Home Articles A country built by innovation: The Netherlands

A country built by innovation: The Netherlands

One of the most sophisticated and innovative societies in the world, the Netherlands is riding on open data policies to promote strong geospatial uptake at the national, regional and local levels. By Sarah Hisham

Netherlands, literally meaning ‘lower countries’, is characterized by its low land and flat geography. It is also known as the safest delta in the world. As much as 26% of its area and almost half of its population are located below sea level. Most of the below sea level areas are man-made, with nearly 17% reclaimed from the sea and lakes. Despite its size, the country is one of the most densely populated nations on the planet, after Bangladesh, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Being a low-lying, flood-prone country, the Dutch government has always been innovative in protecting the land against flooding and to secure freshwater supplies. Windmills have been pumping water off the land since the 14th century, and since the late 16th century large polder areas are preserved through elaborate drainage systems that include dikes, canals and pumping stations.

Netherlands Key economic indicators

Dutch universities are producing some of the best engineers and managers in the world and exporting their expertise. The government has advised on many high profile water governance projects, including in China, Africa and Australia. Being a small country with dense population, located to large extent below sea level, geospatial technology is a vital component in planning new developments in a safe way, respecting everybody’s interests, points out Claudio Mingrino, Executive Director EMEA, Hexagon Geospatial Division. “Only when the optimal balance between interests is met, can we achieve maximum potential in economic growth while respecting the environment.”

Riding on innovation

The Dutch society is one of the most sophisticated and innovative in the world. Being an exporting nation with an open economy, the country depends largely on trade with other countries making financial stability and growth in Europe very much vital to its economic sustainability. Although it is yet to recover from the bursting of its domestic real estate bubble in 2009, the Dutch GDP has shown growth of 0.7% in 2014, and the European Commission’s winter forecast projects growth of 1.4% in 2015 and 1.7% in 2016. The Netherlands is placed 5th in the most competitive economies in the world in the 2015-2016 Global Competitive Report by the World Economic Forum, thanks to its strong performance in areas such as education (3rd), infrastructure (3rd) and institutions (10th).

Faced with an ageing population and the need to compete in an open world economy, the Dutch government has created a Digital Agenda 2011-2015 for smarter use of ICT to provide a powerful boost for innovation and economic growth. Apart from promoting the open data program, the agenda also emphasized on the importance of geo-information as a critical production factor in the agrifood sector. The government will make geo-information available as open data to allow applications to be developed for precision agriculture, which could reduce the use of polluting substances and emissions of greenhouse gases, while saving fuel and maintaining healthy yields.

netherlands economy in comparision with advanced economies

The Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations has launched a program called Digital Government 2017 to improve government services to the public. It describes how government bodies will extend and improve the information provided on its website in order to enable transparent communications and transactions with citizens. Making information public via the internet increases government transparency which fits in with the Open Government vision and the action plan.

Open government and open geodata

The 2015 Global Open Data Index published by Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) puts the Netherlands in the top 10 for open data policy in the world. Under the Government Information (Public Access) Act (Wet openbaarheid van bestuur), an administrative body is obliged to supply members of the public with information on administrative matters held on file unless the Act or any other legislation states that the information in question is not suitable for publication.

In October 2013, Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations released a 40-page white paper on Netherlands Open Government Action Plan which includes further development and promotion of disclosure and use of open data. The Interior Ministry, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment have been making their data accessible to public and have issued a statement declaring that they will pursue a policy based on a ‘presumption of active access’. The coalition agreement announced 10 public-private ‘breakthrough projects’, one of them entitled ‘Open geodata as a resource for growth and innovation’, focusing on public-private partnerships involving public authorities, businesses and research institutions that bring together the supply and demand sides of open data.

Netherlands GDP - 1990 to 2014 in comparision with advanced economies

The 2015 Open Data Trend Report published by Netherlands‘ Court of Audit in October stated that the majority of the open data published by central government is produced by the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. Rijkswaterstaat (the ministry’s Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management) is by far the most important source of open data. It has published 1,110 datasets, predominantly geo-datasets. Last year, the Open State Foundation estimated that 93% of the open datasets published by the Dutch government are geodata.

