Ibo van de Poel


I am an Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor ethics and technology.

Tell us about your personal life

I’m married to Eliora van der Hout, and we have one son, Jona, who is seven years old. He has recently started playing football, and I coach his team.

What is your favourite pastime?

I don’t have much free time, but when I do, I like to walk, cycling or read a book. When I come home tired in the evening, however, I’m happy to collapse on the couch and watch television.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I think it was receiving my VICI grant – not only because it was an acknowledgement of my abilities, but also because I thought it was a great proposal, and I had worked very hard on it.

What is your greatest challenge at the moment?

In practical terms, my greatest challenge is to coordinate being a section  leader with research and teaching duties. It’s largely a matter of compromise, and my own research is regularly affected. Fortunately, I’ll be going on sabbatical next year – the last year of my VICI project – so that I can still make some major progress in research.
In substantive terms, there are many challenges that I would like to take on in the coming years. One has to do with elaborating some ideas from my VICI proposal. I argue that the introduction of new technology in society should be regarded as a social experiment, given the large amount of uncertainty that accompanies its introduction. Although this is a good slogan, I would like to elaborate it more precisely and translate it into terms of risk governance for new technologies. There is much to be done in this area.
I feel that a broader challenge for my field is to determine how we can manage to allow moral considerations to play a role in the design and development of new, innovative technologies, rather than paying attention to these issues only after the fact. Several ideas have been developed to this end, including Value-Sensitive Design and Responsible Innovation. These ideas are in need of further elaboration, including in terms of methodology. In my opinion, this is not an exclusive function for philosophers; it should be done in collaboration with empirical researchers. This is why it is so important for the new department of Values, Technology & Innovation (VTI) to collaborate with economists and safety scientists. This area offers great opportunities, but it will also be a major challenge to achieve fruitful collaboration between these various approaches.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

There are two things that I particularly enjoy about my work. First, I am always discovering and exploring new things. It’s great to take on new scientific challenges and develop new insights. I am actually never standing still. The second thing that I truly enjoy is working with people whom I can help to develop themselves further. This is particularly the case with PhD candidates and students, although it can also apply to other staff members. This is very enjoyable and highly motivating for me.

Why Delft?

This was somewhat of a coincidence. When I was almost finished with my doctoral research at Twente, I applied for a job in Delft.  I was hired, and I’ve never left. The choice for Delft is actually not so surprising. I want to be engaged in the philosophy of technology and, in my opinion, I can do this only in interaction with engineers and technical scientists. Delft is obviously the ideal environment in which to do this. Another reason is that our contributions as philosophers is taken seriously and valued here. For example, this is evident in the ethical teaching that we provide in nearly all of the degree programmes.

What is your best character trait?

That is obviously for others to decide, but I think that I have a good ability to transfer my enthusiasm for research and teaching to others, and I am able to draw connections between people.

What is your worst character trait?

I’m sometimes impatient, although I can usually hide it well. I sometimes also have trouble being assertive enough, but I think I’m getting better at it.

What subject do you think should be high on the political agenda?

I don’t know if it would qualify as a subject, but one weakness I perceive in the political and administrative system of the Netherlands involves coping with uncertainty. There is a strong urge and need to reduce uncertainty as much as possible in advance. For example, consider the purchasing power charts that are specified to two decimal places. In reality, the future is obviously uncertain. In many cases, we would do better to acknowledge this and to consider how we might better cope with this uncertainty.  For example, we could try out ideas, conduct experiments and learn from them. This is also the heart of my VICI project.

Your source of inspiration?

I don’t have any particular source of inspiration. In my field, philosophers like Aristotle and John Dewey are currently quite appealing to me, partly because they don’t place philosophy on a pedestal, but connect it to practical experiences and issues. Philosophy still tends to be carried out in the form of abstract word play that has little to do with the actual questions in our society.

Your life philosophy?

I don’t have an aphorism handy, but I do consider it important for people at the university to perform their work out of a sense of intrinsic motivation and curiosity, not trying to achieve status or recognition.

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