UT researches arduous transition to circular infrastructure sector

Circularity currently plays a crucial part in futureproofing the infrastructure sector in the Netherlands. The complexity, insecurity and contestation that go hand in hand with such transitions make it difficult to maintain a steady course towards a circular future. UT researcher Tom Coenen is obtaining his PhD on this subject today. In his thesis he describes various tools to support and drive the transition to a circular infrastructure sector in an effective and desirable way.

Coenen’s PhD thesis goes into the systemic barriers to mission-oriented transition and provides several ways of dealing with these, both for policy and organisations. The research shows that slow progress is mainly being caused by circularity being defined in many different ways. The transition is also hampered by the lack of focus in scaling circular initiatives and insufficient space for the market to devise radically circular solutions.

Mission-oriented transition assessment

In addition to the contested definition, it’s crucial for transition policy to embrace the complexity and insecurity that typify such transitions. This means governments have to take the lead in accomplishing the circularity mission, but they must to do so together with the sector to increase support and utilise the expertise and dynamics present in the sector. The PhD thesis introduces the -mission-oriented transition assessment- (MOTA) framework, which can support policy makers in anticipating the upcoming transition steps in collaboration with the sector.

Organisational change for circularity

In addition to administration and policy, such a transition also has major consequences for individual organisations. The thesis shows that the introduction of circularity by commissioning parties in infrastructure causes internal tensions between regular processes and people striving for circularity implementation. Using -institutional logics-, the research shows that allowing organisations to function according to the circularity principles requires coordination between these logics. This means that people who advocate the logic needed for circularity must be involved more actively in the primary organisation processes.

Ecosystem perspective

The infrastructure sector is strongly project oriented. However, this doesn’t work for circularity, as this demands reconciling life cycles that last many decades and the mutual dependence of assets within the Dutch infrastructure network. The thesis shows that these challenges can be overcome by adopting an ecosystem perspective. Through a long term-oriented value proposition to which several parties can subscribe, circular solutions can be developed that transcend individual projects. This does require a radically different way of working, focusing more on relationships than on contracts and assigning more importance to the early involvement of expert parties. Although several initiatives already demonstrate this is possible, it does require a major culture shift in the sector.

The content of the thesis has also been translated into Dutch in the form of a magazine , which details the most important results for practice. This magazine also contains reflections and columns by researchers and professionals from Dutch infrastructure practice.

Tom Coenen’s CV

After completing his Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering and his Master’s in Construction Management & Engineering at the University of Twente, Tom obtained an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) on circular design of bridges and flyovers from the same university. In 2020, Tom started a PhD with funding and support from the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, the results of which lay before you now. Alongside his PhD research and education activities, he was involved in various other research projects on themes such as organisational transformation, mission-based governance, circular change programmes and platform ecosystems. In the course of his PhD, Tom presented his research findings to practice on multiple occasions, including a technical briefing in the House of Representatives. The next step in Tom-s academic career was the appointment to an assistant professorship at the University of Twente in February 2024, in which capacity he continues to work on circularity and transitions in the context of civil engineering and construction management.

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