The Dutch government policies on the use of open data are largely seen as the first step toward recognition and encouragement for the use of GIS and geospatial technologies. “Several years ago the government decided to make several nationwide datasets available to the public as open data. This policy has given a huge impulse to the use of data like cadastral datasets and topographic maps,” iterates Arnout van Raaij, GIS Specialist, BAM Infraconsult, the largest construction company in the country.
The Dutch National SDI (PDOK) was created by a collaboration between the Kadaster, the Ministries of Infrastructure and Environment, Economic Affairs, Rijkswaterstaat and Geonovum. It serves as a central facility for sharing of national geodatasets for both the public and private sectors. Most PDOK services are based on open data and are, therefore, available to everyone. The PDOK services meet national and international standards, including the European INSPIRE and the Dutch e-government standards. Today, PDOK hosts 250 Web services and handles over 1 billion requests a year. Some of geodata available include the national road database, national topographic base map, national LiDAR dataset and 3D map of selected regions in the country.

Jan Willem van Eck, Strategic Director at Esri Nederland believes open data is a very important development beyond geography. Although there is still a long way to go to get to an ‘open data culture’ in which ‘open data’ is the norm and not the exception, the release of national open datasets has been a great start. “An interesting development to follow is the contribution of new, enriched open datasets, like the national zipcodes. This opens up the opportunity to even more innovative use of open data for our society at large,” he adds.

Geospatial uptake

The open government and open data policies play pivotal role in the strong geospatial uptake in Dutch government sector at national, regional and local level. The Dutch Cadastre, Land Registry and Mapping Agency, in short Kadaster, has decreased its workforce from 2,600 to 1,600 employees in the last decade. Though at the same time, the information domains the organization is managing has tripled.

Kadaster restructuring its data - Peter Hoogwerf, Director, Geo-Information ServicesCurrently, these domains stretch out toward the field of buildings, addresses, cables and pipelines, large scale (1:1,000) and regular topography, cadastral mapping, tax objects, zoning regulations and public law restrictions. “Going digital helps Kadaster to do more with less people,” explains Peter Hoogwerf, Director of Geo-Information Services in Kadaster. The City of Rotterdam holds several national key registers dealing with large- and small-scale topography and building and address registries. It also adds several yearly-updated key registers at local level, which include remote sensing data, aerial and terrestrial images, boundaries, infrastructure-related height marks and high-resolution laser altimetry data that is collected every two years.

On top of this, the city holds, shares and uses daily, approximately 1,500 layers of application-specific GIS information, some of which is open data. Since 2008, the number of available and project-ready GIS–data sources has doubled, techniques for geospatial data collection have become more widely-known and much easier and cost-effective to access. “Nowadays, almost everybody instinctively knows how to handle ‘maps and apps’. Questions in the field no longer focus on whether a map could be a solution, but on which map will be,” elaborates Joris Goos, GIS Manager, City of Rotterdam.

Van Eck adds that new technologies and increased data availability has allowed the industry to reach out to society at large. “One example is the increased use of geography within the media, from radio stations to TV documentaries. This has definitely helped the Topotijdreis webapp, which demonstrates 200 years of topographic mapping by Kadaster, to go viral: a quarter of a billion hits in just one week.”

Innovation hub

GDP of Netherlands, growth in 2014, projected growth in 2015

Innovation and scientific temperament are the two major strengths of the Netherlands, which help it to consistently buck the slowdown. The increased availability of open data also plays an important role in driving innovation in the country.
The Dutch government has taken various steps toward becoming a central hub for startups, through organizations like StartupDelta, along with the many incubators like YES Delft and UtrechtInc. In the recently published European Digital City Index, Amsterdam is ranked second, after London, as the most digital-entrepreneurs-friendly city in Europe for its support ecosystems for startups. It also introduced a startup visa law starting January 1, 2015, as a recognition from the Dutch government of the value of startup entrepreneurs to the Dutch economy.Hubs of innovation activities are now being established in many regions. Cities like Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Delft and others are organizing their own innovation hubs, which enable co-operation and co-creation in an open innovation framework. This is supported by large organizations inviting ideas from the community to co-develop innovative products.The quality of Dutch research institutions and collaboration between universities and industries, too, has contributed a lot to this strength. Since knowledge institutes have clear non-commercial roles, there are many joint efforts between industry, government and knowledge institutes that facilitate innovation. Such collaborations help streamline geospatial activities in the country by avoiding redundancy in data collection and increasing usability of data. “We see making geodata multi-usable as a wonderfully rewarding challenge, and rightly so. This makes us frontrunners on the efficient use of geo-information,” says Goos.

