On The Brink: Simplifying Complex Urban Developments

Developing Rotterdam Central District is no easy task. Traditional methods are no longer effective to densify places like the heart of Rotterdam, much less to maintain the quality of life. Advisory firm Brink Groep devised a new approach; one with its roots in the Middle Ages. They’ve brought back the ‘brink’: a good old-fashioned town square where people gathered, but then the 21st century version.
We face a tremendous challenge in the Netherlands when it comes to construction and development of housing and infrastructure. With the financial crisis of 2008, construction all but came to a halt, leading to today’s dramatic housing shortage. Although the economy has recovered, this has congested our waterways, roads and public transportation. Additionally, the energy transition requires that every household and every office building be weaned off gas by 2050.
How to manage it all? Marleen Hermans and Carolien van Hout-van Delft of the Brink Groep have dedicated themselves to answering this question. They share their view on tackling this colossal challenge. They don’t seem intimidated: “It’s like a brain teaser with a lot of aspects to consider, and we like solving brain teasers.”
Their mission dates back to October 1st, 2016, when the Brink Groep left the monofunctional business park in Leidschendam and settled into the Groot Handelsgebouw in Rotterdam Central District (RCD). “We realized that, as a business, we needed to change our ways in order to make headway with this challenge for the future. At the time, we were successful, but a ‘regular’ advisory firm in the construction sector,” tells Marleen, who is not only managing partner at Brink Groep, but also professor of Public Commissioning in Construction at TU Delft. “We need to hire people in Rotterdam, and in our offices in Eindhoven and Groningen, to address these complex questions. Of course, we have people here with a University of Technology background, but we also need people who can work with big data. That’s why we’ve been expanding our team of real estate specialists with mathematicians, econometrists, public administration experts and transportation specialists to tackle these complex issues. Offering a challenging job is not enough for this group of people, you also need to be easily accessible by public transportation.”
It’s tough to work with such an intricate urban environment if you don’t yourself have roots there, is what these two Brinkers are saying. Through the sixth-floor window, they point out over the station square towards Biergarten and Op het Dak, two local venues at the edge of RCD. Employees like to have a drink here after work or enjoy breakfast or lunch with a stunning view from the Schiekadeblok rooftop. The ‘new’ type of employee likes to bask in surroundings like these, typically with a latte in hand. Carolien underlines the need for the company to become more extrovert and more visible. “The majority of our work is follow-up with existing clients, so we actually didn’t need the visibility. But for these contemporary themes of mobility, densification, sustainability and accessibility, we need to work with broader multidisciplinary teams and to communicate to the outside world that we can handle these kinds of complexities. So, greater visibility to potential clients and the labor market.”

The ASML Traffic Jam
Moving to RCD also had an unexpected spin-off. Being so easy to reach has meant that clients come more often to meet with their advisor in person. “The fact that clients like to come to Rotterdam for brainstorming and scrum meetings is not only because of our accessibility and fine coffee,” Carolien elaborates. Just like Marleen, Carolien is setting up a program for New Business and Business Development. “We also organize gatherings with people from different backgrounds to put our heads together on the various urban challenges, like realizing densification and sustainability.”
Brink Groep calls this approach On the Brink, first implementing it in its Eindhoven office. “We sent out an open invitation for a round table discussion to share ideas about issues of mobility in and around Eindhoven. One issue that came up was the daily ASML traffic jam. ASML is a rapidly growing company, with hundreds of new employees each month. This and other developments in the Eindhoven area have caused even more congestion on the city’s infrastructure. While new and innovative modes of transportation are being considered for this problem, it has become evident that the traditional decision-making process is no longer adequate. The ASML traffic is a challenge for both the municipalities of Veldhoven and Eindhoven, the province, the government and ASML itself. But whose problem is it? Who is responsible for solving it? And who will foot the bill? By thinking outside the box, by loosening the knots, we can simplify such complex processes and swiftly arrive at a solution.”
In On the Brink, a space to meet and engage (a brink in the Middle Ages referred to the town square), the two Brinkers and their colleagues keep the interests of shareholders in mind. They see themselves as connectors, and as ‘catalysts’ who spark thought processes. “We can ‘slice up’ an issue, analyze it and get a creative discussion going to find a solution. Hence the move to welcome this new type of employee for data analysis and policy simulation – it helps to guide our decision-making,” Marleen adds. She refers to insights from the gaming industry on how to more quickly generate potential solutions. “The gaming industry can develop a 3D city in no time, while we continue to wrestle with traditional methods such as working in BIM [Building Information Modelling, a digital representation of all physical and functional characteristics of a building]. Why shouldn’t we make use of this knowledge? It is no longer feasible to spend years making decisions when there is an urgent need for ten thousand homes. A smart approach to combining processes, digitization and technology makes it interesting to join forces for developing new concepts, and we should dare to make mistakes. By learning from these mistakes and readjusting our approach, we can successfully take on any challenge.”
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