Regret and pride in water engineering examined

The Rijkswaterstaat, water boards, provinces and municipalities responsible for water engineering are often strongly focused on “no regrets”. In practice, however, there is great uncertainty about what is meant by this and how it should be done. Deltares and TU Delft have asked six veterans about their experiences in an exploratory survey.

What leads to regret in practice and how can you prevent it? That is the main question for the exploration, says Anoek de Jonge, researcher at Deltares. “Ministry and water boards often talk about taking action without regret, but it is still unclear what exactly that is. Therefore, we conducted this qualitative study on regret. Pride is the opposite of this; we added that.”

Anouk the Younger

De Jonge is the lead author of the research report Pride and regret in hydraulic engineering by Deltares and TU Delft, published at the end of July. She spoke to six old hands in the field: Cor Beekmans, Ingwer de Boer, Bas de Bruijn, Jean Buskens, Tjalle de Haan and Hendrik Havinga. Extensive reports on this are included in the report. “In fact, these interviews are the most important because they contain the richness of the experiences gathered.”

Learning from retirees
Five of the interviewees are retired, and it was a conscious choice, says De Jonge. “We can simply learn a lot from them, given their extensive experience with large projects in water engineering. They can also speak more freely because they no longer represent an organization. They wanted to join immediately in the hope of being able to pass something on. I can’t say emotions were high, but frustrations were palpable at times.”

Four points were extracted from the interviews that the interviewees mainly regret (see box below). “Many conclusions can sound like open doors. But I think the colleagues in the field will recognize them and realize that in one way or another not enough is being done.”

Significant differences in retrospect
There are quite large differences in how the men look back on the projects they have worked on. A striking statement comes from ir. Tjalle de Haan, who worked for Rijkswaterstaat for over forty years. “There are maybe only two projects that I see as ‘no regret projects’.” He refers to the sand nourishment policy for the Dutch coast and the introduction of the Flood Protection Act in 1995, which is now part of the Water Act.

Some other interviewees are more positive. Most of all, they regret not being able to convince others to take things seriously or having been insufficiently persistent. Moreover, some regret that they have not obtained a good measure.

Also proud of projects
The interviewees are also proud. They specifically mention projects with characteristics that researchers later related to the three criteria for good design according to the Roman architect Vitruvius: usability, sustainability and attractiveness. They are also proud that the planning process went well and that almost everyone was satisfied in the end.

As an example, De Jonge cites a comment by Ingwer de Boer, ‘the man from’ Room for the River at Rijkswaterstaat. He calls this program a business card for BV Nederland. However, De Boer has a comment: “What I particularly regret, and what I also regret, is that we were not able to follow through on the Room for the River ideas in the new flood programme.”

Starting point for further research
How does De Jonge himself view the phenomenon of no-regret measures? “You shouldn’t always want to be no-forting. Because if you can never regret, you can’t try anything. A lesson from the interviews is also: sometimes you just have to try something if you are really convinced.”

The Deltares researcher sees the exploration as a good starting point for mapping regret and pride in water engineering. “We will definitely continue and conduct more interviews, also with female experts. We have a long list of candidates for that. It is also interesting to analyze the views in a more systematic way using the so-called Q-method. It can be combined with a survey among a larger group of people.”

A budget for further research is still missing, says De Jonge. The theme is already attracting attention. “We’ve already had a lot of responses.”


WHAT REGRET?

In their projects, the interviewees mainly regret:
• a substantive scope that is too narrow, including design for monofunctional solutions;
• insufficient attention to maintenance and to social costs and long-term consequences, including damage to nature and the environment;
• insufficient attention to the quality of public space and how it is experienced;
• insufficient response to the concerns of those directly involved.

Four success factors for a project have also been distilled from the conversations:
• clear framework at the start;
• permanent commitment;
• a listening ear and understanding for those involved;
• guaranteed management and maintenance after delivery.

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