A look at how the Netherlands pioneered public-private partnerships and how it is using the model to propel innovation in homeland security.
Since their ancestors first settled the low-lying lands of Western Europe, the Dutch have faced Viking raids, despotic kings, and Nazi occupation. None of these human threats, however, exceeded the danger posed by Holland’s geography. With more than a quarter of their country below sea level, the Dutch have historically battled to keep the North Sea from engulfing their cities and farmlands.
They have not always prevailed. Twice in the Middle Ages, catastrophic flooding overwhelmed the land. During the early 14th century, major floods led to a famine that wiped out 5 to 10 percent of the population. One hundred years later, the great St. Elizabeth Deluge killed tens of thousands of inhabitants when storm waters from the North Sea surged up the rivers causing dikes to break.
Through these tragedies, the Dutch developed a new arrangement similar to what we call public-private partnerships today. Starting in the 11th century, such cooperative ventures began to form. Local village councils oversaw water management in their area, while local farmers were responsible for maintaining the dikes on their land. Inspection committees ensured that each farmer performed his social duty well, because a community’s dike system was only as good as its weakest link.
“For the Dutch to be able to successfully provide adequate drainage and water security over the last 900 years, it has been necessary for all parties to cooperate,” says Dr. Robert Hoeksema, a professor of engineering at Calvin College and author of Designed for Dry Feet: Flood Protection and Land Reclamation in the Netherlands.
As the centuries have passed, that cooperative ethos has seeped into other areas of Dutch life to drive innovation and solve problems affecting the country as a whole. Drawing on years of learned ways of collaboration and cooperation, the Dutch have embraced public-private partnerships among government, private enterprise, and academia to revitalize their economy and, like the water management systems of yore, their infrastructure.
As the Dutch face their own homeland security challenges with regard to terrorism, security efforts have also benefited from the country’s age-old public-private sector cooperative approach.
Security Management visited the Dutch capital city of the Hague, the Port of Rotterdam, and Amsterdam to learn how three public-private security partnerships have fared. The first example has successfully changed the way a port region responds to fires, and the second has helped improve how Dutch security and public safety personnel train for their jobs. The third partnership is a work in progress that hopes to produce a paradigm shift in how software and humans interact to improve responses during crisis situations.
Fighting Fire Cooperatively
One place where the willingness to collaborate has had an impact is The Port of Rotterdam, which is Europe’s largest port and industrial area. Stretching more than 32 miles along the banks of the New Meuse River, the port is known as the “gateway to Europe.” More than 385 million tons of cargo moved through the port in 2009, according to the facility.
More than 1.2 million people live and work in the area, which combines housing, industry, and critical transportation infrastructure in a concentrated area. Helping to protect this vitally important area of national security is the Unified Harbor and Industrial Fire Department (UFD). The UFD was borne out of pragmatic concerns of the municipality of Rotterdam and of the private companies in and around the port.
In the early 1990s, every company at a high risk of fire had its own fire company, with drastic differences in quality. Because of this, many companies had to rely on Rotterdam’s public fire service as a backup when fires got out of hand. This patchwork of services aided by the Rotterdam fire service during emergencies made for inefficient firefighting, says Dr. Ben Janssen, the UFD’s managing director. “There were a lot of problems with communications and cooperation, because you had to do a lot of practicing together, and there was poor interaction between the public and the private parties,” he says.
In 1994, Rotterdam’s fire chief, the port master, and several company executives started to talk about joining forces to fight fires within the port and industrial area. A year later, a vulnerability study was conducted; it determined that extra investments were needed to address gaps between the capabilities of the different fire services. But there was a solution that would contain rising costs: fuse the private and public fire agencies into one coordinated fire service.
The UFD went operational in 1998 as a public-private partnership among 42 of the private companies that posed a high risk of fire operating inside the port and industrial area and the municipality of Rotterdam. The number of companies participating has since risen to 53. The private companies collectively pay for two-thirds of the UFD’s budget while the municipality picks up the rest of the tab.
The operating budget for 2009 was €12 million ($16.5 million), but this is a steal, according to Janssen. “When the parties do it separately, they have to spend around €25 million ($34.4 million),” he says. This consolidated budget pays for seven fire stations, 138 full-time firefighters divided into three shifts, and 60 part-time firefighters.
The UFD’s personnel specialize in hazmat response, ship firefighting, high rescue, and oil boom handling, but its real innovation is fighting large tank fires. Until 2007, the UFD would allow a large tank fire to burn out in a controlled manner while trying to secure the areas surrounding it as much as possible. Today, the UFD attacks and extinguishes large-scale tank fires because of concerns for the environment and the image of the port.
Another significant improvement realized by joining forces was response times. When each company had its own fire brigade, it took reinforcements up to 15 minutes to arrive at the scene. Now Janssen says that response time has been cut to 6 minutes.
Janssen has one word to describe what makes this public-private partnership work: Trust. He says that’s the main ingredient that any groups seeking to implement this type of cooperative effort must have.
