Dirk Koppenol - History
In his PhD project Dirk researches the decision making process preceding the construction of the megaproject Maasvlakte 2, an expansion of the Port of Rotterdam. How is it that a megaproject such as Maasvlakte 2 finally receives broad support of stakeholders – while a lot of other megaprojects do not? The doctoral is financed by the Port of Rotterdam. Besides at the university, Dirk carries out research one day a week with the Corporate Strategy department of the Port of Rotterdam Authority.
"I can't imagine spending five days a week at the university. They are two different worlds that complement one another: at the university, I look at the subject from the point of view of the past. At the Port, I see it in practice – there it’s all about current issues and problems that have to be solved."
Within his research, Dirk examines from a historical perspective what the various waves of government investment have meant. "What makes Maasvlakte 2 exceptional is that, in spite of the fact there was a lot of resistance to it initially, eventually – in 2008 – all parties involved, including nature organisations, local authorities, etc., nevertheless provided a broad base of support for the start of this megaproject."
Maasvlakte 2 vs. Betuweroute
To find out how this came about, Dirk compared the development of Maasvlakte 2 with previous port expansions. And also with the Betuweroute, another megaproject from the same period that did not receive the broad stakeholder support Maasvlakte 2 finally enjoyed. He discovered that the level of stakeholders for publicly financed megaprojects is related to the general level of economic development.
Dirk concluded that broad support was only cultivated as there was general acceptance of the need for a port expansion. Moreover, additional projects made the project even more acceptable to the stakeholders: "Instead of just investing in port expansion, the government invested more than 50% of the total budget in 35 additional projects, principally geared to improving the environment – for example, the creation of 750 hectares of a new nature area around Rotterdam. This explains the broad support from the population finally enjoyed by the project."
During his research, he came across other interesting developments, such as the rise and fall of the Mainport concept. "In the 1990s, Schiphol and the port of Rotterdam were seen as the driving forces behind the Dutch economy. All large-scale projects from this period – the HSL, the Betuweroute, Maasvlakte 2 – were built on the basis of this concept," Dirk explains.
"In 2000, however, the mainport concept came under fire. At the exact moment all the megaprojects had just been completed. The question then arises of what future there is for the Mainport concept and the accompanying projects. Last year, I organised a debate on this, and the outcome was that we need a new concept – one geared to adaptivity instead of large-scale container trans-shipping. And that the initiative for this will have to come from the business community."
Dirk was intrigued by the lobbying techniques used to get megaprojects on the agenda: "An expensive project provokes resistance, but also offers 'bargaining chips' with which to negotiate and generate support. And in the case of an expensive project, it's easier to demonstrate its national significance. If you put a project on the agenda with a cheaper price ticket, there will be less resistance at first, but you don’t have any bargaining chips and will meet with new resistance every time something is added to the project."
The megaproject effect
Another discovery he made is the 'megaproject effect': the bigger the project, the smaller the number of people who are important to its success. "With big projects, it turns out it is always the same people who exert influence within the project. They have held a particular post for a long time, have a great deal of knowledge of the project, are familiar with the other parties and therefore easily able to guide them."
PhD = juggling a lot of balls
This was the kind of discovery that provided a welcome boost for Dirk, as the life of a PhD researcher can be pretty tough. He found the first two years particularly heavy going. "You have to absorb a lot of literature. In addition, you want to publish, conduct interviews and above all not get left behind. You spend three years just trying to keep all the balls in the air. But then you start to make out the lines and develop models. You organise a conference that leads to things happening. At these times, you realise that your research is useful in practice, and this gives you more energy."
In response to the Port of Rotterdam's need for solid knowledge, Erasmus University has bundled its maritime and port-related research and education in Erasmus Smart Port Rotterdam, an inter-faculty centre of excellence "The inter-faculty cooperation and the exchange of information make doing a PhD especially interesting. It throws up a lot of useful information – personally I have learned a lot from the economists – and you build up a useful network of contacts."
When Dirk started out on his research, there were already three PhDs within his faculty working on the Port. "They were like mentors, who tell you which conferences you should attend, who you need to talk to about what, how to approach something. It was a very warm welcome. Also, the Graduate School offers useful courses and help with all kinds of other PhD-related matters. And it’s very handy that everything is just around the corner."