Delving into the Dutch Way and the Netherlands’ world-beating power of consensus-based economics
Last month, I had a chance, at the invitation of its government, to visit the Netherlands. Here is what I learned about the Dutch Way.
It doesn’t take long for the word “polder” to come up in the conversation. Specifically: the Polder Model – the Dutch Way of consensus-based economic – and social-policy making.
I’m assuming this has something to do with the fact that the Low Countries are low, rather easily flooded and flat. There’s no high ground for just the rich and powerful. Everyone has a stake in public infrastructure like dikes that protect reclaimed land – or polders – from the sea. Therefore, there has to be a buy-in from almost everyone on critical decisions and cost sharing.
This strategy for knowing how to work well with others turns out to be a good strategy for doing business in a global world. Better yet, the Dutch figured out a way to make money with it.
They market their skill at logistics: managing the flow of resources between origin and consumption – everything from containers to time, information to energy – and at every stage minimizing the use of resources.
In the Netherlands, logistics is already a big business: a half-trillion-euro industry, worth 10% of GDP, with 12% of jobs (813,000 of them), and it’s perfect for the Polder Model: communication, co-operation, adaptation.
In 2008, the government even launched a strategy – a logistics action plan for the Netherlands – so that by 2020, the Dutch expect to be the top European provider for supply-chain co-ordination, not to mention a role in such operations around the world.
They set up “platforms” and “tables” – places where various interests can come together. They funded universities and specialized professors. They established Dinalog, a “conversion factory” that analyses research from those universities, matches it up with enterprises, especially small- and medium-sized ones that couldn’t otherwise afford such research, and then facilitates dialogue, especially with younger people whom they recruit from around the world.
Seems all rather obvious? Who would object to more co-ordination and co-operation, more sharing for mutual benefit?
Ever tried to get Canadian railways to talk to each other? Or trucking companies? Or different levels of government? Or unions and management?
So what are the results on the ground?
There is at the Port of Rotterdam, the third largest in the world by some measures, one of the most extraordinary scenes I have ever viewed:
There are no human beings in this picture – even though all that equipment is in motion. From the containers on the ships to the cranes to the flatcars to the trucks, it’s all completely automated.
The manager of this terminal is Dutch-based European Gateway Services (EGS), a company that started in 1966, a mere decade after the introduction of the container, with 35 boxes. By 2012, that was up to 7.7 million. Now the company is in 52 ports in 26 countries.
These systems require the exchange of information. And exchanges of data require trust, confidence and a cultural tradition of co-operation. Sound familiar? EGS has marketed itself as the trusted middleman – figuring out the mutual advantages to be gained if all the partners are open.
The issue is not the automation; it’s been around since the 1990s. It is getting the agreement with unions to introduce it even though there will be a significant loss of certain kinds of traditional jobs. Because business has been good for EGS, it has seen a modest increase in employment even as systems become more automated.
However, resistance in North America, including at Port Metro Vancouver, has meant that our ports are vulnerable to those that, having succeeded in automating, offer savings in time, cost and security – advantages that have not yet overcome our superior location.
You can guess that we will frame the issue – just as I did in that last paragraph – as one of competitiveness: how the forces of change will prevail over the interests of the least efficient or least powerful – unless they successfully fight back. Our expectation is that change is about contested ground, not conciliation.
Or unless we find another way to accommodate the future. Possibly, one might hope, the Dutch Way. •