TU Delft’s mission is ‘Creating impact for a better society’. But what is ‘better’ and for whom? Given its history, columnist Bob van Vliet believes that there should be more reflection on this.
Bob van Vliet: “Not everybody thinks the same about what ‘better’ is.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

TU Delft’s mission is ‘Creating impact for a better society’. But what is ‘better’ and for whom? Given its history, columnist Bob van Vliet believes more reflection is needed.

Lees in het Nederlands

In a quiet corner in my Faculty is a display case containing a beautiful geographic model of Indonesia and its waters. I did not understand for quite a while why we should have something like this. Opposite to it, in another corner, is a huge scale model of a harbour crane. It’s near the Maritime Engineering Department, so that one speaks for itself. Perhaps a model of the seabed is logical too. But why Indonesia?

It took a while for the penny to drop – TU Delft’s colonial history.

For a long time, education at TU Delft was explicitly geared to training engineers to help exploit the Dutch East Indies. Around 1900, one third (in Dutch) of graduates went there. This history has left its traces. Physically, in this case.

I once again realised how little historical awareness I had gained during my studies and how little of it today’s students are taught.

‘Engineers went to the Dutch East Indies to bring civilisation and economic development’

As one of the statements included with his PhD thesis, a colleague of mine made the claim that the history of technology should be part of any engineering degree programme. To him, this was mostly about the wealth of mechanisms and other inspiration that can be found in it. But for me, it is more important to know the role that engineers played in the creation of the world and society as they are now.

So these days, I read a lot about the history of technology. Recently, for example, the wonderful Teaching Machines by Audrey Watters, about the history of edtech. Watters shows that, long before computers and internet were developed, educational machines were sold with the same revolutionary zeal as there is now about all sorts of online platforms – and with exactly the same claims about the use and need of data, tracking, and automation to make education ‘personal’. These machines were not a great success. But along with those machines, their makers were also selling the idea that effective education can be reduced to testing and correcting according to a standardised programme. This did catch on.

On Indonesia’s colonial exploitation and eventual independence, I recently listened to Revolusi (in Dutch), by David van Reybrouck. Also recommended. This is ‘ordinary’ history, but this story too is interwoven with industry and infrastructure – with technology, in other words. There was a reason that so many engineers from Delft went there.

TU Delft’s mission in 2021 is ‘Creating impact for a better society’. But the engineers that went to the Dutch East Indies would have also seen this as their job. They went there to bring civilisation and economic development, after all.

Not everybody thinks the same about what ‘better’ is. I believe that we should let our students – and ourselves – wrestle with the conflicts and questions that this raises. What projects are many TU Delft engineers currently working on which we would prefer to tuck into a corner and forget about in the next century?

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.