Global goals inspire value creation

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Henk Nieboer does not regard himself as an idealist who has set out to change the world. Asked why he does what he does, he recalls his early childhood. ‘The little boy who makes sand banks on the beach to collect water, then lets it run back into the sea. That was me.’ Henk grew up in Rotterdam. Both his father and grandfather were seafarers, and on Sundays he would always go down to the harbour to look at the ships. ‘My ambition was to pursue a career in dredging, which is why I studied Hydraulic Engineering at Delft University of Technology. My career took a slightly different turn when I was recruited by Witteveen+Bos. Nevertheless, working with land and water is my passion and that is why I am in this profession.’

Karin Sluis was inspired to become a civil engineer by her (well-known) admiration for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, an iconic structure which has been bringing people together, both literally and figuratively, for almost 80 years. ‘That bridge is a solution with impact. It is useful, attractive and sustainable.’ People seek meaning in their lives, Karin believes. ‘I think that everyone has a natural desire for growth and development - both personal and professional - and they want to make a worthwhile contribution to the world. It’s part of our DNA. The engineering profession is a superb vehicle for anyone wishing to tackle today’s societal challenges. We translate those challenges into concrete problems which lend themselves to practical solutions. As an engineering consultancy, we play our part in creating a better world. We accept and act on our responsibility. We know that we must pass on the world to future generations, and it is our duty to ensure that we leave it in a better state than we found it. This entails creating sustainability in every sense of the word: economic, social and ecological. As engineers, our task is to think about the consequences of our actions. Ever since Witteveen+Bos was founded 70 years ago, we have applied our knowledge and expertise to solve extremely complex problems.’

‘The nature of our work has changed,’ Henk adds. ‘30 years ago, a key focus was water management in the rural areas. Today, we are more concerned with climate adaptation. However, the overall challenge remains the same: to enhance sustainability.’

The challenges faced by today’s world are encapsulated by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which call for an end to poverty and social inequality, improved living conditions, a cleaner environment, and action to halt climate change. ‘The really good thing about the Goals is that they enjoy worldwide support,’ states Karin. ‘They are all interrelated and form part of a single system. The goals offer an excellent framework for the sort of action that Witteveen+Bos has been involved in for many years.’ Henk continues: ‘In late 2015, we held a ‘materiality assessment’ in which we asked our stakeholders to identify ways in which we can maximise the positive impact of our activities. The findings are interesting: our work helps to achieve no fewer than 10 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Our projects are seen as having particular impact, which means that their potential for positive change is also high.’

Applying our 6 sustainable design principles within our projects will help maximise that potential, says Karin. ‘Our clients face major challenges as they set about building safe, liveable and accessible cities with adequate clean water and sustainable energy provision. They want to create pleasant residential and business environments, in which companies can manufacture products in a sustainable manner. We help them to make the right choices. In all our projects and design assignments, the sustainable design principles guide our thinking and decisions with regard to climate adaptation, efficient and sustainable use of resources, protecting the environment and biodiversity, as well as the promotion of integrated chain management and (public) participation. These are all aspects to which we must devote even closer attention in future.’

Water treatment plants have become net energy producers (as in Hengelo), while hard sea defences have given way to a ‘soft’ equivalent based on natural processes (Hondsbossche Zeewering and Pettemer Zeewering). The tunnel design for the Oosterweel Link in Antwerp also demonstrates the impact of ‘smart’ design choices: its double-layer construction reduces the amount of concrete required and will significantly reduce CO2 emissions (by an amount equivalent to the emissions of a small city like Gouda). Moreover, this new section of the Antwerp peripheral road will have a very positive impact in terms of better accessibility and liveability, with a significant reduction in both noise and air pollution.

All these examples show the importance of the integrated approach, Henk points out. ‘We look for the best solution in partnership with other parties, each with their own specialist discipline. The clients are often ‘launching customers’, which means that they must be daring enough to opt for entirely new solutions, as must the various partners, suppliers, contractors and managers. But a daring approach can greatly increase impact.’

‘In the ideal world, all our projects and business processes would contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals,’ says Karin. ‘We would then be able to act on our responsibility to address the challenges of our time to the greatest possible extent. As I see it, maximum value creation begins with the individual. Everyone should be aware of the contribution they can make. As a company, we are the platform through which our staff can achieve their dreams and ambitions. Although we have different specialist disciplines, we are all working on the basis of a shared passion and a desire to make the world a better place. We combine our talents, share knowledge, and work together as a team. Most importantly, we enjoy our work. If you really wish to increase your impact, individually and collectively, the first step is to conduct your own ‘materiality assessment’. What do you see as relevant and significant? How can you make a positive contribution? Ask yourself how the ongoing developments are likely to influence your current role.’

Henk believes that maximising impact begins with the simple step of choosing work and activities which match your own desires and ambitions. You must identify and act upon your natural motivation. ‘What topics are you most likely to read about, look up on the Internet, or watch on television? These are the topics which should form the focus of your professional life, too. Opt for a career which reflects your passions. By combining energy and ambition, you will always achieve maximum impact.’