The pillars of economy

Water: 99.9% of Dutch households have access to clean, chlorine-free drinking water and 99% are connected to the sewage system. Water consumption in the country is one of the lowest among developed countries at 128 litres per capita per day and water leakage in the distribution network is one of the lowest in the world at only 6%. Water is collected, filtered and recycled with high levels of quality and service in an integrated cycle. The entire Dutch delta and water technology sector had an accumulated turnover of €15.6 billion in 2011, of which €7.4 billion was exported.

The Dutch invest heavily in innovation and R&D through public-private partnerships that align the interests and resources of government, business and research partners. These include renowned institutes such as Deltares and Wetsus. Large Dutch private firms are also recognized for their cutting-edge R&D in the treatment of industrial waste water and several consultancies.
Geospatial technology is mainly used to manage water assets. “Since water industry in the Netherlands exists over a hundred years, there are many old mains that need to be replaced. At Brabant Water, we use advanced GIS utilities using multi-criteria analysis to select mains to be renewed and to plan for future network structures,” explains Daan van Os, GIS Adviser at Brabant Water, a company serving 2.4 million people and businesses in North Brabant, the Netherlands.

In a document outlining shared vision of government, private sector and scientific community on the future of the geo-information sector in the Netherlands called ‘Partners in Geo’, published by GeoSamen, recording data of the entire water cycle and making the data interoperable is still a challenge in water industry. The geospatial community can help to integrate the dynamic data from sensors into valuable information.

Energy: The energy sector contributes substantially to Dutch national income, exports and employment. Innovation and public-private partnerships are key to the Dutch approach. The government, private sector, and academia cooperate on these priority topics: energy savings in industry and the built environment, gas, smart grids, wind at sea, solar energy and bio energy. To stimulate renewable energy production, the Dutch government has allocated an annual sum of €1.4 billion from 2015, which represents a major step towards achieving the European Renewable Energy Directive target of 14% renewable energy by 2020. By 2050, the country aims to have a sustainable, reliable and affordable energy system. The Dutch are investing heavily in Smart Grids. The city of Groningen has the first ‘live’ smart grid community in Europe called PowerMatching City, which connects households with smart appliances that match their energy use in real time, depending on the available (renewable) generation.

The country has also established itself as a pivotal player in the European gas market. The Netherlands is not only a major natural gas producer and the source of advanced gas technology, it is also Europe’s leading gas broker. Almost 30% of the European natural gas reserves are in the Netherlands. The distribution network is the densest in Europe and of very high quality, with a total length of 12,200 kilometres of transmission pipelines and 136,400 kilometres of distribution pipelines.‘Partners in Geo’ highlights that facilitating open data of all infrastructure information for efficient asset management and coordinated maintenance between national, provincial and local levels is one of the opportunities for geospatial community to contribute in energy sector.

Amsterdam Digital City Indiex, Netherlands road highways investemnent, 5th most competetive economy in the world

Agriculture: The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest exporter of food and agricultural products, after the United States, even though only 4% of the Dutch population works in the agriculture sector. This is partly due to the fertility of the soil and the mild climate. “Dutch farmers started to unify in an association or entrepreneurial organization such as ZLTO in the 1900s. By working together and organizing the agricultural sector as a whole; farmers were able to invest and innovate to increase efficiency,” explains Elies Lemkes-Straver, chief executive officer of ZLTO, a Dutch farmers’ association. Geospatial technology are being used in various agricultural sub-sectors in the country. About 50-65% of farmers in the Netherlands are using GPS for precise land management, which is about 10% of all farmers in Europe. GPS, in combination with map and sensor-based data, allows farmers to practise agriculture in a sustainable way by less water, seed, fuel and pesticides usage. In Smart Livestock Farming (SLF), geospatial technologies are used to measure and manage animal welfare, manure logistics, animal logistics and these add up to transparency. These technologies help farmers to understand his own management cycle and also the nutrient cycle within his own business.

