Caroline van der Weerdt

Senior Consultant

‘Human behaviour is the start and end point of any innovation.’

An innovation is only successful if people actually use it and change their behaviour with it, is the conviction of Caroline van der Weerdt. ‘Shouldn't every TNO research project have its own behavioural expert by default?’

Caroline is a senior consultant at TNO's Defense, Safety & Security unit. ‘My focus is getting to the bottom of end-user behaviour. Who are these people for whom we innovate? I study the impact of innovations on people's behaviour. I also look at how, based on this behaviour, we can make the innovation even more successful.’

She thus provides the link between TNO colleagues coming up with the innovations, the client and the users. ‘Sometimes an innovation seems to have a lot of potential, but doesn't solve systemic problems. And that's exactly what the end user needs. Those worlds I want to bridge. How do we make sure it helps the right person move forward, at the right time?’

‘I focus specifically on complex social issues. Food supply, or migration for example. A project I worked on recently revolved around digital techniques that allow us to maintain food production even if the climate changes.’

In this project they are developing a digital tool that allows a farmer to save water. ‘The tool tells farmers, based on all kinds of hard data, how saturated the soil is. Then they no longer need to spray when it is not actually necessary.’

‘My focus in such a project is on the role of the farmer. For example, my research showed that autonomy is very important for farmers: they rely on knowledge that is passed on from generation to generation. So they often make decisions based on experience and intuition, while the tool only considers hard data. Sometimes the tool comes up with a different advice than the farmer's assessment. I then try to come up with a practical solution.

For instance, the possibility to take the farmer's estimation into account if he wants to spray while the data advises not to. Or vice versa. Outcomes can then be compared and so working with a tool becomes a collaboration rather than something intrusive. You also have to be attentive to who you are addressing when promoting such a tool; on the farm, a partner often has an important role in investment decisions.’

She gives another example where behaviour is key to rolling out an innovation on a large scale. ‘A lot of food is often wasted before it reaches the shops. This is because supply and demand are not properly matched. We can equip farmers with tools to measure ripeness to determine more precisely when to harvest. But in this case, the actual problem is systemic; not enough, or not the right, information is shared within the chain. So the tool will only work if agreements on information sharing are made by parties in the chain. We make this bottleneck explicit and mention it as a precondition when rolling out a solution.’

‘Before I joined TNO as a consultant, I was in the marketing department of a telecom company dealing with customer behaviour and in particular their use of ICT innovations. At the time, I was working on a project together with a researcher from TNO. We found each other's work so intriguing that we eventually swapped places.’

Biggest motivation

‘At TNO, I get to solve a new puzzle every day. And what I do has social impact. That's great. Because I have a fairly specific profile, colleagues know how to find me. They trust my expertise and I trust theirs.

When I see opportunities, I go to the right people to get it done. Sometimes you have to step up and say: this is where I have something to add. That has led to me now working on things that make my heart beat faster. I think the great thing about TNO is that it really allows you to do jobcrafting.

And I have another mission: I would like every research project to have its own behavioural expert by default, so that the human element is included even more in everything we do. How I envisage this, I share with as many colleagues as possible, both at the coffee machine and at the meeting table.’


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