Rolf Künneke


Professor of Economics of Infrastructures.

Your private life?

I was born and grew up in Bremen (Germany). I studied Economics in Dortmund, followed by three years in Hamburg where I worked at a research agency focusing on the regional housing market. In 1984, I was appointed to the University of Twente (Faculty of Public Administration). It was there that I wrote my thesis on the privatisation of public utilities. The subject, which attracted little attention at the time, has stayed with me ever since. I have been at TU Delft since 1997 and really enjoy working here.

I am married and have four children, two sons and two daughters. I am also the proud grandfather of a grandson. Three of our four children were adopted from Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. My wife and I travelled to our children's home countries to collect them personally. We were particularly shocked by the situation in Ethiopia. With other volunteers, we established a small-scale education project there for street children. Our charity helps several hundreds of children and young people aged 6 to 25 to go to school. They are provided with school books, school uniforms, shoes and medical care. We have established a fellowship programme for our best school pupils in order to enable them to take a university degree. It is wonderful to see how motivated these students are to pursue their studies in very difficult circumstances. We have now been able to see deprived street children develop into highly qualified professionals who can lift their whole family out of poverty. Anyone interested should look at:

What is your favourite pastime?

I enjoy the great outdoors: running, walking, cycling, camping and gardening. I spend quite enough time during the day in the office, on the computer or at meetings.

What has been the high point of your career?

I have had the honour and privilege of working with a quite extraordinary Nobel Prize winner for Economics: Elinor Ostrom. In 2009, she was the first woman ever to receive the award, along with Oliver Williamson. I became acquainted with Elinor Ostrom almost by accident, a few years before that, and was immediately impressed not only by her academic work on the self-management of ecosystems, but also by her engaging personality. I became a member of an international group of researchers who, under her leadership, further developed her ideas on socio-ecological systems, including ideas relating to technical systems such as infrastructures. Fortunately, I had already asked Elinor Ostrom whether she would like to give a keynote speech at our annual conference on the Economics of Infrastructures in 2010 before she was awarded the Nobel Prize. So we then attempted to interest the other Nobel Prize winner Oliver Williamson in coming to our conference as well. We were successful and they both came to Delft! That was something quite special, all the more so since the work of both Ostrom and Williamson has been an important source of inspiration for our research on the regulation of infrastructures for many years.

Your greatest challenge at the moment?

Currently, energy infrastructures in particular face major challenges. The widely-supported desire to achieve greater sustainability has far-reaching consequences for the way in which energy is produced and consumed. Just think of solar cells and offshore wind.  Of course, this is going to have consequences for the economic organisation and regulation of the energy sector. Examples of this include: Who will have what rights and responsibilities? How will it be possible to achieve the necessary innovations in a socially responsible way? Power production through the use of offshore wind will also involve the construction of more high-power cables from the coast inland. People are unlikely to be happy about having these kinds of cables in their back yards. What are the technical alternatives that will enable the necessary transport of energy? Installing expensive underground cables? Energy gasification using electrolysis and then transporting the gas via pipelines and in tankers? Or will it help to give people a financial share in the operation of these networks, as was recently proposed in Germany? These are areas that certainly require further discussion.  

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work?

Working together with colleagues from different specialist areas to research complex issues, such as the energy transition. It often appears that economic and social problems represent a greater obstacle than developing and applying technical solutions.

Why Delft?

In infrastructures, technology plays an extremely important role. As an economist, I try to understand how technology and economic regulation affect each other. Delft is the perfect university in which to do this.

What is your best character trait?

Personally, I think I am patient, a good listener and tend to see challenges rather than problems.

What is your worst character trait?

What should I say? My wife thinks I am too preoccupied with my work and she may be right. I am far too optimistic in planning my work and find it difficult to say no.

What topic should be high on the political agenda?

Obviously, increasing the quality of education and research and the necessary innovations in infrastructures.

Do you have a source of inspiration?

Working with my colleagues and with students who often have ideas that are very different to mine and point me in new directions.

Your personal philosophy?

These lines by Edgar Guest always give me inspiration:
Somebody said that it couldn't be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That "maybe it couldn't," but he would be one
Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried. ….
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn't be done, and he did it.

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