Netherlands Agriculture Dutch farmers association on precision farming and geospatialWhen the government needed to reconnect the Natura 2000 European corridor, some farmer-owned parcels were affected. Geospatial technologies were used to support communication between the stakeholders during the parcel-swap procedures to ensure farmers obtain the same parcel size and potential yield. “Agricultural organizations and the geospatial industry talk in different languages. Therefore, knowledge sharing and mutual understanding of each other’s sectors is required. This is key in a more widespread adoption of geospatial techniques in the agricultural sector,” adds Lemkes-Straver. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has commissioned a program called Geospatial for Agriculture and Water (G4AW), executed by Netherlands Space Office (NSO), to help improve food security in developing countries by using satellite data. It already has projects in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mali, Kenya and more.

Construction: The economic crisis has led to shrinking construction industry in the Netherlands, mainly due to low levels of investments and falling housing prices. Demands and requirements in terms of sustainability and energy efficiency are higher.
Geospatial technology helps to improve decision making process and to reduce risks in an early stage of the project, says van Raaij. He elaborates that using technologies like point cloud scanners, drones, sensors and virtual reality helps in measuring, visualizing and communicating the conditions of the assets that are constructed and being operated or maintained much better than before. “It also improves the communication with our clients such as the Dutch Railway agency ProRail and the Dutch Highway agency, Rijkswaterstaat,” adds Arnout.

The Dutch Building Information Council (BIR) has executed a program for implementing building information modeling (BIM) to the entire construction sector in the Netherlands. Its goals are to make steps forward on BIM-technology, the involved information processes, the related management and organization, and the accompanied communication and educational needs. In this council, stakeholders of clients, constructors, engineers, architects, installation sector and supply chain are all represented with two members. “This integrated approach, tested in real projects, is effective to get the BIM flywheel going,” explains Herman Winkels, Program Manager BIM at Rijkswaterstaat.

The currently ongoing largest road construction program in the Netherlands, Schiphol-Amsterdam-Almere (SAA), is fully-implemented with BIM. Rijkswaterstaat invests a total budget of over €4 billion in the period of 2012-2020 to increase the capacity of the highways and to improve the quality of life in this corridor. Although BIM has been proven to save cost and increase resource-efficiency in construction projects, it is still difficult to get the industry to embrace the new technology. As Jeroen Mennink, Sales Manager at Topcon Nederland, notes, “It is always difficult to change workflows in our industry. We are at the stage where the first contractors are implementing new technology and drastically change their way of working just to become more intelligent and assert control.”

Understanding the importance of open BIM standards to the successful widespread implementation of BIM within the Dutch building industry, an independent non-profit organization called BIM Loket was established in April this year. Its mission is to be the ‘front desk’ for all BIM inquiries in the Netherlands and promote the use of open BIM standards in the industry. Amidst many encouraging initiatives from the government and knowledge community, BIM is not yet mandated in construction projects across the country. “It’s a pity Dutch government has not implemented a BIM strategy as UK government. This could really help drive innovation,” believes Jan Blaauboer, Senior Sales Director, Government, EMEA at Bentley Systems.

Smart Cities and 3D the way to go

The Netherlands is finding ways to address its ageing population and the increasing city inhabitants, which consequently depopulate rural areas. It is focusing on smarter management of its highly urbanized and densely populated areas, which are also most susceptible to flooding. Geonovum, the Dutch national body for geo-standards and geodata dissemination in public sector, has been commissioned by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment to create a 5-year roadmap for the impact of smart city requirements to the geospatial data infrastructure in the Netherlands. Three emerging technologies are of focus in the Netherlands smart city agenda: 3D, linked data and sensors. However, Blaauboer believes the acceptance of 3D is still slow in the country. At the moment, 3D is not a mandatory data format for the national large scale topography register (BGT). “This slows down innovation in this domain,” he adds.

