Building a National Knowledge Infrastructure How the Dutch Did it
Right When So Many Others Got it Wrong
In 1965, French film director Jean-Luc Godard made a film noir called
Alphaville about a grim future in which all the world’s infrastructure
is controlled by a computer. Imagine that. Towards the end of
Alphaville, the hero pulls the computer’s plug. Suddenly nothing
The world goes blind. People are feeling their way along walls. In
1965 infrastructure controlled by computer was science fiction. And today?
Today lives and economies depend on the Information and Communications
Technology (ICT) Infrastructure more every day. The quality of the
national ICT infrastructure increasingly defines the quality of life
as well as opportunity for the future.
It used to be the United States, with it’s Internet initiative and
“intelligent networks” that claimed the leadership position. Now
that’s the science fiction. Today it is the Netherlands which has
consistently taken the initiative, made the investments and delivered
The Dutch have developed blazingly fast hybrid optical networks of
hitherto unimagined efficiency and cost effectiveness.
They have taken the technique of user controlled light paths as
developed by CANARIE in Canada and incorporated this on a robust
platform of Web services and with collaborative e-science middleware
into optical network technology. So their networks cannot only
transmit huge data files across oceans starting one side of the world
to the other instantaneously. But increasingly the Dutch can support
the collaborative and multi-disciplinary practices that are being
described as “the 4th paradigm”, data intensive science.
Building a National Knowledge Infrastructure
Unlike the United States — where private interests have walled off and
Balkanized much of the Internet — the Dutch are committed to
collaboration both inside and outside the country. They have been a
proactive force for international collaboration with scientists and
network specialists in the EU, the United States and elsewhere with
their Global Lambda In- tegrated Facility or GLIF.
And the more you learn, the more it is apparent that the Netherlands
is building the electronic network and knowledge infrastructure on
which the economy of the 21st century will be based. This report will
explain their continuing technology direction -- a direction that on
its own level is quite impressive.
So why is this happening in a country of only 17 million people, small
and crowded with one of the highest popu- lation densities in the
Why is this not happening in the United States or Canada or China or
Brazil? Those are all big countries, rich in re- sources, that are
supposed to “own the future.” This is an important question.
We can begin with what any- body who has worked in technology knows.
The real problems with technology are not, typically, the technology. The
real problems have to do with intentions, models, governance,
implementation, re- sourcing, and user support. It’s not the
technology, it’s what you do with it. And that, in turn, depends upon
what you have intended to do with the technology.
So when we ask the ques- tion, why are the Dutch doing it right, when
so many other countries got it wrong, the answer begins with the fact
that they have better inten- tions and a more inclusive process. In
demonstrating admirably farsighted planning and negotiated discussion
among their stakeholders, the Dutch are leading the world in making
the ICT technology transition.
This is the change described by Carlota Perez that is common to all
technology revolutions. Speculative or finance capital in the support
and development of ICT must no longer predominate. So- ciety must
shift to use of productive capital. In other words it must use money
for infrastructure to install these ICT resources in society and treat
them as knowledge in- frastructure. They become the logical follow on
to roads and highways, canals, rail- roads, electric grids, airports
water and sewage systems and electric plants. In the end they are
simply an integral part of the basic infra- structure of an advanced and
civilized capitalist nation.
So, once again, it is not the technology so much as it is the
thoughtful and careful way that technology policy is determined. It is
the way that policy is turned into reality. And it is the way in which
they continue to push edges in a never ending pursuit of technical
excellence and extreme performance. And it is the counter-intuitive strategy in which
geek values of open source software and collaborative networks are
harvested into creating public/private partnerships that evolve into
the business opportunities and a dynamic and competi- tive national
John Hagel and John Seely Brown recently updated their sobering 2009
Shift Index: Measuring the forces of long- term change, which reveals
that in the U.S., despite an economic focus on private good rather
than public good, American businesses, includ- ing telcos, now earn
75% less return on assets than they did in 1965. One of the reasons,
according to John Hagel, speaking at the 2009 SuperNova Conference in
San Francisco, is that businesses have not been able to ration- alize
the disruptive advances in technology which (thank you, Moore’s Law)
never stop advancing.
The severity of events is made more difficult because of the doctrine
that the inde- pendence of the private car- rier is sacrosanct. The
prob- lem is that the direction of technology has been moving ever
more rapidly into the creation of network capability of almost
limitless abundance. In contrast to this technology push, the invest- ment
pull of the rules by which the share owner Cor- poration is governed
de- mands that management take the opposite course and establish a
regime based on scarcity - measured usage, constricted bandwidth, con-
stricted user freedom and charging the user the very maximum that
traffic will bear. The privatized carrier becomes a predator that
feeds on society that in the- ory it serves. The result is an enormous
gap between the technological capabilities at- tainable with
state-of-the-art optical network technology and the reality enforced
by share owner networks in their respective societies.
In the Netherlands, the ICT infrastructure ecosystem does have a
strategy. It works for them. And it works for us. And that is to
embrace those disruptive advances and use the improved pro- ductivity
for the public good.
The COOK Report contends that the Netherlands, through the good
fortune of rather unique circumstances over the past decade, has been
able to articulate a vision whereby it begins to treat its information
and communication technology investment as an investment in public
infrastructure rather than pri- vate share owner determined
The nation tele- communications infrastruc- ture is treated as a
public rather than a private good. Partly this is for the purposes of
science and research. But it has allowed the country to develop world
tech- nology that operates along- side the share owner main- tained
voice network of KPN as well as those of the MSOs (Cable TV companies)
of the Netherlands.
In trying to understand the emergence of the Nether- lands as a leader
in ICT infra- structure, again, this is not just about network
ogy or the network applica- tions. Rather the key lesson to take away
is that the Dutch network and research effort has been built by means
of an exceptional at- tention paid to the economic impact of the
in- frastructure that contributes to the Dutch national interest.
And beyond that is another parallel story. It’s the story of how
history and economic circumstance shaped the character and confidence
of the Dutch. It tells what can happen when a nation, toughened by
centuries of challenges that would (liter- ally) sink most countries,
learn how to work together to leverage technology at the
infrastructure level and
over- come impossible odds. It’s a great story, and it starts in
I. How the Dutch Did It Right
When so many others get it wrong p. 1
II. The Netherlands National ICT Research Infrastructure History,
character, policy and pragmatism p. 5
III. The Direction of ICT Infrastructure in the Netherlands in Early
2010 An interview with Wim Liebrand, Kees Neggers and Cees de Laat p.
IV. TheAscent of e-Science
Promise of the 4th paradigm p. 41
V. Making E-science Work: The Middleware Solution An interview with
Bob Hertzberger p. 44
VI. Growing E-Science Domains for The Netherlands Roadmap for a next
generation of science p. 64
VII. Potential Customers with Global Agendas An interview with David
Zakim, MD p. 68
VIII. How A Progressive ICT Infrastructure Benefits the Economy The
innovation engine as open fabric p. 78
IX. SURF as an Economic “Midwife” for Technology Transfer An interview
with Hans Dijkman, Kees Neggers and Bob Hertzberger p. 8
X.Coming to Conclusions
Realizing the benefits of a re-usable infrastructure p. 91
XI. Re-thinking American Infrastructure What has to change p. 95
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Bill St. Arnaud
- Bill St. Arnaud is a consultant and research engineer who works with clients around the world on a variety of subjects such as next generation Internet networks and developing practical solutions to reduce CO2 emissions such as free broadband and dynamic charging of eVehicles. He is an author of many papers and articles on these topics and is a frequent guest speaker. For more details on my research interests see https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bill_Arnaud