In the case of the UFD, most of the players knew each other and respected each other. “We are used to working with all the forces together, with the port authority, with the police, with the health services, with the fire department, but also with the companies,” Janssen says, describing the culture that has pervaded the Rotterdam port area for decades.
When that culture doesn’t exist, public-private partnerships can be hard to establish. Janssen notes that nearby Amsterdam has tried to copy Rotterdam’s public-private model of a unified fire department to no avail. “They visited us, and I told my story several times, and they are not able to join together with the public and private parties yet.”
Gaming for Disaster
About 3 kilometers from the Port of Rotterdam is another example of public-private cooperation. Cristijn Sarvaas, CEO of VSTEP, and his team have a pretty cool job: They create video games. But while the highly detailed graphics look like any other game on an XBOX or a PS3, VSTEP’s motto, “Serious Games Productions,” says it all. VSTEP produces virtual reality training games that are used to train first responders and safety and security officers in every imaginable suspicious or horrific scenario the human mind can conjure, according to Sarvaas.
Since its founding in 2002, VSTEP has completed more than 40 training simulators for government agencies and private companies worldwide, such as the Royal Dutch Navy, Port of Rotterdam, the emergency response agencies, and Shell. The training simulators, “allow people to experience incidents and practice response strategies, without the time, dangers, and costs of traditional practical training,” explains founder and Chief Technical Officer Pjotr van Schothorst.
Van Schothorst says there are three major reasons why VSTEP’s virtual training games work so well. First, trainees get to experience simulations of real-life situations with their own eyes. Second, trainees convert their knowledge into action in an interactive environment that provides instant feedback. Third, managers can view trainees in action in a safe environment where they can correct their mistakes.
Taken together, he says, VSTEP’s virtual training supports the entire learning cycle. The company has earned numerous awards, including the Best Serious Game 2009 handed out by the annual Serious Games & Virtual Worlds conference, for its virtual reality training simulators.
Other awards in the form of grants have come from the Dutch government, which has partnered with VSTEP to fund and help create training simulators that aid public safety and security. The reason VSTEP and the Dutch government have entered into such cooperative arrangements owes a lot to the government’s innovation agenda, Sarvaas says. While most of the government funds go to big companies, the Dutch government also understands that small high-tech companies like VSTEP have an important role to play in innovation.
“What the Dutch government is quite good at is setting up…joint innovation schemes with small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs),” Sarvaas says. “And we have benefitted from that on several occasions.”
In 2008, for example, VSTEP received two innovation grants from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs. These innovation grants are given to companies that are seen as able to fill a public safety and security need that the marketplace cannot yet address on its own cost-effectively. The government primes the pump with these funds so that companies can “develop their markets, develop their products, and get them to market,” says Sarvaas.
VSTEP was selected as a grant recipient because it had already proven itself with a single-player incident training simulator that was in the marketplace. The government provided funds for the company to develop a multi-player incident training simulator so that different emergency services could train together virtually through a unified incident command for crises like terrorist attacks, chemical attacks, or train accidents.
The second innovation grant is for VSTEP to develop training simulators for security officers at hospitals and prisons. The virtual training games will help security officers learn to respond to threats such as a fire, including learning to determine when and how to evacuate these types of facilities.
VSTEP has also recently entered into a consortium with the government’s counterterrorism branch and the Rotterdam Police to create a training game to help police officers identify suspicious behavior. The game’s creators are relying on government research that identifies what behaviors may indicate terrorist behavior and consulting with their law enforcement partners. The simulation will be continually tested by the counterterrorism branch and Rotterdam police as it is developed.
Sarvaas says the consortium is a classic example of a public-private partnership. The counterterrorism branch needs “a solution and part of it is going to come from the government—public sources and the antiterrorism branch—and part of it is going to come from a private source—ourselves,” he says. “That’s really a joint venture.”
Automating Call Analysis
The command room of Rotterdam’s Environmental Protection Agency (DCMR) is the nerve center through which any calls in an emergency related to the environment must be quickly processed and analyzed. The agency worries that in a real event, the center’s staff could be overwhelmed by the volume of calls. It might be difficult to assess the information from each caller quickly and to put it all together to analyze the nature of the threat.
The threat that something toxic could get released within Rotterdam’s port and industrial area is a valid concern, considering the amount of petrochemicals in the area. And the problem is clear: there’s a limit to how fast human operators can process information.
To address the problem, the DCMR has allowed a team of researchers from a nearby town to test a new type of intelligent software system on its network. The software is the product of D-CIS Lab, which itself was built on the foundations of a public-private partnership.
Located on a bucolic tree-lined street in the town of Delft in South Holland, D-CIS Lab’s goals are ambitious. Its researchers are trying to create a paradigm shift in the way humans and software programs interact. The goal of the lab’s research, according to Managing Director Dr. Kees Nieuwenhuis, is to create “actor-agent communities” (AACs): complex information systems that seamlessly blend the best capabilities of humans (the actors) and software programs (the agents).
The researchers believe that their systems can empower people to make the best decisions within a chaotic environment, like a chemical release, when every second counts. Man and machine “will collaborate for a common purpose,” Nieuwenhuis says.
