Full Q&A with Fred van Beuningen

Full Q&A with Fred van Beuningen

Fred van Beuningen is an alumnus who has been learning and leading in the field of energy, sustainability and innovation since his first job – just after his graduation from RSM in 1986 – in Commercial Management at Shell.  Currently Fred is Director of Clean Tech Delta, an innovative regional (Rotterdam) public-private partnership focused on choosing and developing scalable projects that enable the rapid realisation of clean technologies, and the shift to smart cities.

Of note: Fred van Beuningen is an impassioned advocate of the circular economy and helped fellow RSM alumnus (and recipient of the 2012 RSM Alumni Award) Robert-Jan van Ogtrop to set up the Board of The Circle Economy. Mr. van Beuningen is a Board Member of the Erasmus Centre for Future Energy Business.

Q: Fred, you are not only a leader in the shift to clean technologies to enable a smarter, sustainable future,  you are an alumnus of RSM’s MSc programmes. Can we first ask:  how has your RSM education helped define the person you are today?            

That was quite some time ago. I do remember I wanted to graduate in good standing so I would be eligible to be recruited by Shell for their international commercial graduate programme.

But what we now call the Triple P perspective – people, planet, profit, the triple bottom line – has indeed always been part of my perspective, and has come quite naturally for me.  Some of this derives from my RSM education and some of it from my start in business at Shell, where there was the  “licence to operate” concept, indicating an awareness that Shell  affected a wider stakeholder group than just the shareholders. 

Q:  Throughout your career,  you have been embedding sustainability/socially responsible considerations into the oil, gas and chemical business. Today you are Director of Clean Tech Delta. How is this organisation creating positive change for the short and long term?

Clean Tech Delta is an organisation focused on economic development and policies guided by the Triple P. Our process of originating, selecting and initiating projects ensures that all projects are viable.  In the short term we’re driven by trying to do as many projects as we can reasonably achieve in the areas of water technology, energy and energy efficiency, circular economy and something we call ‘urban left’ – meaning ‘the rest of the urban category’ because clean tech is a very broad area and there are always good projects that don’t fall under those first three categories.

For example we have a project that experiments with a systemic approach to small cities and the circular economy, so that is a combination of analyses of how energy and water flows through small cities. At the same time we want to co-create solutions with local stakeholders, so it’s not just technology, it is social technology. Because innovation is always a combination of technology and the social structure, you have to have that to  deploy that (new) technology at scale.

Longer term:  more and more at Clean Tech Delta we try to choose our projects so they actually fit into the system of energy transition, or a transition to the circular economy, or to a more decentralised decision making system, or the shift from fossil fuel to bio-based fuel.  We choose projects in such a way that we create the possibilities, and solutions, and subsequently  - over the longer term – they can be scaled up.

Q: Of course over the short term many companies are focused on the short term, on profits for tomorrow and not over time. How do you approach that ‘P’?

The essential role of capitalism needs to be understood in terms of creation rather than allocation. The good side of capitalism is to provide incentives for solving human problems and making these solutions widely available. This does require, however, a rethink of what prosperity means: more money - or fresh air? Prosperity is an accumulation of solutions to human problems, including how we shift from fossil fuels to clean renewables and how digital ecosystems can mirror the dynamics of natural ecosystems, leading to a seamless symbiotic relationship between the circular flows of nature and economic activities. Growth should be defined as improvements in the living experience, and the role of business is transforming ideas into ways that efficiently and effectively address human needs. 

Q:  What does the energy-efficient smart city of tomorrow look like? How is Clean Tech Delta helping accelerate the shift to energy efficient and effective urban areas?

A city is a very complex system, so it’s hard to predict what the smart city of tomorrow will look like. But you can certainly see a few transition lines, and that is where we are working.

One line of transition is obviously, from centralised to decentralised generation of energy. Part of this  is conversion technology, so the converting of a centralised system into micro grids and creating new trading opportunities between households and companies.

Another transition line is the whole way energy is generated, so the whole move from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy, and all the enabling technologies to create successful and efficient systems around that. That will include the smart grid and particularly the storage solutions we need because of the intermittence of renewable energy like wind and solar.

Then there’s the question of energy efficiency in cities. That’s low hanging fruit because there is huge potential for efficiency in industry and in households. To underline that potential, the UK statistics indicate that 80% of the houses people will be living in 2050 have already been built. So energy efficiency is low hanging fruit for those existing houses. It’s a systems challenge again, because you need to apply technology  and it has to be cost efficient, and you have to solve issues like who actually benefits from the energy.

So those are the three transition lines along which I feel the energy landscape will change to fuel smart cities.

Q: Is Rotterdam a benchmark for other urban areas in regard to energy efficiency? How so?

I think the honest answer is not yet, but maybe in the future.  Significant to your question is the project Road Map Next Economy through which Rotterdam and The Hague have employed Jeremy Rifkin, the American economist,  to work on a broad-based transition plan for the region. Many stakeholders contribute to it, and the project has five transition paths – one of them is energy. I’m in the strategy group and have been asked to lead the path to the circular economy; a transition strategy if you will.

Specifically Rotterdam with its large industrial complex and the Port, serves an important function in global logistics. Industry obviously has many challenges. So the question becomes how do you turn the potential threat into an opportunity; how do you use your asset base and strength in global logistics to move forward on those transition lines. And you really need an integrated strategy, in which the Port is not an isolated actor but is cooperating with the City to achieve this kind of transition.

In Rotterdam there is huge potential to work with heat from industry. For example, to define a position in the bio economy that is based on Dutch knowledge developed in Rotterdam, to stimulate new industrial activity. What about starting to see CO2 generated by the Port and industry as a resource and not a problem? This kind of innovative, systems-shifting activity.

Q:  From your bio for the RSM Sustainability Forum 2017 where you presented  a case from Clean Tech Delta: ‘Fred’s strong interest in technology, talent and business model innovation drew him to the next innovation super cycle: industry 4.0, robotics and AI, and its relevance for important global issues.’  What is Industry 4.0, and what is its relevance for important global issues?

If  you look at the more systemic challenges that we have as humanity, for example, enough food to feed the world, moving to an energy system that does not pollute and is environmentally friendly, and the issues of cities – because most of humanity lives in cities and that trend will continue – well, we need to resolve the issues of cities. We need to make them livable and clean places with efficient mobility, clean water and air. This is a very important lever for sustainable development. If you look at the whole technology space, with intelligent systems, automation, data, the Internet of Things, sensors, autonomous agents – you see that technology will be quite critical in helping us achieve these big systemic changes.

And I think automation, is really the fundamental driver of all sorts of new solutions for human needs. Precision agriculture is one example, the smart grid for energy is another, and then of course the potential to combine automated systems with human capabilities, for example in surgery.  

To get a well-presented glimpse at the future I recommend the book ‘A Good Disruption, Redefining Growth in the Twenty-First Century’ by Martin  Stuchtey. He shows how all these technologies we’ve been discussing have to be deployed to achieve systems changes in major areas like food and energy.