Yao-Hua Tan


Professor of Information and Communication Technology and head of the ICT section at TU Delft. His field of research includes the role of the ICT in the development of new services, for example in international trade and regulation, focusing on such areas as Customs and Excise, taxation and e-government. Yao-Hua Tan is also part-time professor of Electronic Business in VU University Amsterdam's Faculty of Economics and Business Administration.

Tell us about your personal life

"It's a tale of two cities since I was born (1958) and bred in Amsterdam but now live in Rotterdam. I am married with three children, two daughters and a son. In my free time, I try to play squash regularly. I play with my neighbour who is professor of architecture in the Architecture faculty. I also love travelling. My family and I alternate between beach holidays and trips farther afield to visit cities and museums."

What is your favourite hobby?

"My biggest hobby is talking about philosophy. I studied philosophy, information science and psychology and am involved in research in this area, but I also like to discuss these things with my old friends from university. We still meet up every month to debate philosophical issues."

What was the highlight of your career?

"I've spent my whole career forging links between completely different areas. My research covers both technical and policy fields and I try to identify overlaps between the two. Innovation is generally 20% technology and 80% politics: with a good understanding of politics, you can ensure a better reception for new ICT concepts. I adopt this approach in practice on a large number of international research projects, some of which also relate to trade. Some of my work is more technical ICT research, some of it purely political/administrative studies in such arenas as the European Commission and the United Nations in Geneva. I work on both fronts at all times and it is this process of joining up the two that I find most enjoyable."

Your greatest challenge at the moment?

"Working to further establish the link I just mentioned. But I also face the challenge of strengthening the Netherlands' position in international trade. This is crucial for our economy and our society as a whole. It could have something to do with the fact that my ancestors were involved in trade. I would also like to contribute towards further strengthening TU Delft's leading role here in the Netherlands."

What do you enjoy most about your work?

"It is especially inspiring combining knowledge from both the technical and administrative domains, to ensure that technical innovations are successful in society and in Dutch businesses and organisations. Collaboration with colleagues, both within TPM and between the faculties, and with students makes this all the more exciting."

Why Delft?

"At TPM, Technology, Policy and Management are all found under the same roof, and each is pursued to a certain level of depth, so it is the ideal backdrop for my research work. Besides, I already knew TU Delft through my predecessor, the late René Wagenaar, and I was particularly impressed by him and the research group. I am already starting to see evidence of the multidisciplinary approach I found so enticing. Although I have only been working here since September, discussions are already underway on joint research with different research groups and other faculties. There are a lot of like-minded people here so it is easy to forge links. The students here also have the same attitude. They too have a willingness to create links."

Your best characteristic?

"If I may be a little immodest, I would say that I was a bridge-builder. People around me say that I'm good at linking together widely differing visions and domains - both in terms of specific issues and people. Inspired by an underlying fascination for the people and things around me, I always try to find the areas of overlap. I have yet to meet a person who does not interest me. Everyone has their own tale to tell, if you are willing to look and listen carefully. That's the secret of it."

Your worst characteristic?

"This is a flipside of my strength, the fact that I sometimes create too many connections or links. I see so many fascinating things that I sometimes allow myself to be dragged along and cannot set boundaries, always focusing on my work. Fortunately, my family helps to curb my worst excesses."

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

"It strikes me that during the last ten years, the Netherlands has turned in on itself, both socially and economically. Our powers of innovation are losing their momentum. Sadly, this is completely at odds with the Netherlands' true strength: its openness, both towards other cultures and innovation. We have the potential, but if we really want to ensure that the Netherlands regains its power, there is some hard work to be done. The universities in particular have a key role to play in this debate. Often, administrators are far too concerned with internal issues to focus on innovation. But openness and innovation are not an added luxury, they form the basis of Dutch society!"

Your source of inspiration?

"First and foremost, Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. It helped me to understand the extent to which language determines our world, both for individuals and for organisations. Secondly, the novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I must have read it a good six times and find it fascinating. Its message is that people think that they can control life and processes. But in fact, the development of society is the sum of all sorts of coincidences, some of which have startling results. Life is not all about grand plans and strategies. This is something that often springs to mind when I consider the decision-making that happens in the European Commission or the UN, for example. It involves highly complex processes, with everyone doing somersaults over each other, the result of all kinds of different forces. This is something you need to learn to recognise."

Your life philosophy?

"Know yourself. Only if you know where you are coming from and what your strengths and weaknesses are, is it possible to proceed. Understanding yourself is the key to truly understanding other people and organisations."

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