"I am interested in the social and political side of innovation." - An interview with prof. dr. Roland Ortt

Prof. dr. Roland Ortt
 © Tiffany Konings

Since May 1 2022, prof. dr. Roland Ortt has been a professor by special appointment in Urban Innovation Management. This chair - co-financed by the Netherlands Study for Technology Trends (STT), TU Delft and Erasmus University - is embedded in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities.

Franca Gribnau from STT and Esther Eumann from BOLD Cities sat down with Roland to talk to him about his professorship, current research and his connection to BOLD Cities and STT.  You can also read this interview in Dutch.


Can you tell us more about your chair in Urban Innovation Management? 

The subject of the chair is technology, development, and innovation in an urban environment. I have a lot of experience with developing and disseminating technologies in the market. That made me realize that technological development is not a linear process but a journey, a chaotic journey. 

For urban innovation to work, parties who work differently and speak a different language (...) have to work together."

This journey is even more exciting in the city which comes with an extra set of ‘challenges’: the social environment, different authorities, and limited space. Yet for urban innovation to work, parties who work differently and speak a different language – like the municipality and tech companies – have to work together.  And this is what I focus on in this chair - both in my research and my teaching.


Your chair was co-founded by the Netherlands Study for Technology Trends (STT) together with TU Delft and Erasmus University Rotterdam. Can you tell us more about how the chair came about and the added value of an endowed chair? 

STT asked if I could convert my earlier research on technological development into a yearly, applied instrument: the technology monitor. That research would then be linked to an endowed professorship. A fantastic opportunity! I am glad though that I decided to get started right away with the monitor and not wait for my professorship. That took another five years to finalise.  

In the last six years I realized that through doing applied research you also advance theoretically. By solving a practical problem under time pressure, you run into all the limitations of the theory, which leads to enormous creativity on a theoretical level. For me, that is the added value of an endowed chair. 


Your chair is embedded in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for BOLD Cities. How did you become involved with the Centre and what makes the Centre special to you?  

At one point, the process surrounding my endowed professorship stagnated. I thought to myself: let's do something crazy and ask friends and colleagues for advice. One of them was Prof. Dr. Jaap van den Herik [former board member of the Centre for BOLD Cities] and he immediately connected me with the Centre for BOLD Cities and Prof. Dr. Liesbet van Zoonen.

Before I came to the Centre, [...] I had an engineer's way of looking at technology - and society."

Before I came to the Centre, I only worked with engineers. This gave me an engineer's way of looking at technology – and society. I missed the social and political side of innovation. I wanted to explore that side further, preferably with a team of people who think very differently than me. I found that at BOLD Cities, a fantastic multidisciplinary group with very different researchers, but a shared interest in technology in the city. 


What do you want to achieve with your professorship?  

I see my role as that of a connector. In the multiple helix collaboration, it is important to understand the language of people both from industry and public administration and to bring them together. This is something that I try to pass on to my students as well.  


You developed the technology monitor for STT. What is a technology monitor and what do you think is most important about this monitor? 

The technology monitor is based on my earlier research, which I was able to convert into an annual instrument at STT. The monitor answers two questions: Where is a specific technology now? And what hinders its further spread?

Every year STT chooses a different technology.  Previous technology monitors focussed on green hydrogen and smart roofs and Quantum technology, and this year I look at Digital Twins. The monitor shows that technological development is not a linear process. In academia, there is often the idea that you can approach technological development as a project and if you do that well, the technology will spread nicely on a large scale. In practice, things are vastly different, and that often leads to disappointment. In the technology monitor, I outline how technological development is progressing. I also show why things go wrong so often – and why failure is part of the development. 


Your current technology monitor is about Digital Twins. In this monitor you have expanded your methodology and you work with a focus group. Why this choice? 

 STT is a foundation specialized in future studies. Funnily enough, no one realized the technology monitor is actually a historical exploration. We now want to change that in this monitor by also looking at the potential future developments of that technology. I work together with a great focus group consisting of Innovation Managers from municipalities. This means that I am now working on the social and political side of innovation not only at BOLD Cities but also STT. 

My focus group makes me think about the social issues involved in technology development. "

The Digital Twin is a collective name for various technologies: from a simple 3D model to a model in which real-time data is processed and which can make predictions itself. As a researcher, I presented these as 'different levels of a Digital Twin' until someone from my focus group said: 'What I hear is a techie saying that we all need to move to the highest level of a Digital Twin. But that might not be socially desirable.' These kinds of open conversations, that I have with my focus group, make me think about the social issues involved in technology development.  

Smart city
Representation of a digital twin

You just finished the first part of the monitor. What are the most surprising conclusions? 

It surprised me how old the idea of the Digital Twin is. I see that every time. There is constantly a new hype but when studying it, you realise that the technology has been in development for a long time. Take Artificial Intelligence, for example: it has been researched extensively after World War II, but we are only now hearing a lot about it. 

I was also surprised how knowledgeable people at the municipalities are about new technologies and how difficult it is to innovate at the same time. The Innovation Managers from my focus group work together easily, but within municipalities it is challenging work to build support for innovations. We learn a lot from each other's experiences. 


What are the next steps in your research? 

Together with various municipalities and other partners, we are now comparing several real-life cases of Digital Twins. We look at why a Digital Twin was developed, what the Digital Twin is now used for in practice, and what obstacles the participants encountered in this process. This also makes the technology monitor more practical and thus useful for other municipalities. We also discuss the ideas and visions practitioners have for the future of the digital twin. This means that the technology monitor now links up with STT's future studies. 


Are you interested in Roland's findings from the Technology Monitor on Digital Twins? Let us know at info@stt.nl and we will send you the monitor as soon as it is published this spring. 

Roland's inaugural speech as professor by special endowment will take place on 5 July. If you would like to be kept informed about this, please send an email to info@boldcities.nl.  

More information
Technology monitor: Digital Twins in an Urban Environment
Interview in Dutch