The D-CIS Lab’s research into AACs arose from a research partnership among Thales Nederland, a subsidiary of the international defense contractor Thales; the University of Amsterdam; the Delft University of Technology; and Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), a not-for-profit knowledge organization partially funded by the Dutch government. While the initial funding for the D-CIS Lab came from Thales, each partner pays €50,000 ($69 million) a year to fund the facility and to take care of related research expenses, such as the information and communications technology infrastructure.
The arrangement, where all the partners use a common lab, satisfies two interrelated needs for this unique public-private partnership. First on the list is—as it was for the Port of Rotterdam—that there be trust. “Things cannot work without people knowing each other, smelling each other, and communicating with each other face to face,” Nieuwenhuis says. “That first basis of mutual understanding and dependability is something very difficult to get going via the Internet, the phone, or a publication.”
Second, the complex, multidisciplinary nature of AACs means experts from different fields, like anthropology and artificial intelligence, need to understand each other. The communal working environment of the lab helps that happen. Meeting collectively at the lab helps all of the partners “generate the ideas that are at the heart of good, collaborative research projects,” Nieuwenhuis says.
Moreover, “If they didn’t have a place to meet up physically with each other and put some effort into understanding each other’s language, the cross-over would not happen,” he notes. They would “stay stuck in their original scientific-academic communication channels within their peer groups.”
The partners work together in the lab from the initial application for grant money; they then collaborate on everything from research and development to any resulting white papers.
The innovations that result from the partnership are shared among the partners, who then use them to benefit their respective organizations. Without these partners and the government subsidies the lab receives when it takes on a particular project involving AACs, Nieuwenhuis says, the research would be too burdensome and expensive for one partner to bear alone.
With regard to the specific AAC project, Nieuwenhuis sees the potential to revolutionize the way societies respond to emergency and crisis management situations. “With both humans and computer programs working together, they can take into account many more sources of information and process them in parallel,” he says. The software programs will process most of the information because the human mind can only handle so much at once. “An agent system, however, can be scalable to almost any size and capacity that you want, keeping track of thousands of issues’’ and millions of correlations at the same time,” he explains.
Agent systems can also protect against another flaw of human information processing: lock in. According to Nieuwenhuis, once humans decide the cause of some event, it’s hard for them to change their minds—regardless of evidence to the contrary.
The DCMR has given the lab permission to test its European-Union-funded AAC concept in the form of the Distributed Perception Network (DPN). D-CIS Lab will begin testing the DPN in live demonstrations this year, and the group hopes to produce the final working prototype no later than the end of 2011.
The DCMR is responsible for protecting people living or working in areas with a high concentration of petrochemicals in the event of any toxic gas releases. D-CIS Lab’s DPN is helping to make that process easier for the environmental agency by automating the way operators in the command room receive information on possible toxic releases.
Traditionally, operators in the control room have been responsible for answering telephone calls from people who needed to report a suspected incident, such as that a toxic chemical had been released into the air. When a citizen called, the operators would ask the caller specific questions: “Where are you?” “Does it smell like rotten eggs?” They would then have to process the information as fast as possible. If they believed the situation was dangerous, they would have to advise the mayor of Rotterdam whether to evacuate the area where the release occurred, Nieuwenhuis says.
D-CIS Lab’s DPN, he says, is trying to make the process more rigorous and create situational awareness faster by having computer software field the telephone calls and ask the questions. “What automation can do is help you handle 100, 200, 300 telephone calls at the same time,” Nieuwenhuis says.
This has two effects. First, people don’t get angry because they’re stranded on hold. Second, more information is gathered within a short time frame, which “allows for much more accurate reasoning about what the chemical substance could be and where it could originate from,” he says. The system will then process that information—using the data to deduce what chemicals could possibly be in the air—and deliver the findings to the operators in digestible form, such as warnings or maps.
The system can also process nonverbal information. For instance, the system can map where the telephone calls are coming from in real-time, allowing operators to see where the possible chemical release occurred and where it is drifting to. This allows the DCMR to gain additional situational awareness that can help with its decision making, such as when to deploy personnel to a hot spot and when to begin evacuating the surrounding population.
Most importantly, the DPN can protect against operator lock-in because the information system will not allow the operator to ignore contrary evidence. “It will force the operator to acknowledge the existence of other explanations about what may be happening,” Nieuwenhuis says.
This is just the beginning for AACs, he says. Over the next five years, D-CIS Lab is hoping to use AACs to create a crisis management model that quickly passes reliable information up the chain to the political leadership. Nieuwenhuis says that it currently takes about two hours for information from the field to make it to the highest level of command at a national level. He believes AACs will cut that time drastically. “We want to reduce it to minutes,” he says.
The security sector is a natural place for public-private partnerships to prosper. By joining forces, government, private business, academia, and nonprofit organizations can minimize their costs in a quid pro quo arrangement that fulfills their own self-interest and the common good at the same time. And as the Dutch experience shows, when everyone works together, they can go farther than any of them might if going it alone.
♦ Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.