Geonovum - Rob van de Velde, Director, GenovumA partnership of governments, science and industry called ‘Breakthrough 3D’ was established with accompanying manifesto signed by 70 parties. In January, the working group drawn up a plan to realize the mission of 3D Netherlands. Some of the areas identified are soil movement, gaming, buildings, infrastructure, safety, water and urban planning.

Further to this, 3D is also expanded into 5D adding the dimensions of time and scale. “The idea is that we will be able to develop models of cities and rural areas that can be used to make calculation. For example, the Dutch weather institute would use them to tune localized weather reports,” says Hoogwerf.

Blaauboer predicts the capturing of 3D infrastructure asset information via drones, ultra-light, aerial photography and ground pictures to generate 3D models will be disruptive. “This allows the marketplace to inject infrastructure information of existing (and often old) buildings and infrastructure into modern ways of managing the infrastructure assets.” Meanwhile, the government is restructuring its environmental law by combining dozens of laws and hundreds of regulations for land use, residential areas, infrastructure, the environment, nature and water into one single Environment & Planning Act (Omgevingswet). The aim is to make information more easily available for companies, organizations and the public and to streamline the process of changing an area of a town or city.

“Kadaster will restructure its data, making it easily available towards this new digital scheme of environment law. Questions will be transformed into information requests that will be answered with the information available. Citizens will become more empowered after this transition is completed in the next five years,” explains Hoogwerf.

Hurdles on the way

The main challenge faced by the geospatial industry in the country is keeping up with rapid technological change. From project owner point of view, making the right choice in what to invest, what is the goal and by using which software or hardware is becoming a challenge. The projects are getting bigger and so do the risks, says Mennink. Similarly, companies that serve broad arrays of market sectors could find it challenging to decide its focus area. “For a company like Hexagon, it is tempting to pursue all business cases in all sectors; but in order to achieve maximum potential, carefully prioritizing is our major challenge,” says Mingrino. “Engaging with local partners in the market, as we are doing with Imagem, is key.”

Large construction projects are based upon partnerships between several companies, each using their own way of configuring systems, storing data, etc. This creates difficulties when information has to be exchanged and teams have to work closely together. Efforts need to be directed towards a consistent way of storing and sharing data. However, people like van Raaij are hopeful that as geospatial technology becomes cheaper and easier to use for end users as well for the back office ICT, there will be a boost in its usage across industries.

Manpower resources have also been a challenge for the sector. There is an increased need for skilled geospatial professionals, both in public and private sectors. Many universities are introducing new courses focusing on the application of geospatial technology rather than the technicality behind it.

Claudio Mingrino, Executive Director EMEA, Hexagon Geospatial on NetherlandsAlthough this helps to spread the benefits of geospatial throughout organizations, networks of innovation activities and society at large, pure geospatial profession is becoming extinct. As Goos points out, “Although the new generation of specialists coming from bordering fields such as IT, social geography or civil engineering helps to open up new opportunities in the industry, geospatial domain still needs the unique skills of dedicated geodesists as well.” Commoditization of geospatial data and the constantly innovative nature of geospatial domain, on the other hand, pose continuous needs for capacity building, especially in the government sector. Recognizing this problem, Dutch government, industry and educational institution have established a geospatial labor foundation called SAGEO (Stichting Arbeidsmarkt Geo). Its mandate is to address the mismatch between supply and demand in the geospatial labor market in the Netherlands through marketing campaigns, developing innovative educational concepts and facilitating collaborations among geospatial stakeholders.

Strong collaboration between the industry and academia is important to provide the latest technologies to institutions and working together to further develop skills. “A strong support from the private geospatial information sector on higher education is what got us where we are today, and is also the key to further strengthen and develop our capabilities in the future,” underlines Mingrino.

As the uptake increases, there are more questions to be answered. Many organizations find themselves working in an ecosystem beyond their scope. “We talk about the enormous potential of geo-information every day. Our challenge is to become experts not only from a technical point of view, but from a social one,” says Goos. As van Eck signs off: Communicating with the outside world has become a lot more complex. We have to make the complex simple to use, especially for the citizens.