she explains. “At the same time, technology is advancing. Three years ago, hydrogen wasn’t even being discussed; now there are a few pilots with ‘green’ hydrogen. It would be much easier to heat houses with it, because then not all houses would have to be insulated. But when will this technology actually be safe to use? And do we have enough hydrogen for low-grade heat applications? Maas believes in action-oriented research, in which solutions are tested in practice and evaluated scientifically at the same time. “However, we don’t have the time or the money to experiment with a hundred techniques in a hundred different places. As such, it’s a complex problem that research institutes, energy companies, housing corporations and municipalities have to tackle together.”

Finding consensus

Collaboration is key. In The Hague, Maas recently led a project involving all these stakeholders in the energy transition. “That was mainly about increasing mutual understanding. Municipalities, for example, are given a great deal of responsibility by the government; they then have to talk with residents. This includes tough discussions and negotiations, but it starts with being mindful of each other’s – often conflicting – interests,” she says. “Which is nothing new. Five hundred years ago, we also had to find consensus to protect the country from flooding. The energy transition is all about consensus and that’s in our DNA.” “To solve complex social issues, we need to bundle a lot of multidisciplinary and design knowledge,” says Maas. Both TNO and TU Delft are good at that. She first discovered that years ago when supervising graduates. “I was struck by the fact that TU Delft is such a design-driven, solution-oriented university. Delft students don’t start with hypotheses, but they look for specific solutions. You can still see that, for example, in the Dream Hall, where students from all faculties work together on their projects with tremendous drive and ambition: they keep going until it works.”

The university could make much more use of its alumni and their networks


Maas still has regular contact with TU Delft, for example as part of joint research projects or when drawing up recommendations on energy innovations. For the past 12 years or so, she has also been actively involved at the university as an alumnus. “I joined the board of the former alumni association. At the time, it was still separate from the Delft University Fund.” She is now a board member of the DUF. “I try to ensure there is as much continuity as possible in the contact between alumni and the university. It’s great to see the university’s commitment to this.” She believes it’s best to build these contacts while the students are still studying. “In the first few years after graduation, I mainly kept in touch with study friends; the university itself wasn’t really relevant. It’s the same for people I know. They don’t feel like an alumnus and it’s only when their children go to secondary school that the university pops up again.” As a member of the alumni panel, Maas helps the University Fund decide how to communicate with alumni. “We act as a sounding board and advise, for example, on how the TU Delft can approach alumni. The university could make much more use of its alumni and their networks. You can find out what alumni think about things like integrity or new technologies, which then helps to stimulate the social debate,” she says.


This contact can also be beneficial to alumni. “Alumni like to be kept informed about the university’s research and they are interested in ground-breaking new knowledge. Some also use TU Delft to keep their knowledge of their field up to date as part of lifelong learning.” Yet Maas believes that pride in your alma mater is perhaps the most important thing for alumni. “Through the University Fund we want to contribute to the excellence of TU Delft. As an alumnus, you benefit from having studied at a leading university. Positive reports about the university also reflect well on alumni. There’s a lot for alumni to be proud of, but pride is just like trust: it takes years to build and seconds tobreak. So continuity in communication is also vital for that.”